When I was a kid, Mom, Dad, my sister and I gathered at the kitchen table at least twice a day, for breakfast and supper. We also ate lunch there on Saturdays and most holidays.
Sundays were special. After church we went to the Navigator’s Den, in Hopewell, or the Lee House Diner, in Petersburg. That was a treat for Mom, who could satisfy my sister’s passion for fried chicken without having to do all that work herself. It also offered a chance for us kids to practice our grown-up manners in a public venue.
Those were good times. Families ate together. Meals were prepared, more or less, from scratch. The kitchen was where things happened.
My sister and I did homework and school projects at that table.
Every December, Mom and Dad spent several nights preparing hundreds of hand-made, triple-folded Christmas cards. Dad arranged to have the cards printed up, along with hundreds of prints of some specially-arranged photo of us kids.
Sitting at the table, Mom would cut out a rectangle in the right panel of the card, using a razor blade and straight-edge. Dad would insert a picture, apply glue, and press down the “frame” panel, gluing it to the middle panel.
When all that was done, out came the green metal box with the index cards. Envelopes were addressed, cards signed and inserted, and stamps applied.
In my mind, those Christmases will never be replaced. The sheer effort said something special to everyone who got one of those cards. You couldn’t do that now.
Important family business was conducted at the kitchen table. Logically, Mom and Dad made most of the decisions, but at times, we kids were included. At that table, Mom and Dad paid the bills and did their tax returns.
As families go, ours was pretty comfortable. Mom’s family owned the house, so there was no mortgage. Dad’s law practice was growing every year. We didn’t do without.
Still, we were pretty thrifty. Until I got to high school, most of my play clothes, and a lot of my school clothes, were hand-me-downs. Supper was often hamburgers, or meatloaf, or spaghetti-and-meatballs – three variations on ground beef. Mom bought inexpensive cuts at the A&P and ground them in a hand-operated mill which clamped onto the kitchen counter.
All those things – the thrifty meals, the hand-made cards, the bill-paying – made the kitchen table a place where serious things happened.
As the President and Congress continue maneuvering – and the country continues drifting toward the “fiscal cliff” – it seems to me we have a serious need for an old-fashioned kitchen table conference with a few adults present.
The chances of anything like a mature conversation seem slim. Somewhere between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, there will probably be “fix.” To satisfy Wall Street, our leaders will kick the can further down the road.
But no one expects a serious attack on our country’s fiscal problems.
The problem, in my view, lies with the fact that we have only two political parties. One party, which controls the White House and the Senate, refuses to make serious changes in very expensive programs – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid – which grow annually more expensive as our population ages.
The other party, which controls the House, refuses to consider restoring the tax rates which, during the Clinton era, had our government briefly in the black.
Each party wants to blame the other. Each party has made promises to core constituents - about taxes or benefits – which it fears to break. Each party is dominated by ideologues who see no reason to make serious sacrifices.
In short, nobody wants to be act like the grown-up.
More important, nobody wants to think of this the way my family did when it gathered around the kitchen table to discuss serious matters. Nobody wants to think in terms of America as family.
But, of course, that’s what we need. We need to remember that we’re all in this together. That a nation which cannot seek win-win solutions – or at least, find fair compromises – has stopped behaving like a nation.
That a nation which degenerates into a collection of selfish, narcissistic tribes is a nation in decay.
Frankly, I don’t think either the Democrats or the Republicans are capable of furnishing the sort of leadership we need. I think it’s time for new options.
America faces serious challenges.
We’re too far in debt, and we need to start paying down that debt, rather than borrowing more each year.
We’re one of the two biggest contributors to global climate change which has grown critical, and we need to reverse that.
We need policies to help us move toward a thriftier, more sustainable, more entrepreneurial, less consumption-driven economy.
We need to do a far better job of educating our kids, while spending a lot less to do so.
We need a third party willing to act like grown-ups.