In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Every day when I came home from school, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. I never knew what to expect — she could be quite moody — but we often had long talks, sometimes with laughter, other times with anger or sadness or disappointment. And always with coffee and cigarettes.
Once, she told me that she wished I smoked so we could sit and have a cigarette together.
My parents had six kids in seven years and would have had more if my mother hadn’t been diagnosed with late-stage melanoma at age thirty-three. The doctor told her she had about a year to live and advised her not to have any more children.
I don’t think my mother and father knew what they were getting into when they became parents. As good Catholics, they didn’t have much choice. If not for us, they could have done so much more with their lives: my mother was artistic, and both my parents were readers and thinkers. But there they were with a houseful of toddlers and grade-schoolers, and now she had cancer.
My mother lived for seventeen years after her diagnosis — just long enough to raise us. In between spells of remission, when we could forget she had cancer, she endured brutal treatments. During her remissions, the eight of us went camping, riding all over the country in our VW Bus.
When her children were all in school, my mother finally had a chance to take some art classes. One day I came home and found her artwork all over the kitchen table.
“What’s for dinner?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied defiantly.
She never quit smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, even when she was no longer able to sit at the table to enjoy them. She took them in her reclining chair, then on the couch, then on her bed, and finally on the hospital bed we set up for her. She wanted to die at home, so we took care of her — especially my father, who tended to her night and day. The first thing we did each morning was prepare her medications and boil water for her coffee.
The night after she died, I had a dream. She was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. “It’s gone,” she said, with a huge smile on her face. “The pain is all gone.”
I woke up and went to the kitchen. My father was standing at the sink with a dish towel over his shoulder. The kitchen table was bare. I told him my dream. We both stood there, not knowing what to do with ourselves.
I realized my marriage was over one Saturday afternoon while having tea at the kitchen table.
My son Adam, age three, was toddling around, hopping on and off my lap, dunking a cookie into my cup of tea. As the gooey mess dripped down his chin, he broke into a contagious smile. Then my husband, Stu, came in from the yard, slamming the screen door behind him, and sat down at the head of the table, obviously tense. I hopped up and made him a mug of chamomile tea. When I returned, Adam had gone into the living room to get his favorite truck, and he “drove” it onto the kitchen table, grazing Stu’s mug of tea. Thankfully Adam didn’t see the annoyed look his father gave him.
Stu pulled out the stack of bills and grunted in dissatisfaction. He resented my cutting back to part time since Adam was born. It wasn’t the first time he’d stared at me over the bills as if to say, Earn your keep, woman.
“Look at this,” he said. “Why is the electric bill so high this month?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s Adam’s new fish tank. They say the pump can eat a lot of electricity.”
“Those fish have got to go,” said Stu, looking as though his mind was made up.
I quickly crouched beside him and whispered, “But Adam loves them!”
Adam had stopped playing and was studying his father as though he were a stranger: who was this man threatening his beloved fish?
“Can’t we talk about this later?” I pleaded.
Stu’s face reddened with rage: I had questioned his authority. He picked up his mug of tea and smashed it down on the kitchen table. The ceramic mug shattered against the formica surface, and a green chip flew into the air, past the salt and pepper shakers, past the pile of bills and the permanent brown coffee ring on the tabletop, and right into my son’s perfect right eye, lacerating the cornea, nicking the pupil, delving deep into the lens, piercing the vitreous humor, and finally severing the optic nerve.
My sweet Adam. He never saw it coming, and his right eye never saw again.
East Northport, New York
My three brothers and I grew up on the edge of poverty. Our mother stayed home to raise us, and our father worked two jobs to pay the bills. Although I was never privy to the household finances, I always had an underlying sense that, once the evening meal was paid for each night, little or no money remained.
I was grateful for this meal, which we gathered around the table to eat. During the dark, dreary winter months, the heat from the oven, our bodies, and the food would often fog the kitchen windows, blocking the cold and darkness that loomed outside. Dinnertime was the only time of day our old house seemed amply warm, and the only time I appreciated what little we had.
Now I live in a beautiful new farmhouse on a hill, with two roaring fireplaces and a refrigerator full of food. And I struggle each day to recapture the feeling of gratitude I felt at my family’s kitchen table.
