Home Is Where the Dining Table Is

We had the pleasure of having house guests a few weeks ago. It was perfect timing - having just said ‘goodbye to our two oldest college-bound children, the house had become eerily quiet and, well, a bit sad. Thank God that because of a family event, my husband’s cousin and her family came to spend a few days with us. Once again, the house was filled with the tinkling sound of children’s laughter!

A couple days into the visit, my husband’s cousin gave us a curious look and said, “You know what I’ve noticed? Nearly every room in your house has an eating area.” Now, everyone who knows the Schwapps knows that we are a foodie family, but never had I realised that our love of food had so obviously dominated our home décor! I laughed at the observation with a little bit of shame. Then I thought long and hard about the nature of our family and I realised something – much of our happy, carefree moments are indeed spent around a dining table, whether eating, playing cards, or engaging in a raucous conversation (let me use this opportunity to apologise to our neighbours). Those areas have also become the centre for most of our extended family get-togethers, be it birthdays or Christmas.

As I reflected on these truths, I realised that the cocoon of family, that invisible sheath that protects and strengthens us, was mostly woven as we sat for hours around a table. There we were always allowed to truly be our quirky selves, without judgement or malice. Trust me, we have now long passed the shock of seeing Claire get up mid-conversation and bust a move, or her father try to follow, or Briana sit with an uncontrollable ‘lean-to’ mop of curls on her head, or Daniel expound with sacred seriousness on the dangers of feral cats on Jamaica’s environment.   

If I were asked what advice I would give to anyone raising a family, it would be to try to eat at least three meals together per week. I know, I know… it is hard – between work schedules, football practice, ballet ….but if it is even for 45 minutes per meal, schedule time to sit together and weave your cocoon. There is nowhere that will be safer for your children to be themselves, to share their experiences from school or in friendships, and to get advice on how to navigate this world, than being surrounded by those who love them. Studies have actually proven that children from families that eat together are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and receive higher grades in school.

Now, many of us who grew up in Jamaica may be familiar with the concept of the ‘formal dining room’ - that room with the special table and chairs where we sat with our backs straight and dare not place our glasses directly on the polished mahogany. Sometimes those rooms remained locked up with curtains drawn tight, only opened up for the special occasions like Easter or Christmas. I am not at all ‘dissing’ the concept of a formal dining room – I know many of us may have to entertain business associates and have the need for such rooms. However, it is important that when we sit to eat as a family our children are not stressed. The fact is - they will have accidents and spills, but it is important to make this time about carefree bonding and acceptance, not degradation and annoyance. It is with relaxation and freedom that feelings, thoughts and even ‘secrets’ are allowed to flow.

Our ‘Formal’ Dining Room - as part of our living area, our dining room is anything but formal. The Oak wood table and benches were manufactured right here in Jamaica by NixNax Designs. Beautifully resistant to temperatures, plates and glasses can be placed directly onto the surface. I deliberately chose non-upholstered seats, with tie-on cushions that can be removed for quick washing if need be. The table seats up to 14 noisy people, perfect for large family functions.

After a long day, it lifts the spirits (for mummies too) to add a little decor detail to dinner tables. I love to use pieces of branch and Old Man’s Beard from the garden as a simple arrangement.

The Breakfast room beside the kitchen allows for quick breakfasts before school or Saturday morning activities. I like to use bright tablecloths and lots of natural sunlight in this area. Between you and I, it is a very effective trick if you have ‘non-morning people’ in your household - the bright colours add a certain lightness to the mornings. Don’t let the scowls fool you - they’re secretly smiling beneath all that whining.

Every Jamaican knows that Saturday is not Saturday without soup. The outdoor guango table (also made in Jamaica by Island art and Framing) on the back deck is the best choice for the heat and rain of the Jamaican climate, and forms the perfect setting for weekend chilling with an ice cold jelly and a nice bowl of beef soup.

‘Soup and Coc’nat Saturdays’ end with the refreshing dessert of cold jelly.

The back patio is a cool evening escape from the heat. The table, fashioned from an old Indian door, serves as dinner/home-work/card table. The beautiful caned chairs are Jamaican antiques.

Black Bean, Mango and Avocado Salad - a refreshing salad for hot evenings and a great energy booster for home-work. Miniature masks by Jamaican designer Gene Pearson are another great way to add design to dinner tables and to expose our children to our art and heritage.

Of course, you may not be a foodie family like us and have need for an eating area in every section of your home, but wherever or however you choose to have your meal, make it a special time of day, when you can all shed the stress of the outside world and rejuvenate together. Make your family traditions that bond you tightly, traditions that will act like an assuring beacon when the world gets dark. I truly believe that the greatest gifts we can give our children (and ourselves) are a strong family base, a strong faith, an open mind to other cultures and lifestyles, and a strong national pride. All these gifts can be achieved by the simple effort of sitting together as a family and gratefully breaking bread.