Thursday, April 16, 2009

Praise Worth Having

It is the custom in our house to eat dinner together, around a table, with food cooked at home, using real ceramic plates and knives and forks and all that good stuff. I have heard that this sort of thing has become unusual, as if there are actually families that don't do this. This is a difficult thing for me to comprehend. Far from being a chore, this is one of the greatest delights of my life -- to sit at table and share good food with those I love most every day. It is not usually fancy, but always good. When my wife is cooking, the meal is often as good or better than much of what passes for cuisine and fine restaurants. I am not exaggerating when I say that. Of course, sometimes it is sometimes ridiculously simple (milk and cereal) but it is always received with thanks and shared with love.

Of course, it is not really ultimately about the food. The food is just the glue that brings us all together. It is a family ritual that both shapes our family life and rises out of it simultaneously. It is a ritual I love to imagine my daughters taking for granted, and making their own, in their own homes, with their own children.

It is also our custom to take time at the end of the meal to read a book aloud. This is Dad's job, as he usually finishes eating first, and because he loves to hear his own voice. We are currently reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I read this myself when I was perhaps 11 or 12 years old, and I remember enjoying it very much, but I realize now how many of the details have faded in my memory. It is a delightful read aloud. Previous to this, we read Captain's Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, which, while a fine story with great characters and themes, turned out to be very difficult to read aloud. There was something about the rhythm of Kipling's prose that does not flow easily off the tongue, however it looks on the page. Alcott is not like that at all. Her words flow beautifully, even in spite of the dated phrasing and archaic terms. 

And every once in a while, she hits something squarely -- if you can imagine a demure and slight New England lady whacking you on the forehead with a two by four. Tonight we finished the chapter "Meg goes to Vanity Fair" in which Meg, the oldest March daughter goes to stay with wealthy friends for the week, and learns the dangers of wealth without character. Her mother encourages her, rather than seek the approbation of people who may be "kind, I daresay, but worldly, ill-bred, and full of vulgar ideas, to  
Learn to know the value and praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty....
What hit me between the eyes on the next page was the following passage where Marmee is telling Meg and Jo her hopes for their future:
I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved and respected; to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman; and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it Meg; right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it; so that, when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy. My dear girls I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world -- marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing -- and when well used, a noble thing -- but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace. 
I can't say that I made it all the way through that paragraph without having to stop for a second. I had something in my eye that made my vision cloudy and it made it hard to read. At the same time my throat unaccountably spasmed and it took a second to let it pass before I could continue. 

I am often amazed at the power of well chosen words representing high and noble ideas.

1 comment:

Cousin Nanc said...

yes, this passage would certainly give you pause - it's like a prayer. . .