Asbury, New Jersey
When I was a teenager in the fifties, I was always looking for different, more satisfying ways to masturbate. In my quest, I discovered that the neck of a milk bottle was the perfect size to accommodate my erect penis. The only problem was how to keep the bottle stationary. Moving it up and down manually seemed pointless; I might as well have used my hand. If I lay down on the bottle — even with pillows strategically positioned on both sides — I was afraid my weight might break the glass.
The kitchen table offered a possible solution. I figured if I pulled the table leaves apart an inch or two, I could wedge the bottleneck between them, leaving the opening nearly level with the surface.
One Saturday night when my parents were out, I tested my idea. My experiment proved so successful that I wound up repeating it many times afterward. As disgusted as I was with myself, I was helpless to control my urges. Sometimes my heart would race so fast that I worried I might drop dead of a heart attack. Worse than the fear of death was the thought of my parents coming home and finding me naked on the table in the middle of the act.
Richard E. Platt
New York, New York
My grandfather farmed the bleak red clay of northern Mississippi and spoke to the Lord on a daily basis. All day long, while plowing or picking, he kept up a running dialogue with Jesus. Even at dusk, when his work in the fields was done, his communion was not. Dead tired, he would look for a place to lie down, but my grandmother always refused to let him on the furniture in his soiled clothes. So he would lie on the floor instead; and since floor space in their small farmhouse was scarce, my grandfather got in the habit of lying underneath the kitchen table. There he would continue his discourse with Christ.
This was how I came to know him: his dirty boots protruding from beneath the oilcloth-draped table and his cries of praise and supplication floating up to the ceiling. The family largely ignored this strange behavior, but I could not. Compared to my little-boy fears, he was so sure; compared to my family’s middle-class suburban decorum, he was so unabashed, so triumphant. I suspected he knew something, that some secret was hidden there under that table.
When I was growing up, my family ate dinner with the TV next to the table, tuned to the nightly news. Our seats at the table were assigned, and I sat to the left of my dad. At most meals, he would rub his leg or hand against my thigh, my foot — anything he could reach. (I wish I could say that was the extent of his groping.)
During these moments, I would often stare at my mother, incredulous that she didn’t notice, couldn’t see, didn’t stop what was happening. When she did nothing, I would sit in silence, flushed and miserable, boring holes into Tom Brokaw’s face, praying that he would stop in midsentence and say, “Ken, take your goddamn hands off that girl’s thigh.” But Tom never said anything, and neither did I — at least, not until long after I stopped sitting at that table.
New York, New York
I was a heterosexual female art student living with two gay men in the early seventies, when free love was still safe and there was lots of money in the art world. Vincent, Neil, and I were all out on our own for the first time, and much happier than we had been at home or in the dormitories, where we’d felt like morose misfits.
One night the three of us picked up a handsome man at a dance, and after some confusion, he ended up in bed with Vincent. Another time, Vincent hung two super-8 movie cameras from his neck so that they bounced on his knees as he walked. We thought the resulting ten-minute film was a masterpiece. I switched to a dance major, became anorexic, and got a cockatiel for my birthday, which I put in a big birdcage in the living room. Neil painted his room black (including the furniture) and wrote poems about our weekly dramas, which he left on the kitchen table for us to read. His poems brought order and meaning to the chaos of our lives.
One day, I brought home a hungry stray cat. When I walked in the door, the birdcage was open, and my cockatiel flew out in terror. It circled the stove, where Vincent was cooking chicken soup, and somehow, in its panic, the bird fell into the pot. Vincent quickly pulled the bird out — still alive — and cradled it in his hands.
I put the cockatiel back in its cage, wrapped towels around the outside, and hitchhiked to the vet, crying the whole way. The doctor couldn’t do anything for the bird, and my bringing it out in the cold had probably only made matters worse.
Neil sat up all night, keeping the bird warm in a cardboard box with blankets and a light bulb. My cockatiel died the next day.
That week, the poem on the kitchen table was titled “Bird Death in Soup.”
I wish I knew if Vincent and Neil have survived the AIDS epidemic. And I wish I had a copy of that poem.
Mill Valley, California
It always happened after everyone had finished dinner. My father’s thin lips would draw thinner and curl into a wicked grin. Then he would slowly push his chair back from the kitchen table and reach for the light switch. The calm look on my mother’s face told me not to be afraid, but I couldn’t help it. My fingers gripped the shiny red vinyl seat of my chair.
When the lights went out, my two older sisters screamed. Though I was probably the most frightened, I didn’t make a sound. Instead I slid down the smooth seat of my chair and hid under the table, where I tried desperately to peer through the darkness and the maze of chair legs. I could hear my sisters screaming and bumping into each other, trying to get away from my father.
