Boomers Dined With the Family

In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, some people called the last meal of the day “supper” while for others it was “dinner.” In Mister Boomer’s family, it could be either at any given time, though “dinner” usually won out by the end of the sixties. Regardless of the nomenclature, that meal was eaten in a dining room with the entire family present.

Family dinner time during the early boomer days has been immortalized in TV shows like Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. Yet these TV depictions were not aberrations in real life. As on TV, dinner time was dependent on when the man of the house returned home from work, which for blue collar workers in Mister B’s neighborhood, was usually between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

By 5:30, mothers across the neighborhood stood on their porches and called the names of their children. It was the suburban equivalent of ringing the farm dinner bell. Somehow their voices could be heard — and distinguished one from the other — a few blocks away at the schoolyard playground. Children would stop hanging from the monkey bars, playing on the swings, bouncing balls against the school wall or playing baseball, and dutifully head home. The dinner ritual always began the same way: return home and wash up for supper (or is that dinner?). It was the first rule for every family dinner. Many families had a host of other rules, too.

For Mister B, the next rule was that the television was turned off. It didn’t matter much, since the evening news was all that was on at the time, and there were no sight lines to the TV from the dining room to the living room anyway. The “open concept” of today’s homes was not imagined then, as each room in the house — and they were separate rooms — had its own function.

In some homes, family dinner time meant no one was allowed to answer the phone if it rang. There was usually one phone in the house, very often on the kitchen wall, next to the dining room. The phone rarely rang at dinner time in Mister B’s home, so it wasn’t an issue. Next, for most of the households in Mister B’s area, was saying Grace — a prayer to thank the Almighty for the meal about to be consumed. The meal followed, often served family style with large vessels passed around for meat, vegetables and potatoes.

During the meal boomer children were expected to relay the happenings of the day to their parents, who would listen with rapt attention. Sometimes parents would question children about their schoolwork, but for the most part in Mister B’s house, dinner conversation was kept to a light banter.

Throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s, it wasn’t that family meal time was a required activity, it was more that it was understood to be what was going to happen, and there wasn’t an alternative that seemed possible. By the mid- to late-sixties, family meals were no longer a nightly occurrence in every home. In Mister B’s estimation, two things contributed to this cultural shift that altered decades of tradition: more women were working outside the home; and more young people had part-time jobs, giving them the money to afford basic transportation, and therefore, personal independence.

Both of these situations contributed to the end of nightly dinners at Mister Boomer’s home. His mother found part-time employment in the retail industry, and worked late afternoons and evenings, and Brother Boomer was the first of the children to make themselves “unavailable” several nights a week. At sixteen, most boomers had their drivers’ license and a car. Gas was cheap, so why stay home? By senior year in high school, Mister B had a car and was working after school, so he, too, was no longer available for nightly dinners.

These days you hear about a good many families having dinner around a dining room table maybe once a week — on Sundays — or for some, only on holidays. Meals are no longer considered a time of social interaction, but a refueling for the next set of activities. As such, many meals are taken singly on-the-run or while multi-tasking other things, from TV and Internet watching to homework; job overtime to outside classes and obligations. This goes for the parents as well as the children. Once again the culture is shifting. A fan of TV real estate shows, Mister B marvels at the scenes of young people entering older homes they are considering buying and calling the dining room “wasted space.”

This is, of course, neither all good nor bad, but different than when we were growing up. As Bob Dylan taught us, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand; your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” When it comes to family dinner time, our old world is rapidly aging. Nowadays families are constantly connected via texting, phones and even video chats. Perhaps that alone has replaced the need for interaction around a dinner table? As phones become watches, goggles and who-knows-what, does this mean the venerable TV tray will make a comeback when it is built into our iPads?

What do you remember about family dinner time, boomers? Mister Boomer will be in his virtual dining room, patiently waiting for you to pass the virtual potatoes.