We are scattered now and span generations. We know some better than others. With COVID-19, we live in uncertain times. Members of our family face the repercussions of unemployment, business losses, health challenges, isolation, and the new normal of working (if we are fortunate) and teaching children at home. Those who knew want in the Great Depression and upheaval during World War II are gone.
In the solitude of sheltering in place, I revisit Mom’s and Dad’s favorite hymns, songs, and poetry. That means soaking up a lot of Wordsworth, Keats, Frost, folk ballads, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Beethoven, and music of “The Greatest Generation.” There is steadfastness in memory.
I live alone, but I do not feel lonely. Remembered voices and family moments crowd my one-bedroom apartment. (Texting and emails are short connections—hardly the fullness brought by a human voice or the hand-held care of letter writing.) My thoughts return to a fundamental ritual in our early lives: the dinner table. Wherever you sit to take a meal—a kitchen table, an island, a counter, or a coffee table—I wish you blessings, peace, love, and the faith of those who have gone before.
—Catherine (daughter, granddaughter, sister, sister-in-law, aunt, cousin, and friend)
There’s an anthropological theory in my family. Thousands of years ago, women sheltered in caves while their hunter-gatherer mates took to the forest. The behavior devolved as the cave gave way to the kitchen and the forest to the den and television.
In the slow hours after Sunday dinner, the men fell asleep on the couches while the women—three generations—lingered at the dinner table for the last sip of coffee, lipstick rimming our cups. We nibbled pound cake (the sour cream version, thank you), spooned vanilla ice cream, and then cursed all men with skinny thighs. We curled napkin corners and teased each other about the men we might have married and planned the lives of yet unborn children.
We leaned into conversations, propping our elbows on the maple table that stood for decades through years of mischief, arguments, tears, and joy. I sought its sturdiness on winter nights and instinctively laid my head on it, like the movement of a small animal dumbly nudging for its mother’s warmth.
At that table, I learned the rituals that my mother held dear: “Keep your napkin in your lap. . . . For heaven’s sake, don’t shovel your food. . . . Don’t gulp; sip slowly. . . . No milk cartons on the table, please. . . . Pick up the bowl when you pass the squash; don’t shove it at your sister. . . . Never crumple your napkin and throw it on your plate; I don’t care if it is paper. . . . Tell me you enjoyed it; this is one time you can fib. . . . No, you may not turn on the television; it disrupts my digestion.”
Our dinner table decorum often disintegrated into debacles. Feuds are commonplace in large families, and we carried our battles to the meal. Since yelling warranted punishment, the primary weapon was the silent treatment. You ignored your foe by holding a napkin to your face and blocking that person from view. Sometimes I held napkins to either side of my face to avoid any peripheral sight of my sisters. With my hands thus occupied, I suffered an empty stomach—the price of my silent crusade. Oh, the woes of a middle child.
But the kitchen was more than a place for eating. It doubled as a studio for school projects and as a study for those baffled by “new” math and literature. With the table serving as a workbench, we stirred up salt maps for all seven continents and several states. My sister Mary found her future as a designer when she built a replica of the White House—sugar cube by sugar cube—and re-created Central Park on a plywood board. Using plaster of Paris, I once sculpted the ridges and valleys found on the Atlantic Ocean’s floor. (These geographic wonders sported flags made from toothpicks and construction paper.) Unfortunately, my mother strained her back when she helped me lug it to the station wagon. “It’s a fine project,” she puffed, “but how about a salt map of Antarctica next time?”
Short on patience, my father hunched over more than one algebra book, and my mother looked for meaning in Animal Farm and 1984 five times. She sighed when my younger sister’s teacher assigned a review of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” and wondered what happened to Wordsworth and his sea of daffodils.
But all was not sweetness and light. Rebellion slammed its fist on the table. We hotly debated egocentric concerns—rock’ n’ roll, cars, and curfews—and parleyed over issues like peace, nuclear power, presidential elections, and the women’s movement. Fierce on the Equal Rights Amendment, I wore my ERA button—a lot.
My mother stood in the eye of the storm, always calm. On declaring myself an existentialist and denouncing religion as “bad faith,” I glared at Mom and waited for her to cry. “Well, if you’re not attending church this morning, please bake the bourgeois potatoes,” she shrugged. “Even those of lofty philosophical thought must come down from the mountain and eat with us mundane folks.”
We spent much of our adolescence lurking in hermetically sealed bedrooms. Contact with our parents meant blasting them with the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Jethro Tull—and Chicago (if we were feeling nice). We fled, briefly, to Europe, Colorado, or New Orleans. But we all returned home, and the kitchen table remained intact despite the cracks.
And there we gathered, held by memory. There my mother hemmed prom formals, sometimes putting in the finishing touches while our dates watched my dad doze through Braves baseball. There I offered my first boyfriend a chocolate chip cookie, and he kissed me instead. (How sweet it was.) There Nannie recited the family tree, along with the life history of every cousin thrice removed. There in her steady captain’s chair, my mother held each daughter who wept over lost love. There my father served Christmas breakfast annually, with scrambled eggs, country-fried ham, red-eye gravy, and buttermilk biscuits dripping with honey or muscadine preserves.
These days I often eat at a coffee table, dining on a simple salad and bowl of soup. Still, habit persists. I shut off the phone and computer, put my napkin in my lap, and think of the family blessing as we held hands held around the dinner table. The thought in itself is a benediction. Blessed be the tie that binds.