“Harry, stop it!” my mother called out. “You’re scaring the kids to death.” But the light remained off, and my sisters continued to screech. I crawled toward my mother and put my arms around her legs. She reached under the table and patted my head. “Don’t be afraid, honey.”
At the height of the confusion, my father let out a bellowing noise, like something you might hear on Halloween. The noise, though loud, was drowned out by the increasing volume of my sisters’ shrieking.
Finally, the lights would come back on, and my sisters would slowly quiet down, then start to giggle and flop back into their chairs, breathing as if they had just run a race.
“I don’t know why you kids get so scared just because I turn off the lights,” my father said. “I never do anything.”
And he never did. But as I sat under the table, clinging to my mother’s leg, it was a lot more fun to think that he might.
Jeryl Anderson Rosavage
Virginia Beach, Virginia
I never knew what my father’s mood would be at the kitchen table. At his best, his eyes twinkled and he told jokes that made my mother laugh. Her laugh was fuller and louder than one would expect from such a petite woman. Sometimes she laughed so hard she couldn’t breathe. The five of us kids would laugh uncontrollably, too. We weren’t laughing at my father’s jokes, but at the two of them, teasing each other and getting sillier by the minute.
Those happy, affectionate moments soon became rare. My father grew sullen. Harsh insults replaced the laughter, and bluish-green bruises turned up on my mother’s arms and legs. (He made sure to avoid striking her in the face, where the bruises would show.)
One time, my father yanked my mother down the stairs by her hair, shoved her into the kitchen, and ordered her to get dinner on the table. My mother didn’t yell back or defend herself but remained silent, stoic. I was the one who yelled back at my father, matching his pitch, volume, and rage as well as a nine-year-old could. I told him he should stop screaming at my mother and get the damn food himself.
Another time we were eating dinner when my dad suddenly threw his full plate like a frisbee against the kitchen wall. Stunned, we just stared at the food dripping down the wall. As usual my siblings and my mother tried to pretend that nothing had happened. But I picked up my own plate and threw it against the wall, yelling, “If you can do it, so can I!” Tears streamed down my mother’s face. My father made the two of us clean up the mess.
Nearly thirty years have passed since I threw that plate, and my now-widowed father has finally mellowed. (What’s the point to lashing out if there’s no one to hurt?) I, too, have changed. The passage of time and three thousand miles’ distance between us have allowed me to develop some compassion for him.
On my last visit, nearly a year and a half ago, my father cooked and served a simple meal at the kitchen table. There was a comfortable silence. Then he sighed and said softly, “I miss your mom.”
Tears welled up in my eyes, and I whispered back, “So do I.”
San Francisco, California
I remember the table in the north Carolina kitchen: a wood-veneer octagon with a wrought-iron base and avocado-colored padded chairs. It was new, like the house, and that impressed me at the time.
I sat at that table with tears running down my face while my mother shouted, “How could you do this to me?” I was a senior in high school and had just told her I was pregnant. My fourteen-year-old sister waited for me in our room upstairs. She had done her part, handing my mother the letter explaining my condition. There was nothing more anyone could do to help me. I was in the lion’s jaws, about to be crushed.
That is how afraid I felt of my mother: I had to write a letter telling her I was pregnant and then beg my little sister to deliver it for me. I don’t know why I thought this strategy would make the outcome any different.
My fear had already delayed matters. At first I’d withdrawn some money from my college-savings account, lied to my parents about a weekend excursion with a girlfriend, and climbed on a bus for the five-hundred-mile trip to New York City, where I could have an abortion without parental consent. Fortunately for me, I brought a friend along, a boy (not the father). They told me at the clinic that they could not do the procedure: I was two weeks past their limit. Deep in shock at the failure of my plan, I nearly walked out into the middle of traffic. Had my friend not been there, I could have been killed.
The abortion laws in my home state required a psychiatric evaluation and a hospital stay; my parents would have to be involved. Clearly, I could no longer avoid telling my mother.
After weeks of agonizing, I wrote the letter. My sister agreed to give it to Mom, and I prepared for the end of life as I knew it.
At the kitchen table, Mom raged, and I turned into a quivering mass of tears and snot. I escaped back to my room, and later that night my father called me downstairs. I wasn’t sure what to expect. He had done his share of yelling over the years, too, but somehow his anger was always born of the moment, while my mother’s was something more.
