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Tales from the Kitchen Table

Novelist Mary-Anne O’Connor talks about the real-life inspiration behind the fiction.

Tales from the Kitchen Table

The kitchen table was the centre of the family universe when I was growing up; the place we studied and shared meals, played board games and chatted over tea-pots. But with technology now sending families to all corners of the house, the kitchen table is no longer the constant hub of the home…and our family stories may well be the cost.

‘Dinner!’ You could hear parents calling it from households up and down our street when we were kids, followed closely by the clatter of feet running to sit around tables. The Catholics amongst us would say grace then we would dig in to the meat and three veg our mothers had prepared, each telling stories of our day. There were no iPhones, no tablets, no TV, not even a radio to influence the family atmosphere. Just those stories, shared around those tables.

Generations before us were much the same; in fact you could stretch this ritual back to ancient man although his ‘table’ was the ground around the campfire.

These days we parents have to threaten and cajole to keep the children away from screens during dinner – and, I confess, our TV actually stays on, although I won a small victory in muting the ads. I spend these precious minutes firing questions at the children and receive bullet-pointed responses in return:

  • Yes, I passed my maths exam, Mum.
  • No, I didn’t remember to hand in my excursion note.
  • Oh, I need $26 to pay for school photos.
  • The most interesting moment of my day? Lunch. I had a pie.

And so we are still up-to-date on each other’s movements, aren’t we? The essentials have been covered. But I look at my parent’s old table that my family is about to give away and I can’t help feeling a sense of great loss. If it could talk, that polished wood would have so many tales to tell. Stories… not just the essentials in verbal bullet points.

It could tell you about hundreds of boards games, card marathons and the ongoing battle for chess supremacy. The time my brother stuck a whole Cheezel in his nostril and my other brothers fell off their chairs in laughter. The day Dad announced he was changing his career. The nervous unfolding and reading of HSC results. The moment when my sister told us she was getting married.

It could talk of Great Uncle Frank’s visits and the blocks of chocolate he always shared around, along with little black-and-white photos from his war days. It could tell you of birthday speeches and new babies watching the candles in wonder; the puppy who sat underneath who eventually grew to an old age, watching it all.

The kitchen table was where we learned about algebra, about far-flung corners of the world and the history of man. It was where I found Shakespeare and penned my first stories; where Dad divvied up the newspaper after church and we laughed over the Sunday comics. And where we cried over cups of tea when ill winds blew.

The kitchen table could tell many tales, but by far its greatest would be the story of family, made possible because it was where we spent most of our time. If we don’t have those shared moments then this generation will lose this part of their story, the part when they learned what truly makes a home. It makes me wonder what memories of family and childhood they will have left.

I guess there’s always the car… and no, kids, you can’t turn on the radio.

Mary-Anne O’Connor is the author of Worth Fighting For (Harlequin, $29.99)


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