'Setting' an Example

It is a commonplace remark that older people invariably feel that the younger generation is speeding swiftly on the road to perdition. But whether the present younger generation is really any nearer to that frightful end than any previous one, is a question that we, of the present older generation, are scarcely qualified to answer.
Emily Post, Etiquette, 1922

I adore dining at a well set table. Aside from being a feast for the eyes, a thoughtfully set table sends a message. It says you care.

This photo of my grandmother's family, has been hanging on my dining room wall since it was given to me over twenty years ago. The hostess, seated next to her husband at the head of the table, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, was my great- grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Wright Barrett. I have no idea what the circumstances were surrounding the gathering that prompted this photo but I imagine, judging from the attire and the table setting, that it was probably a special occasion.

Notice the lovely table linens, the china cups and saucers and the good silver flatware on the table. Somebody even took the time to pick a nosegay of petunias for use as a center-piece. My great-grandparents were humble people with little if any material wealth. You'd never know it from the photo though.

At that time, there was no such thing as 'permanent press' so the table linens most assuredly had to be dampened and ironed. Imagine how long it took to wash and dry the china, silver and glassware with no electric dishwasher. Putting together a Sunday dinner in those days was an all-day venture.

Nearly forty years later, my grandmother would muse:
Mother was famous for her 'four o'clock Sunday dinners' which she served at six o'clock. She would have the table set early so you would think the dinner was nearly ready, but as usual, 'four o'clock dinner' arrived at six. She was a most delicious cook, but she never cooked enough.
From the Memoirs of Gertrude Barrett Donovan, 1987
My mother (standing directly behind her grandmother) and I have often looked at the photo and wondered how on earth that one little layer cake was going to feed all of the people gathered at that table. Based upon Grandmother's excerpt above, perhaps it didn't!

As he's the only family member absent from the photo, I assume my grandfather was the photographer. I can only imagine his impatience while waiting for everyone to pack in around the table. I'm especially intrigued by the children and wonder what they thought about all the fuss associated with this meal.

It took my grandmother many years to acquire her own fine China, silver and glassware. She, like Great-Grandmother, was an outstanding cook and put her all into preparing a meal for her family. Clearly, she had been inspired by her own mother.
I never knew anyone to have a bad word to say about Mother. She used to count her wealth not in dollars and cents, but in the number of bed-sheets she had accumulated. She always had time to listen to your troubles and was interested in what was happening to you. Your happiness was her happiness. When she passed away, she took a little of me with her.
Gertrude Barrett Donovan, 1987

I remember this particular Christmas vividly because of the little grapefruit baskets. They made such an impression upon me. Each held a dollop of sherbet and fresh fruit. Imagine the time it took to make them!

Notice also the relish tray and stuffed celery. To this day, they're a 'must-have' on special occasions in my home as well as my brother's.

Many years later, I duplicated from memory, those little grapefruit baskets for my own family. Its funny because I don't remember them being particularly time-consuming. I simply remember the joy they brought to the faces of my own daughters as they sat down to Easter dinner.
In the present day of rush and hurry, there is little time for “home” example. To the over-busy or gaily fashionable, “home” might as well be a railroad station, and members of a family passengers who see each other only for a few hurried minutes before taking trains in opposite directions. The days are gone when the family sat in the evening around the fire, or a “table with a lamp,” when it was customary to read aloud or to talk.
Emily Post, 1922
About a year ago, basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal hosted a television series in which he attempted to help overweight children adopt a healthier lifestyle. With cameras rolling, he entered the homes of these kids at mealtime. In almost every home, meals were presented in a 'take-away' fashion, with the family members helping themselves and then scattering with their plates or foam containers.

There were no table settings in these homes. In almost all cases, adults and children ate while watching television, sometimes in different rooms. There was little if any interaction between the family members. In one case, a single child sat alone eating at a table amongst fast-food bags.

Last summer, the New York Times reported that, "Americans generally spend a mere twenty-seven minutes cooking dinner, less than half the time it takes to watch an episode of Top Chef."

I turned fifty this year, so perhaps I'm now what Emily Post considers 'of the present older generation' and therefore not qualified to be sitting in judgement of the 'present younger generation.' Whatever the case, the evidence seems to indicate that culturally we may be dangerously close to reaching the end of the road.

In the Fall of 2002, the family gathered at the table to celebrate a visit from Georgia cousins Greg and Katherine. I can't for the life of me remember why we were wearing the patriotic headscarves.


  1. As always I loved reading your post. I just adore seeing all of the old pictures of the family. This post reminds me why Muddy has to always go all out for her holiday table setting. How could she not coming from this family of women. It also makes reminds me that it is important to sit down as a family for dinner each evening. I admitt that we have slacked a little recently and it really is just unacceptable.

    ps: I believe someone (dad?) had recently recieved a whole stack of patriot bandanas before that evening. The coutry was still feeling and acting super patriotic after the happenings of 9-11.

  2. Great blog Karen! I've enjoyed reading them all. It's easy to see where Brooke gets here sentiment and love of family. I look forward to following (being a country boy) and hope this will inspire those who read to not be afraid of getting on a tractor of their own.