Sitting at the kitchen table, my father quietly asked me, “What do you want to do?”
Growing up, my family never ate at the kitchen table. We would all meet in the kitchen, load up our plates, and head off in separate directions: my brother and I to our rooms, and Mom and Dad to eat in front of the TV. This seemed completely normal until I ate at a friend’s house for dinner and someone said, “Whose turn is it to set the table?”
What’s with the formality? I thought.
Over dinner, everyone talked about his or her day. It was utterly foreign to me, this communication among family members.
My older brother, too, had discovered that our eating arrangements were unusual. At his request, we tried having dinner at the table one night. The conversation went something like this:
“Great food, Mom.”
[Sound of chewing and forks scraping plates.]
“Yeah, Mom, really good.”
After that, my brother ate at the table each night alone. To this day, he still complains about it.
Recently, I asked my mom why we never ate as a family. “I thought I was sparing you,” she said. “I always dreaded eating at the table; it felt like an interrogation to me.”
I know that there are much worse things than not eating meals as a family. But I can see how my brother and I may have been different people had we done so. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten away with so much if I’d had to report my activities each night. Maybe I would’ve been less rebellious or more socially competent. Maybe my family would have been closer had we spent just one measly hour a night together at the kitchen table.
Redondo Beach, California
I push a nickel into the pile of coins in the middle of the kitchen table and say, “Call. Let’s see what you’ve got.” My father fans his two pair on the table, aces over tens, and grins. I lay down my three deuces, stretch my arms out, and rake in the pot. As I add the pennies and nickels to my neat stacks, I catch a look of pride in my father’s eyes. I am eight years old.
Another night, my father and his poker buddies are playing cards at the table. There’s real money in the game now: twenties and hundreds. I am allowed to stand by my father’s side and watch him play. He has the best cold-eyed stare in the game. When I wander around the table and look at another man’s cards, the man says, “Shorty, keep your daughter over there by you.” He isn’t kidding.
At fourteen, I come home from watching I Love Lucy at a friend’s house and find my father at the table with a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and a glass of ice. It’s going to be a long night. He’s not a mean drunk, but he is a determined one. When he drinks, he likes to take my mother and me out to bars with him. My mother goes along because she’s afraid that if he goes alone, he’ll get rolled for his diamond rings and the big wad of bills he carries.
My father doesn’t take us to one of the nice clubs with names like the Purple Orchid or the Coach House, but to a honky-tonk out in the country. He and I dance gracefully together; then he sits in with the band on drums. I dance with other men, who tell me what a good dancer I am. A look or a gesture must pass between my father and these men, because they know never to step out of line with me. I drink a weak bourbon and Coke. By two o’clock, my head droops on the table. My mother coaxes my father into going home. She tries to talk him into giving her the car keys. He argues, then tosses the keys to me and tells me to drive.
My father was a cook in the Seabees during World War II, and now he owns a restaurant. Saturday night, after the restaurant closes at ten o’clock and I finish cleaning up and resetting the tables, my father and I drive to a seedy part of town to get hot doughnuts. I can smell them two blocks away. At home, we eat the doughnuts at the kitchen table, dunking them in cold milk. I don’t like to drink the leftover milk with the grease floating on top, but food is never thrown out at our house, so I drink it as fast as I can with my eyes closed.
A couple of times a year, I come home and hear my father singing “Danny Boy” or “My Wild Irish Rose” in the kitchen, and I know he is making chili. He cooks in his underwear to stay cool, and I can see all of his tattoos. My favorites are Mickey and Minnie Mouse, one on each knee. The kitchen table and all of the counters are covered with meat wrappers, dirty pots and pans, empty one-gallon cans, and spilled chili powder. A ten-gallon pot of Tex-Mex chili bubbles on the stove. Daddy sits down, and I plop onto his lap and smooth the fuzz on his bald head.
When the chili is done he announces, “The chef cooks; the eaters clean up,” and leaves the kitchen. I hate the cleanup job, but for the next six months I will take some of that chili out of the freezer on a cold night and have two bowls for dinner.
Seated at her beautiful oak kitchen table, my friend Lindsey told me how she had hogtied her sixteen-year-old daughter, Beth, the night before.
