Recently, I was at a restaurant in Quincy with my three sons when my 25-year-old nodded his head toward a nearby table with a mom, a dad, and two small kids who were plugged into separate iPads.
The father scrolled through his cellphone, while the mother daydreamed listlessly. “Sad,” my son said to me. I was surprised and relieved to hear him say that. Like most people his age, he spends ample time on his phone. But, even he knew that was not a good scene.
Some of us witnessing moments like this cannot help but mourn the loss of table talk and its colorful, entertaining, and instructive language.
I think back on what I once thought of as amusing kitchen table exchanges with my father, but now recognize as nuggets of wisdom offered through playful idioms.
As a 12-year-old wearing my green velvet Christmas dress with a lace neckline and a tiny pearl button centered in this neckline, I was self-conscious when I discovered the button had disappeared.
“Dad,” I said, “Does this dress look OK even though the button is missing?”
“They’ll never notice it on a galloping horse,” he said, smiling at me as he dug into my mother’s lasagna.
“Dad,” I said as a high school student in 1972 (just before Title IX passed), “You said to join the swim team, but the high school only has a boys’ swim team.”
“Join the boys,” he replied as he ate his morning poached egg. If I kept practicing hard, he added, the boys wouldn’t beat me until “pigs fly.”
“Dad,” I said, “I’m really not getting this calculus stuff. I think I want to drop the class.”
“Wait a while,” he said.
Putting his newspaper down, resting his elbows on the table, and leaning forward so that we were eye-to-eye, he finished our conversation, “And keep your nose to the grindstone.”
Tucked inside my father’s plain-speaking idioms? Lessons on humility, perseverance, patience, and responsibility.
If he were present to hear the anathemas dominating the daily news or to read the petty criticisms, name-calling, and sanctimonious moral superiority littering social media, he’d roll his eyes and say, “They sure do make mountains out of molehills.”
He was an accomplished doctor, but he was the salt of the earth in his speech and warm and welcoming in his person. Whenever someone entered the living room or kitchen, my dad would greet that person with “Howdy pard” or “What’s up, kid?” His expletives were similarly folksy as he avoided foul language by exclaiming, “sugar, honey, iced-tea” or “like fat!” or “I’ll eat my shirt!” or “God bless us, Mrs. O’Davis!” We kids didn’t know what these things meant, but we knew they were his way of expressing frustration or astonishment.
My dad’s gift of gab was rooted in physical realities with real people. Unlike virtual reality where people launch criticisms and spar anonymously, my dad’s reality was the face-to-face world, where people shared ideas in kitchens and living rooms.
While sound and fury dominate the tone of social media and while our politicians seem unable to come to the table and engage in respectful, productive talk, my son’s response to his observations in the restaurant gives me hope. It appears that some in the upcoming generation realize that now, more than ever, we need to plant our feet firmly in the real world and reintroduce caring, friendly table talk.
Think of it. Our country’s leaders, free of distracting and nasty tweets. Instead, all coming together at the table, all facing each other. All talking and listening. All getting on like a house on fire. All sticks in a bundle. All chewing the fat and shooting the breeze. All happy campers. All dogs with two tails. All leaping over the moon or walking on air. Now that would be the best thing since sliced bread.Rea Cassidy teaches seventh-grade English at Hingham Middle School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.