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Seated Around the Table

Part One: My Childhood

At my writers’ group, we talked about a challenge suggested by Nina Raskin: Think about who sat at your table from childhood to the present. It’s not an easy task!

The tables I remember from childhood were expansive. Jewish and secular holidays involved groups too large to fit in the small dining rooms of my parents, grandparents, and assorted relatives. They often extended out into the living room with the kids seated at adjoining card tables. They also included both sides of my extended family, as in the picture above. I'm second from the left with my cousins, parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles.

My father (not pictured) must have taken the picture, probably in 1947 at my mother’s parents’ house

I was blessed to have two set of grandparents, eight aunts and uncles, and twelve cousins all residing in the Detroit area. Our homes were modest and most were situated in the Dexter-Davison neighborhood where, as far as I knew as a child, everyone was Jewish. My family lived in a house we shared with my mother’s sister’s family. We lived on the top floor and my aunt, uncle, and cousins Annette and Stevie, lived below. Since my cousins were close in age to my brother and me, we grew up like siblings and Annette was my sister. My maternal grandparents lived on the same block. Most of our homes had what was then called a living room with a dining L, a bit “open concept” way before that became so popular.

Even after some moved to suburbs as my family did, we were still geographically close. While I as the oldest grandchild on my father’s side, which made me the babysitter at those family gatherings, on my mother’s side I was third oldest of four girl cousins, all pretty close in age. Those are the family gatherings I remember best, as the kids were usually dismissed from the table and left to their own devises. This generally led to mischief as the adults finished their meal and talked about whatever adults discussed, which was a mystery to us. I think the picture above was one of my mother’s parent’s birthdays, as the cake on the table was the one Mom always made for birthdays and I remember the painting from my maternal grandparent’s house. It may also have coincided with a Jewish holiday, as my grandparents didn’t know their true birthdays. One was always celebrated on Rosh Hashanah and the other at Hanukkah.

Taken in 1949 or 50

The photo above must also have been taken at my maternal grandparents’ house (same light fixture and new wall paper). Same crew except for my Uncle Dave (must have been married and with Aunt Evie’s side of the family). Not pictured but must also have been there: cousin Mike, Uncle Phil, and Dad (the photographer). I’m guessing it was Rosh Hashanah due to the presence of candles and challah, but absence of a Seder plate. Both of my grandfathers were seated in the honored place at the head of the table.

My most vivid memory of these extended family gatherings was Passover at Grandpa Krut’s (Mom’s father) house. He led the service all in Hebrew, read from the Maxwell House Haggadah at break-neck speed. Maxwell House coffee started giving out a free Haggadah in 1932 with each purchase of a can of their coffee. By the time I was sitting at the Seder table, my family must have had a huge collection of these. I never knew there were other versions until I was an adult. As we became bored, we were permitted to leave, especially after the four questions and the meal, and havoc reigned among the cousins, now free from adult supervision.

I wish I had a photo of our family table at home, but my parents only took pictures of parties and special occasions. Once my baby brother Paul was born, we moved to Oak Park, a suburb very close to Detroit. Here we are on the sofa together a few years after our move.

The things I remember most about family dinners:

  • We all ate together around the kitchen table at precisely 6:00 pm. No excuses for missing dinner, even when I was a teen.

  • Mom made one meal for everyone and we were all expected to eat it.

  • We drank a lot of milk.

  • There was a seating plan that kept my brothers as separated as possible to avoid fights or kicking each other under the table.

  • We always had bread as well as a “balanced meal” which consisted of meat (Dad hated chicken and fish wasn’t very popular back then), a starch, and vegetables (usually from a can) or salad.

  • We always had dessert, which was often Oreo cookies.

  • Mom had a rotation of meals in which everything was the same. For example, if she made salmon patties we also had macaroni and cheese, salad, and chocolate pudding for dessert.

  • If my brothers and I didn’t like something (think liver for Paul and brisket for me), we were expected to eat it because children were starving somewhere. I never understood how producing a “clean plate” would help with starvation elsewhere.

  • Dad liked to “hold forth” and deliver lectures during dinner. He often talked about politics or current events and added some history to the sauce. My parents didn’t ask us about our day, and even when we were older our opinions were not solicited.

  • We had to ask to be excused from the table. Permission wasn’t granted until everyone was finished eating.

  • As the daughter, it was my job to help my mother clear the table and wash and dry the dishes. We never had a dishwasher in my childhood home.

My children claim I inherited several of Mom’s culinary habits and dinner rules. More on that in the next installment.


by Laurie Levy
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