I have recently discovered the expression. It’s used by pilots to describe the things they most need to know: the procedures to be followed in an emergency. These directives are literally written in bold and are non-negotiable. You learn them, you follow them, or you’re probably going to die.
Death is not normally a likely outcome at our kitchen table. Nevertheless, there are rules, the most important of which is “no internet during meals”. This rule is constantly broken, usually by my partner Dave. Sometimes by me. Not, so far, by our daughter Eilidh, but then she is only two. The rule ensures that for at least part of every day we look at each other, not at screens, and discuss things other than whatever someone’s just watched on YouTube.
We didn’t need this rule when I was growing up, what with the internet then belonging to the American military. We had others, though. My mum died in 1999, but I can still hear her, shouting,
“Don’t pour things on the polished table!”
The (polished) table was a wedding present back in the seventies, when my parents were married in a grey dappled registry office, my mum not in a white dress but a smart suit and wide-brimmed purple hat. I didn’t ever ask my mum about her wedding day. It never seemed like the most pressing thing I needed to know. Of course, now that there can’t ever be answers, I have lots of questions. Why did they have such an understated ceremony? Did she ever wish she’d worn a big frothy frock? I don’t know, and now I can’t ask.
Anyway, my mum repeated her rule about the table every time anyone went near it carrying liquid. A dark-haired woman with thick glasses that betrayed the extent of her myopia (which I have regrettably inherited), she’d thud down whatever she was holding as she shouted, the better to emphasise her point.
“Don’t pour things on the polished table!”
Weirdly, mum poured things on the polished table at least twice a day, when she dispensed milk into our cups at dinnertime or tipped tea from the pot at the end of meals. Why did I never notice that at the time?
Dave and I don’t need that rule in our house, because we astutely bought a wipe-clean tablecloth. This is practical, since we acquired a couple of cats four years ago. They are not allowed on the table, but that rule is not boldface. It is hardly even a rule, since we never enforce it. I doubt the cats are aware of it: they jump nimbly up onto the surface every morning while yowling desperately, as if they had not been fed for months.
Growing up, there were rules about table placement, too. The order was always the same: Dad at one end, nearest the door. My brother Tom next to him, red-haired like me but irritatingly calm, unlike his volatile, messily teenage sister. Mum next, close to the fridge and the back door, and then me, tucked in a corner by the airing cupboard. I could never get comfortable there. The legs of the table were directly in front of me, and the space between them just too narrow for me to squeeze my legs between, so I spent years sitting slightly side-saddle. But there was no chance to change seats: the order had been decreed on some long-forgotten but utterly decisive occasion. Our names were even written in black felt-tip pen on the underside of our seats.
In my own home, I sit facing the window, occasionally distracted by squirrels, neighbours or birds who fly obliviously past my bird feeder. Dave sits opposite, his back to the window, and Eilidh sits between us.
When she first started on solids, we’d take it in turns to shovel food into her always-open mouth: we appeared to have created the hungriest or perhaps just the greediest baby ever known.
By the age of nine months, Eilidh had happily eaten:
– Saag paneer
– Bread sauce
– Smoked salmon
And everything else we put in front of her. We agreed early on never to assume she wouldn’t like something: we both want her to be an adventurous eater. It got harder as she began to develop her own opinions, not all of which are consistently held. So spaghetti is usually a hit, and sausages are the best dinner of all, but fish is hit or miss and baked potatoes almost always get shoved away with a “Don’t want it!”
Soon, we will have to enforce our boldface more consistently, as Eilidh gets more conscious of the world. There are so many possible rules. Don’t leave the table without permission. Don’t get down without clearing your plate. Place your knife and fork neatly across your plate when you’ve finished. Don’t burp.
Until Eilidh was born, our house rules were a product of negotiation between Dave and myself. I’d propose a rule – say, don’t take your socks off and abandon them on the sofa – and he’d agree. And then ignore it. But now the matter requires more careful thought. Now, our house rules and which of them we designate as boldface will communicate something to Eilidh about what kinds of things are important in life. Do we emphasise discipline, self-control, consideration of others, good manners?
It’s a tough one. Manners are important, but I don’t want Eilidh to grow up associating the dinner table with tension and conflict. For the whole of her life, I want her to come to a table in happy anticipation: of good food, of thought-provoking conversation, of people who love her, of delicious desserts.
Ultimately, rules about tables and how we behave at them are just a reflection of how we wish the world would work. So I don’t think we’ll be setting too many requirements. Boldface rules should be simple and few: so here’s ours.
Be kind to each other.
I think that ought to cover it.