Gather around, everyone. It’s time to talk turkey, or tofurkey, or ham, or leg of lamb, or whatever roast beast is served at your holiday feast. Even if we don’t do it any other time of year, most of us gather with family or friends this month. In person.
Food may be the centerpiece, but it’s not the real reason we gather. We get together to reconnect with those we love, to see familiar faces, perhaps out of a sense of duty or tradition.
Sometimes we look forward with joy to these events, sometimes with trepidation, but there is value in spending time with our families and communities. We gain more than we realize from the time to share our history and traditions or to make new ones.
In a new book, Stories Around the Table: Laughter Wisdom and Strength in Military Life, more than forty military family authors gathered around a literary table to share their stories. Ten of those authors talked about why they gather around a real table, not just at the holidays but all year long, and what they do when they get there:
1. Telling secrets (and hearing them)Says Stacy Huisman: “As much as I despise being in kitchen for approximately 2 hours every night, I cook so I can discover who my children are becoming. I find out the most amazing things about my kids at dinner around our table. Eating dinner together is time for us discover the tidbits that the busy-ness of family life can overlook. So, I'll continue to curse under my breath every night about how I didn't go to school to make macaroni and cheese. I do it just so I can hear the hidden details in the lives of my children.”
2. Crazy cousins make the trip worthwhile.“Crazy young cousins. That's why we go home. Sure we love to see our siblings and parents, but the best feeling in the world is watching our kid's joyous reunion, who have been thousands of miles away from their cousins, wrap their arms around one another," says Kristine Schellhaas. The fits of laughter, cheer and merriment is contagious and completes the holidays for us.”
3. Building new memories and revisiting old ones.“In an active duty with adult children and extended family living in multiple places, it's difficult to have everyone around the same table, says Judy Davis." At Thanksgiving this year we were able to spend four days together. The kitchen table became the place where meals, laughter, games, stories and tears were shared. Stories of past holidays, cherished memories and new experiences reconnected us in such a vital way.”
4. Sitting at the kiddy table.“Our family table is the perpetual ‘kiddy table’ where everything that's real lives," says Randi Cairns. "It’s host to cringe-worthy jokes that I struggle not to laugh at because the kids think, ‘If Mommy laughs, I'm off the hook.’ Holidays or every day, empty chairs or filled ones, our table is our island of normal, crazy and wonderful. And when those chairs are all occupied, crammed tight and knees knocked against each other, all is right in our world.”
5. Appreciating time together when you can get it.“I’m a mom and stepmom in a blended family. We enjoy my son’s company every day, but my stepdaughters are only with us three or four days of the week," says Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito. It’s important to us, whether we have a table of three or five, to follow the same practice I grew up with and enjoy dinner as a family, even when that means we eat an hour earlier or later to accommodate sports and other activities. Having a time when we all regularly come together to talk around the table has been key to our new family getting to know each other, learning from each other, and growing closer.”
6. Seeing the faces that make photos live.“We have one table in our house that is surrounded by pictures of family members that our kids only have the opportunity to see in person a few times a year," says Amanda Trimillos. "Each Sunday we sit at our table and talk about all the different people whose pictures are on the wall—the fun, the silly, the memorable. At holidays our table is filled with those family members in person. We’re not just telling their stories, but they are present and building new stories to keep our conversations lifted each Sunday throughout the next year.”
7. Developing a sense of family.“I think that most military families are starved for quality time to spend together, and around the table during the holidays may be the only time we can connect," says Angela Caban. "This should be a time that we leave our individual pursuits to laugh and tell stories.”
8. Taking the bad with the good.“Every night at dinner in our family, each person takes turns saying what their single best thing was for the day and their single worst,"says Chris Stricklin. "This reminds us all that every day had a good thing, and tells us what their perception was of the worst thing. We learn a lot about each other.”
9. Creating relationships that last.Says Janet Farley: “Around the table, we take time to re-connect through all the comings and goings. It reminds me of what's really important: our family and our friends. The holidays, after all, will come and go but that nourished connectivity in our lives won't fade away."
10. Know us before you need us.“My husband hears about my friends, and I his, but it takes the holidays for all of us to get together and put faces to names," says Starlett Henderson. "My motto is ‘You have to know each other before you need each other.’ Too often we need each other before we really know each other, making it hard to ask for help. Sometimes we simply don’t ask. We combat that fear by knowing people before we need them, because you know you’re gonna need them. That’s just the nature of the military life.”
Whatever you serve at your holiday table and all year long, be sure to serve it with generous helpings of face-to-face conversations with your family and friends old and new. Tell your stories. Hear theirs. As we must feed our bodies, we also need to nourish our souls. That’s what stories do.
Terri Barnes is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages from a Military Life, as well as a contributor to and editor of Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom and Strength in Military Life. Her column, “Spouse Calls” appears weekly in Stars and Stripes.