Newly married, with a china cabinet full of beautiful dishes, I often invited friends over for dinner. I loved everything about it, from the sparkly table settings to the well-planned meals and lingering at the table with friends.

Then we had children. The more kids we had, the fewer the dinner parties until they were pretty much a memory. With three children, the thought of preparing a meal and setting a table with crystal and china gave me hives. You might as well have laid out three kinds of hell and told me to pick one. It wasn’t happening.

But I missed it. I missed those grown-up meals and beautiful tables, but mostly I missed conversation. I decided to try something different – I invited friends (and sometimes strangers) to our table and stopped the Martha Stewart table dressing. Sometimes, I didn’t even make much of a meal.

That’s when I discovered it wasn’t the beauty of a table and it wasn’t even fabulous food (although I appreciate both of those) that I mattered to anyone. What I loved was, also was what my friends loved –  sharing a meal, telling stories and sharing life together. It didn’t even matter if the kids dropped the peas, one by one, on the floor. Over the years, our scarred table has become the most sacred place in our home – a place of laughter and tears, a place of dreaming and planning, a place of gathering.

These days I have discovered another dinner table that is beautiful. The table itself is utilitarian plastic, the plates are leftover from a school cafeteria 50 years ago. The food is good, but never fancy. The water is served in unglamorous Styrofoam.

Every Thursday night at our Circles meetings, we provide a free meal to everyone – the participants, the volunteers, all their children. At first, it was to make it convenient for everyone to attend a meeting after work. Now, it’s so much more than that. It has become that place where we laugh and sometimes cry, where we catch up with each other’s busy lives, where we dream and plan.

As a child, one of our recent Circles graduates longed for the family dinner. She dreamed of a table where her mother, father and siblings came together, ate together and did family together. It never happened. Not once. Not long ago, on a Thursday night after dinner, she told me, “I feel like this is my family and I’m finally getting to eat dinner at the table with them.”

I think she’s right. And it’s the most beautiful table where I’ve ever dined.