Tables, part 3

 
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Tabletalk
by Scott McGinnis

The kitchen table around which I ate most of my meals when growing up was nothing fancy: a Formica-laminate that looked like wood but was easier to take care of when the spills came, which they inevitably did with two boys in the house jostling for position – and, quite frequently – for the last bit of supper or dessert. The perpetually overcrowded Lazy Susan sitting in the middle always seemed to have whatever you needed on it. A small nick in the table’s surface, between my father’s place and mine, happened because ash from his cigar dropped off and burned a small hole. He hated that, just as he hated anything that wasn’t like it was supposed to be. He always believed we should take care of things and, if they are broken, fix them. But I suppose Formica can be a tough fix, so we learned to live with it.

It often seemed crowded around that table in our small kitchen, even with just the four of us. During supper I frequently had to move my chair to the side so that someone could get more tea from the fridge. But somehow, the kind of magic that makes families work allowed us to pack more people in around the holidays. I’d be sent to the den to get the table leaves from behind the door and to bring in more chairs, and suddenly we’d be able to fit eight or even nine (if someone didn’t mind sitting on the stool that normally held the toaster).

We weren’t close to a lot of extended family, so the group that gathered around our table was frequently an odd assortment. Not strangers, but not family relations, either. They were a miscellany of friends my parents had collected over the years, and most often they were in need of a place to be over the holidays.

One elderly couple I remember in particular were probably the most regular. I enjoyed them because the man, Chuck, was full of stories – tall tales about growing up in Chicago and knowing gangsters. His wife Leona was pleasant but also quirky in a way that I now recognize might have been an early stage of dementia. One time my Mom complimented her on how pretty her hair looked, and Leona promptly took off her wig and tipped it like a hat. “Why, thank you.” That was a memorable Thanksgiving!

I liked Leona because she always showed up with a toy, which was great if you were a kid. The problem came when the toys tended not to age along with us. One year when I was about ten, Leona brought me a set of stacking rings of the sort a toddler would play with. What I remember most vividly was my Mom's hurriedly whispered instructions when she saw the situation unfolding: “Just be thankful no matter what she gives you.” I mumbled the appropriate things, and later Mom explained that more important than what I got was that we let Leona know she was appreciated. Beyond gratitude, I learned that I should pay attention to how other people felt, especially in cases where they were weak or vulnerable.

I think about that table now with great fondness and appreciation for what I learned sitting there. I didn’t know at the time that I was learning life lessons, and I don’t think my parents were particularly trying to make every meal a teachable moment. They were just living their lives, one Crockpot meal at a time, and in the process showing me how to live mine.

Betsy Lowery