Poems & Essays

17 Apr

Blue Glass Candlesticks and the Dream of Family Dinner

General/Column 5 Responses

It started with a pair of vintage glass candlesticks. It was my first estate sale, and we had just bought a house. I remember the late spring day, the kind that makes you open up all the windows as if to welcome summer. I spied the candlesticks sitting on a wooden table in the midst of milky, green vases and gaudy pink bowls, a collection of dishes and glasses that spoke of all we accumulate during a full life. The candlesticks were light blue and had a satisfying weight as they turned from cold to warm in my hands. I had just gone through a massive purge of our belongings, and the last thing I wanted was more tchotchkes. But, even though the seller wouldn’t budge on the price, I couldn’t leave without those blue candlesticks.

Perhaps part of their allure came from an article I had read with ideas for successful family dinners. One of the author’s tips was to dine by candlelight. She explained that candlelight has a soothing effect on children and can make a meal more pleasant.

Our meals during the ten months of my son’s life up until that point had not looked all that picturesque. Family dinners had started when he was a newborn, not at a table, but on the living room couch. I would shove pasta in my mouth with the warm weight of our summer baby nursing in my arms. We sat on our beige, suede couch and didn’t even think to cover it with a blanket. Our tired eyes were glued to the TV, watching our way through Chuck as the sun set earlier and earlier and ignoring the huge laundry pile in the hallway of our apartment. The baby always decided to cluster-feed in the evenings, so I planted myself on the couch and drank glass after glass of water with my feet propped on the coffee table.

When autumn came and the weather grew crisp, I began to pull the 6-month-old jackets from our bin of clothes, I decided it was time to get my act together. I started trying to be a perfect stay-at-home mom—one who could shop strategically for well-planned meals. I imagined a hot meal on the table when my husband walked in. The faint scent of dish soap would linger in the air, even though the dishes had been dried and put away. Our now-crawling baby would be eager to be scooped up for a quick hug by daddy and then tossed into his high chair where he would remain happily.

Instead, evenings were dominated by a four-month-old who needed to be held right when I least wanted to hold him. His little face peered out of the carrier, watching me cook with a critical expression, as if he knew it was all an act. The house usually had a slightly singed odor from the pieces of food that would fall inside the stove burners. My husband often walked in later than we hoped, tossing down a plastic grocery bag with chili powder or some other missing ingredient.

As our son grew closer to toddlerhood, he decided that he hated his high chair. It was a huge, hand-me-down with a rip in the tan vinyl and missing straps. The white plastic tray was usually sticky or crusted with food. Our dinners were plain, and if we had sides, it was generally a few leaves of lettuce tossed into a bowl, still dripping from their washing.

Far from a sparkling kitchen, my husband usually walked in to find a collection of opened cans, brown carrot ends on the chopping board, and a sink full of dishes. Ten months into my role as a stay-at-home mom, I still hadn’t become a very good cook. More often than not, we had to wash plates and silverware as I was serving dinner.

So with those magical blue candlesticks in my hands on that spring day, I imagined a fresh start. I pictured them shimmering in the middle of our freshly-painted dining room with a grown-up table instead of our thrift-store one. I resolved that we would have real family dinner with cheerful conversation and a seated child.

But, the vision didn’t materialize. Rather than offering a calming scene, the candles distracted my son who was determined to blow them out. Even with the blue candlesticks and a year of parenthood on our resumes, we still weren’t able to pull off the family dinners I longed for—the family dinners I was sure that we needed.

There are always so many things to work on in the little years. From learning to sit at the table to trying new foods to manners, there is always more I should be doing—more I want to be doing. I want to create a strong family culture—one where we have well-timed meals and a cleaner house and music time every day. I want to teach my son how to put on his own clothes and to understand the value of money. What skills will come on their own and which ones need my nudging or prodding?

Family dinner became a symbol for me of what our family could be, yet I was always failing, too lazy to get my act together and be a real mom. Real moms didn’t hold their babies on their laps during dinner or let their toddlers interrupt. Real moms could time the day so the child wasn’t fussy just as dinner was being made.

Yet from our earliest days as a family of three, we had at least been having dinner as a family, even if they didn’t look the way I pictured. I can still taste the takeout noodles and fresh cookies a friend brought that summer right after my son was born. I remember the successful gluten-free sweet-potato dish I made for my mother-in-law that autumn and a quiche I made on my son’s first snow day. I remember the homemade honey-mustard dressing my best friend brought to put on the greens the night I successfully roasted a whole chicken. I remember the short period of time when our son would scream happily at the top of his lungs all through dinner, his halo of hair sticking up around his head.

And yes, I also remember the breaks to nurse, the mismatched dishes, the longing for something I thought would never happen

It’s been almost three years since I brought my treasured candlesticks into our home. We have two little boys now, and it surprises me that we do eat dinner together at the table most nights. Often the toddler sits for less than five minutes before getting up. I almost always forget to put drinks on the table, and we rarely have enough silverware. My husband generally has to clean the kitchen, but it’s a task he does cheerfully.

As with all the important things—potty training, a consistent bedtime routine, daily toy cleanup— our family dinner has slowly, naturally fallen into place. It reminds me that often, it’s just about having a vision and then waiting for the right time (with maybe a gentle nudge here and there). But I’m also learning to see the beauty in the real life in front of me, even if it doesn’t match the vision in my head. I’m trying to accept that what we give our children right now may be good enough.

Those blue candlesticks are on the mantle for now—safe from grabbing little hands. But I can still hope that maybe one day, they’ll be in the center of our family dinner.


Heather Tencza taught English before becoming a mom in 2013, and now she stays home with her two sons and writes in snatches of time. She blogs at http://www.heathertencza.com/ and has been featured on several sites, including Coffee + Crumbs.

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  1. Callie Feyen

    April 17, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Beautiful, Heather, and now I want to go find some candlesticks.
    This was a well-timed essay for me to read, as I have been ruminating over our family dinners for the last several weeks (my girls are 8 and 10, and sports/homework are the new chaos). Your story resonates with me, and it also helps me step back and see the good that is “slowly, naturally, coming into place.” Thank you.

    • Heather Tencza

      April 17, 2017 at 6:21 pm

      Thanks for your words, Callie. And for the reminder that new seasons of family life bring their own challenges (it keeps me from the misguided belief that one day, suddenly everything will be easy!). Hope you keep finding the “good enough” in your season!

  2. DW McKinney

    April 17, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Your essay is very encouraging. Like you, I have visions of family dinners that take place at the kitchen table and not on the living room couch. And at times, I beat myself up for all the “failed” meals that start out frozen or come in greasy fast food bags and end up in crumbs and tattered napkins on the living room rug. But I take heart in your wisdom: “Our family dinner has slowly, naturally fallen into place. It reminds me that often, it’s just about having a vision and then waiting for the right time…”

    • Heather Tencza

      April 18, 2017 at 12:26 pm

      A few days ago I was telling my son about how we had fast food almost every night when I was a toddler. As an adult, my response is, “Good thing our family finally figured out how to eat healthier.” But my son’s response was, “That’s good, Mama. That way Lollie (grandma) didn’t have to be busy. That way she could rest.” I thought his perspective was so interesting (and quite practical!). I think there’s a special sacredness to those meals we don’t have to prepare.

      Thanks so much for your comment.


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  1. […] I’m so excited to be featured in the April issue of Mothers Always Write. Click over to read my essay, “Blue Glass Candlesticks and the Dream of Family Dinner.” […]

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