The blue dusk air turned into black night, flickering with a million city lights as traffic moved slowly in every direction. Entering into the warm glow of home, families reunited, breathing in the delicious aromas of sautéed onions with chili peppers, and fresh corn tortillas on the griddle. It was dinner time in Mexico.
Growing up, I remember dinner time feeling like a celebration after a good, long day. Starting no earlier than 8 o’clock in the evening, as is common in the Mexican culture, my family members would gather around the table ready to feast together.
Whether take-out or made from scratch, dinner was a process not to be rushed. A typical Mexican meal wasn’t without a generous number of sides that involved much passing around and assembling. Once the plates were ready, then commenced the eating, chatting, laughing and catching up on each other’s day. Second servings were followed by more conversation, which was often followed by dessert.
But it really wasn’t the food that I have fond memories of, although my Minnesota-raised mom learned to cook some heavenly green enchiladas and a slew of other Mexican dishes. And it wasn’t just the fact that we were all together, although that is incredibly beneficial for family life. No, it was the fact that most evenings, some of us would just linger at the table with my mom, dirty dishes and all, and we would talk late into the night or laugh until we cried from being tired.
Whether she was doing it intentionally or not, my mom created a place at the dinner table in which our family developed a heap of inside jokes and shared ridiculous stories that we still laugh about today. There were also many deep conversations about everything from the meaning of life to friendship problems. These moments of humor mixed with serious topics formed what are now some of my best childhood memories.
Now that I’m a parent, I’m starting to see the potential for it, but substantial dinner conversation still seems a little out of reach. Granted, most of my memories of these dinners from my childhood are of my older years at home. It takes a while before kids and grownups can share conversation and laughter that is mutually enjoyable. But I do believe that it starts with an unhurried pace even when our kids are too young to talk about anything outside of the movie Frozen or their latest Lego set.
If you are in your 30s like me, you still remember that pre-technology era when parents weren’t checking their phones or smart watches during dinner. Instead, my mom took her time eating and talking with us, and never gave us the impression she was rushed to get the dishes done or to move on to something else. As a kid, I knew that if I had something I needed to talk about, I could just linger long enough and she would still be there to listen. Even through the stages of pre-teen attitudes and teenager drama, I knew that mom, and dad too, weren’t leaving the table until the issue was fully talked through. Back then it could sometimes feel like torture waiting, but now I see the gift that it was for them to care enough to take their time for me.
We literally live in a different era now with technology playing a role in almost every area of life. But I think there is some real value in bringing back a slower and more attentive pace, even in a small part of our family lives such as the dinner table. I want my kids to know that I’m here for them to talk with, to laugh with, to joke with. I think those seemingly trivial exchanges are what build the foundation for the deeper topics in their lives that they will someday need to talk about. But I am convinced that availability is a huge part of that. A kid isn’t easily going to bring up a hard topic, so the more busy, distracted and rushed we seem to be, the less chance there will be of it happening at all.
I remember that feeling as a kid and the effort it took to muster up the courage to talk to a parent about something difficult. The slightest sign of them being too busy or distracted would have completely eliminated any probability of my approaching them. So I am thankful to have a mom who made time to laugh and eat and be together at dinner time specifically. I knew that if I waited long enough, my siblings would trickle off to play or follow Dad to watch a movie, but Mom would stick around and we would have time to talk.
So here I am now, with four young kids of my own who make messes with their food and sometimes eat upside down. They pull the most ridiculous antics during dinner and can be very difficult to enjoy a meal with, but I’m trying to be a mom who lingers at the table. I am trying to listen as best as I can to every tired joke they tell me and every long-winded story because I hope someday when they have something big to share or something hard to walk through, they will know they have a mom who has time and availability to listen, like my mom did for me.