Lindsey had asked Beth to clean her room, and Beth had put all her clothes away, made the bed, straightened her desk, vacuumed, and dusted. But Lindsey wanted her to dust the ceiling fan, too. Beth refused. They argued, called each other nasty names. Then Lindsey, who grew up fighting with three older brothers on a farm, put Beth in a headlock and kicked her feet out from under her so that she fell belly-first onto the floor. Lindsey yanked the cord from the blinds, sat on Beth’s back, and tied her hands and feet together.
Beth lay on the floor for three hours before Lindsey finally tired of hearing her cries for help and untied her. Once freed, Beth got the stool from the kitchen and cleaned the ceiling fan.
As Lindsey told me this, she laughed about the whole incident. She’d really showed Beth.
“No, you didn’t!” I said.
“Yes I did!” Lindsey insisted. “And if she tries anything else, I’ll hogtie her again.” Facing the hallway, Lindsey screamed, “Beth! Come eat!”
Beth walked quietly into the kitchen, assuming her predetermined place at the table. While Lindsey got up to fix Beth’s plate, I glanced at the bruises on the side of Beth’s face. My heart ached for this young girl, who had no one to protect her from her mother. I looked into her eyes, searching for a semblance of hope, a plea for help, a sign of life. But I saw nothing. There was nothing there.
Later that week, I sat at my own kitchen table with another friend of mine, a social worker. Beth now lives with her grandparents. I never again sat at Lindsey’s table.
Durham, North Carolina
“Somebody stir the sauce!” my mother would yell, so loud the entire neighborhood could hear. I’d quickly gather up my things from the kitchen table and dart up to my room to avoid her request.
I never wanted to stir the pasta sauce, a family recipe handed down for generations. Why should I interrupt my busy life for my mother’s silly traditions? I couldn’t understand why she had to take so much time with everything, could never do things the easy way. She bought other people’s discarded furniture at garage sales, then spent days stripping and varnishing it. Junk, I called it. Old and worthless. And the sauce: eight hours for pasta sauce. Why in the world would you spend that much time on dinner when you could be doing so many other, more important things?
Somebody stir the sauce! Why should I stir the sauce? I didn’t even like it. At family gatherings, everyone crowded around the kitchen table: so many people laughing and talking rapidly in English and Italian. You could barely squeeze by to reach the food or open the refrigerator door. Why did people sit at that table when they knew they were in the way? Couldn’t they sit somewhere else? What was the big deal about sitting in the kitchen? The table wasn’t big enough for all of them, yet somehow they fit. My mother seemed oddly thrilled to be surrounded by the mess, the dirty dishes, the work.
Somebody stir the sauce! Not me. I wanted no part of this chaos, this disarray. I dreamed of modern furniture; chairs that didn’t squeak; a clean, uncluttered kitchen; a table set with perfectly matched dishes, free from tradition. Someday I would escape the bonds of family, home, and kitchen tables that overflowed with food, noise, and undisciplined hands.
Descending grudgingly from my room, I made my way into the crowded kitchen and asked my mother, in a panicked voice, loud enough for everyone to hear, if she’d made sure to save me some plain noodles, with no sauce.
“Yes, of course I did,” she snipped back.
“Thank God,” I said, rolling my eyes as I tolerated the greasy kisses and embraces of my oversized uncles and cousins. Then, with my proud Italian family looking on from their front-row seats around the kitchen table, I squeezed past my mother with my bowl of plain noodles held high in defiance and went to the pantry to get my jar of Prego. Ignoring the sounds of scooting chairs and the piling of children on laps to make room for me at the table, I returned to my room, where I closed the door and turned up my music to drown out the noise below.
What I did alone in my room, I honestly cannot remember.
© James Carroll
Ever since my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I have acted as tour guide to her past. One thing she remembers with prompting is the only family heirloom she has given me: an unpretentious oak table received by her grandmother as a wedding present in 1886. A triumph of simple, sturdy design, the table shrinks to a diminutive circle or stretches, with added leaves, to ten feet in length.
During my childhood, with a family of six, a live-in great-uncle, a boarder or two, and the usual complement of childhood friends, the table rarely sat fewer than nine at dinner. My mother produced meals with good-natured ease, and there was always plenty for everyone. Sometimes my father went door to door on a Saturday afternoon and invited every family on the block over for a “snack.” The table, fully extended, became a smorgasbord, with a huge roast and a mountain of fresh, homemade bread for sandwiches.
Shortly after the onset of her disease, my mother asked me to take the table. Of course I declined; I felt I’d be removing the hearth from the family home. Each time I drove the hundred miles to visit, she brought up the matter more urgently, and each time I brushed off her request. Finally, she told me clearly, through tears, “I want you to take the table now, while I can still remember the pleasure of giving it to you.”
