Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Power of Formica

I look at the appliances and gadgets around my house and think about the days when things were much simpler. No exotic coffee makers, (no exotic coffees for that matter), no air conditioning, computers, cell phones, video games, microwaves, none of the things we take for granted in modern life. But we were happy with what we had. I read an article recently about how the 2003 blackout in New York City actually brought families and neighborhoods together because all of the electronic distractions that take up our attention were not available. People actually spoke to each other.

Take the kitchen for example. Now there are all kinds of streamlined kitchen counter configurations with stools and easy-to-make instant meals designed for the convenience of varying family schedules and food preferences. Growing up, I sat with my parents, sister and brother at the Formica and chrome table in the kitchen. We ate the home-cooked meal Mom had made and talked about what went on during our day. I find it funny that psychologists now recommend sitting at the table for family dinners as a way to promote togetherness and quality family time. We did the same thing, but we called it eating.

After dinner we would listen to the radio, or when we finally got one, watch our favorite shows on the RCA black and white TV. I remember feeling happy hearing my mother laugh out loud at the Jack Benny or Red Skeleton Shows. I would watch the Yankee games with my father and talk a little baseball. One of my jobs was to keep him supplied with cold Piels beers. We were apart during the day, what with work and school, and this was our time to be together as a family. I even took a time out from teasing my sister when we watched kiddy shows like Howdy Doody and The Mickey Mouse Club together. Music was played on a multi-speed "Victrola", a turntable that spun 78 rpm vinyl records, and had an adaptor for playing 45 rpms when they came out. No I-pods, no down loads, but it was good enough.

Our refrigerator was a Kelvinator with old-fashioned ice cube trays. No automatic ice maker, no instant cold water, just a box with a tiny freezer that had to be manually defrosted. We survived. For many years my mother did laundry in a wash tub, and hung it out to dry on a clothes line. When we got a washing machine it was a big deal. We never did get a dryer. Somehow, Mom managed. We actually had a toaster with little doors that opened on either side. You placed the bread in, closed the doors, and a heating element toasted the bread. You had to watch it because there was no timer or darkness setting. Smoke billowing out of the toaster meant you had waited too long. Know made better toast than the damn fancy toaster I have now.

Frozen foods were just making their appearance, so everything we ate was fresh from the grocery store. No propane grill in the back yard...we barbecued using  charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid. It wasn't uncommon to see men without eyebrows in the summer. In the days before microwaves, I remember what a splash TV dinners made when Swanson introduced them in 1953. They were a convenience to be sure, but it was the beginning of the end for sit-down family dinners at the kitchen table. Now everybody sat in front of the TV eating off folding trays. One small luxury we had must have been a wedding gift to my parents because we couldn't afford to buy it. It was a Westinghouse electric sandwich press that made the best damn grilled cheese sandwiches I ever ate. 

Funny but it seems like the more modern conveniences that got introduced to our lives, the more isolated we became. Dads heat something up in the microwave when they get home late from work. Kids bring dinner to their rooms so they don't have to be away from Facebook for a whole hour. Mom pops in a Lean Cuisine before heading off to Pilates. Is it possible that a lot of the problems that lead to divorces and broken families could be solved with a Formica table?


Children's Craniofacial Association