IN his book ``Growing Up,'' Russell Baker, the New York Times columnist, described the kitchen table of his childhood. It was in Belleville, N.J., during the depths of the Depression. Baker was living with his mother and sister, in an extended family of aunts and uncles. There was no television, no money for going out, few places to go anyway. Yet Baker remembers those days with affection and warmth. ``Often, waking deep in the night, I heard them down in the kitchen talking, talking talking,'' Baker wrote. ``Sitting around the table under the unshaded light bulb, they talked the nights away, reheating the coffee, then making fresh coffee, then reheating the pot again, and talking, talking, talking.''
They talked about Father Coughlin, Mussolini, Roosevelt's ``Brain Trust,'' and the New Deal WPA, which stood for ``We Poke Along,'' according to Baker's Uncle Allen. They discussed ways to outwit the electric company, and the merits of crooners Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. They told and retold the old family stories - for example, the time two carpenters mistook ``ancient'' Aunt Henrietta for a ghost and jumped out a second-story window.
``I would lie on my daybed half awake listening to the murmur of voices, the clatter of cups, the splash of water in the sink, the occasional burst of laughter,'' Baker recalled. ``If my homework was done, I could sit with them and listen until ten o'clock struck. I loved the sense of family warmth that radiated through those long kitchen nights of talk.''
Today it is a rare child who goes to bed to the sound of adult voices. More likely, the child has been playing Nintendo. Mom and Dad are watching TV - if there is a Mom or Dad.
``In architecture, we're seeing demands for media rooms,'' a New York City architect told Newsweek not long ago. ``What ever happened to the kitchen table as a gathering place?''
And how did natural life stages called youth and age become so isolated from one another, and redefined as staggering social problems? The two questions are related.
What happened to the kitchen table looks like 50 different things - television, fast food, broken families, the rest. But it all comes down to one main thing. What the kitchen table represented - companionship, entertainment, security - turned into things that people buy for money. Affluence became a form of deprivation, and a wedge between generations.
Television was the leading agent. This new pipeline to the American living room enabled advertisers to cast a spell of ``progress'' around the debilitating change. Ronald Reagan, corporate spokesman for General Electric, declaimed each week on GE Theater that ``Progress is our most important product.'' He was talking about the very devices - televisions, dishwashers, and the rest - that undermined the kitchen-table culture of his Norman Rockwell world.
The loss for children has been great. The kitchen table was a school, a window on the adult world. Today kids are segregated into institutional and media ghettos. They feel out their place in the world through advertising and MTV, rather than - as young Baker did - through the stories of Uncle Charlie and Uncle Allen and Uncle Hal. But the loss to older folks has been perhaps even greater. The kitchen table gave them a place too. They were the bearers of tales the children wanted to hear. And now?
I spent a day recently in Miami with a retired nurse and grandmother named Esterlene Colbrook. Colbrook is an attractive woman with a touch of Nina Simone, the singer, in her voice. Colbrook's father lived to be 120. Her grandfather was a slave. She devotes her life to civic affairs. And she was asked by a local high school class to talk about growing old.
``Before we didn't have the radio and TV,'' she said. ``So you would always love to sit next to your grandmother so she could tell you the old stories. Or read you a story. It was like story time. Because you didn't have those other things.''
``When you came in at night to go to bed, you would always cling to grandmother, because that was the best entertainment. But now it's the TV and [the kids] don't have time. They don't even see you. And then we feel real lonely.
``It's the gap between us now,'' she said.