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Social Studies

A Seat at the Table

By Vincent Williams | Posted 8/16/2006

The other day, we bought a dining room set. Now, this is a big deal, because weíve lived in our house going on three years without one. We have a pretty, old house, and we wanted a pretty, old dining room set, but pretty, old dining room sets tend to come with pretty, old price tags. So, instead of getting one in our price range, we just left the dining room empty because we wanted what we wanted and, hey, thatís just how Team Williams rolls. I wonít bore you with all the details of how we ended up getting what we wanted, but, suffice to say, the phrases "dead old lady," "flea market," "too hot to load back on the truck," and "wife possessed by the business acumen of Russell Simmons" figure into the story.

Itís a beautiful collection of furniture. Mahogany, with seating for six, the china cabinet and sideboard all included, which is big, because, as years of going to antique markets with my mother taught me, dining room sets are often broken up and sold as pieces. Already it lends an air of grace and class to what was, just days before, an empty room. In fact, itís added so much grace and class that, suddenly, I feel like a small child when Iím in there, and I find myself being a little quieter when I walk through the room. After we finally settled on where we wanted it, my wife and I started talking about finally unpacking the china, crystal, and silver we got as wedding gifts but have never used because, again, there was nowhere to really use anything that nice.

Of course, my wife has taken it a step further in the days since we got it. I donít know if there was some kind of post-hypnotic prompt that her mother implanted when my wife was a girl or something, but for the past few days sheís been getting up early, humming Negro Spirituals, and taken to polishing the set before the rest of us rise for our day. Itís kind of creepy to wake up and wonder if Mahalia Jackson is downstairs. Still, I canít be that upset, because, again, this is what we wanted in a house, which is part of the reason we ended up getting an older one.

Yíknow, Iím fascinated by the HGTV-ey, house-y, design-y shows and magazines that have popped up over the past 10 years, and one of the trends that such outlets have observed is how the dining room is slowly dying out. If you go into a new house, theyíre all focused on the kitchen and, if you get one at all, the dining room is almost an afterthought, small and to the side. It makes sense, though. If you think about your day-to-day activity, I would venture to say that most of us have most of our meals and conversations in the kitchen. Hell, I donít know if Iíve ever been to a party where the kitchen wasnít where all of the real fun was.

In some ways, the whole kitchen/dining room contrast is just a reflection of the world we live in. Weíre all pretty casual. Nobody dresses up anymore. Khakis and a button-down shirt are the work uniform of more men than a business suit. Manners are an added treat instead of an expectation. And, yeah, if the family can even be in one place for longer than 10 minutes, communal meals are most often in the kitchen. And Iím pretty cool with all of that--well, except for the manners part. I donít think casual is intrinsically bad; just the opposite, in fact. In my heart, I believe a lot of the worldís problems would lessen if folks generally chilled out.

Still, I think there is a time and place for pomp and circumstance. Every now and then I like to dress up and put on a tuxedo, but if I did it every day it wouldnít be such a big deal when I did. And I probably wouldnít hum the James Bond theme like I do now every time I put on a black bow tie. Formality and dressing up donít transform us into something more important than what we already are, but I think they do remind us that, as the saying goes, God donít make no junk.

So, yeah, we got a dining room set. And while there are, literally, a dozen uncles and aunts in front of us in the rotation, it feels real grown-up that we could host either of the Big Shows, Thanksgiving or Christmas, at our house and do a pretty good job at it. Tradition and big dinners and silverware and china, these are things and customs that I donít plan on engaging in that often. But itís nice to know that, when the time is right, we have a place for them.

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