Vital Signs

Kitchen Table Warriors

Whenever my family gathers together—usually at Thanksgiving or New Year's, and nearly always in the rambling old home belonging to my wife and me in Waynesville, North Carolina—the conversation commences before the engines of the arriving cars have cooled in the driveway. This talk, which I have come privately to regard as the Great Conversation, inevitably takes place around our kitchen table. The Great Conversation is loose, flowing, intense; like one of the nearby Smoky Mountain streams, it moves swiftly, takes unexpected courses, and occasionally smacks against a rock. In half an hour, we can touch on topics ranging from Bill Clinton's bombing of Kosovo to the meaning of sacramental grace in everyday life, delving deep here, skimming the surface there, pausing only to fill coffee cups, pop open beer cans, or settle affairs between our children. Throughout the day and late into the night, the Great Conversation rolls, a weekend-long marathon during which breaks occur only for sleep and the participants come and go as they please. During the past two decades, our poor kitchen table has absorbed a few beatings, scores of tears, thousands of laughs, and hundreds of thousands of words.

Six of us are siblings—three brothers and three sisters. Along with our spouses, all of whom leap into these verbal brawls without a moment's hesitation, we form a diverse group. Religiously, Protestants predominate, though...

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