THE happiest times of my childhood were not family outings, vacations, parties, or recess. The happiest times were the hours spent around the kitchen table of my grandmother's house on Highland Avenue in Dayton, Ohio.
It was there the aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered and talked for hours. They didn't all live there, of course, but they dropped in at their pleasure, sure of a warm welcome and something good to eat no matter the time of day.
No one ever, as I recall, played a game at that table. They talked and laughed. To me, it was more enjoyable than Monopoly, checkers, or gin rummy. They didn't need to play games to be interested or entertained. Each came equipped with an active mind and a lively sense of humor.
There are families whose time together is ever structured around an activity - a game of Monopoly, tennis, sailing, or cards - and I've sometimes felt sorry for them. There's a danger they'll miss the real fun - the talking, the sharing of thoughts and ideas, hopes and concerns, the funny things that happen, the characters they meet, the ironies of life.
At my grandmother's table there would be talk over dinner - and as people lingered over dessert. Then we would move to the living room - or, on warm summer evenings, to the backyard - for more conversation. Late in the evening, everyone would return to the table for another piece of pie, a dish of ice cream , a glass of milk.
Recently, reading Russell Baker's biography, ''Growing Up,'' I found that he, too, cherishes memories of kitchen table talk.
''I loved the sense of family warmth,'' Mr. Baker writes, ''that radiated through long kitchen nights of talk. . . . I was receiving an education in the world and how to think about it. What I absorbed most deeply was not information but attitudes, ways of looking at the world that were to stay with me for many years.''
I understand that because I still draw on deposits made in my memory during the hours around that table. No one preached or pontificated - as so many adults in the presence of children are apt to do. And yet, I learned so much about life.
I knew how each of my aunts and uncles felt about their jobs, their friends, religion, the state of the world, the man in the White House. And I knew their hopes and dreams.
There was not, around the table, a need to impress, a need to seem more than one was. They spoke of their failures as openly as their successes, of a mistake in judgment, a poor decision, a thoughtless remark, or an embarrassing moment. I learned from their honesty, their openness, their empathy, and their insights.
And they knew what I thought, what I felt - for we children entered into conversations. Our opinions were considered, our ideas respected.
The people around the table were different from one another. (Grammy did not turn out a uniform product.) It was not sameness that bound them together, but genuine caring for one another - and a shared sense of humor.
They knew they were not alike - talked about it, laughed about it. I suppose it was there that I learned not to tolerate differences - but to enjoy them.
They were Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. I rejoiced in their differences - it made the conversation more interesting.
I think this is why, although many people go through life always seeking their own kind, I've always preferred to know a variety of people - of different ages and interests. And, because of the pleasant relationships I had with the adults of my childhood, I still enjoy the company of people older than I am as well as my peers.
It was at that kitchen table that I realized there is no one right way to live, to think, to be. Grammy imposed no family norm to which one must conform to be accepted, to be loved.
My children never sat at Grammy's table. She was gone before they were born. But their lives are infinitely richer for all that I learned there.
And the joy that I've found in my own family was influenced enormously by the joy I found in the family of my childhood.
Families who find pleasure in conversation may stay closer, I think, than those in which the focus is on activities. One can play tennis or golf or bridge or backgammon with anyone who has learned the game. A golf or bridge partner is easily replaced. There is an ample supply of tennis partners - one needn't leave the neighborhood to find one. It is the conversations that are special - that make one's family unique and irreplaceable.
I want to know, when my cousin visits, how his life is going, not if his backhand has improved. (I can talk backhands with the neighbors.) I want to know which dreams have come true, which have been replaced by new ones.
But that's because of the hours at Grammy's table - where everyone cared more what you were and what you thought - than what you did or where you went.
An acquaintance said recently, ''My grandmother had a beautiful carved oak credenza; it was the most important piece of furniture in her house.''
Grammy had some carved oak pieces, too. I never thought them important.
But her kitchen table - that was important.