The next day I bought my mother a satisfactory, though heartless, new kitchen table. She cried as I drove away with the dismantled hundred-year-old wedding present. When I visit my mother now, we have tea at the new table, and she doesn’t know the difference.
Lately I, too, find myself grasping at memories as if they were wet bars of soap: the harder I try, the less I am left holding. I make an effort not to cling to the past and instead allow myself to be led by my mother’s example to this moment. She remembers very little now but loves bright flowers and marvels at a small bird on the windowsill. In her presence, I find myself watching the world more closely, as though in preparation for bidding it farewell.
Heriot Bay, British Columbia
When I was eight years old, my father built my mother a new kitchen table, large enough to seat all six members of our family. The top was stained a rich dark brown and rested on two carved pedestals. It was a beautiful table, much nicer than the linoleum-topped hand-me-down we had been squeezing around.
The one thing my father didn’t do was attach the tabletop. He just set it on top of the pedestals and left it there. This didn’t seem unusual to my sisters and me. Our house, which our father had also built, was filled with similar oddities. The seldom-used front door had no doorknob, the upstairs bathroom didn’t even have a door, and there was a gaping hole in the floor of the downstairs bathroom because my father had moved the toilet.
The tabletop stayed disconnected for the next ten years. My sisters and I simply learned not to lean on the table or pile too much weight on one side or the other, for fear of flipping the top off its base. Our mother, though, never got used to it. In a rush to get dinner ready, she once rested too much weight on one side and, before she could catch it, the whole thing tipped up and all the food and plates slid off. Another time she lunged to grab my little sister’s hand away from a hot casserole dish, and again everything ended up on the floor.
In the thirteen years since my parents’ divorce, I’ve often wanted to ask my mother why she thinks my father never took fifteen minutes to bolt the tabletop down. I don’t ask, though. I’m afraid she’ll be forced to admit that she, too, didn’t understand him.
As a young girl, I liked to play a game in which the goal was to get around the kitchen without touching the floor. I’d step from the open cabinet drawers to the tabletop, to the radiator, to the counter, and so on, eventually making my way back to where I began. Maureen, our Irish maid, would watch me and clap. Sometimes she would clock me and write down my time on the back of an envelope.
I liked to sit in the kitchen and watch Maureen carry my baby brother around on her left hip and talk to him while she put away dishes. He had pudgy little legs stuffed into green overalls. I wanted to dress him in cowboy outfits, but my mother told me he was too young. (When I asked her about it again a few months later, she said he was too old.) Maureen and I would play silly games with my brother, zooming his food around on his highchair tray, or blowing noisily into his belly. He would reward us with his musical baby laughter.
Three of Maureen’s sisters also worked as maids in our neighborhood. On Saturday afternoons, the four girls would sit around our kitchen table with a pot of tea and talk in their beautiful Irish accents about boys they’d met at the Friday-night dances. They’d sing American popular songs and Irish songs to remind them of home.
Maureen, my baby brother, and I would eat dinner together at the kitchen table. I would have carrots with peanut butter and corned-beef hash, and Maureen would spoon smooth baby food into my brother’s messy mouth. For dessert we would all have pudding or jello.
I was too young to eat with my mother and father and two sisters in the dining room, where the table was set with placemats and candles and silver serving dishes, and the conversation was always terribly smart, and nobody was so unsophisticated as to be kind.
Eighteen years ago, I moved into an adobe duplex in an inner-city barrio. I had no furniture, no car, no bank account, no phone, no gas, and no electricity. I worked at a women’s cooperative bakery making fifty-nine cents an hour and did odd carpentry jobs. A neighbor gave me a foam mattress to sleep on. A friend gave me an old sewing desk where I could write. After a few months, I found some wooden chairs and a folding quilt stand and carried them nearly two miles back to my apartment. That same week, I also came across a wooden pallet, which I bolted to the legs of the quilt stand to make a kitchen table. It was then that my apartment began to feel like a home.
It was a good home. My daughter was born there. I ate many meals at that table, and had many happy times.
I no longer live in the inner city, but in the heart of the woods. My daughter is nearly grown. I’ve been involved with a wonderful man for years and have a house full of furniture. But I still have my homemade table.
My partner and my daughter tease me about it. “When are we going to lose that crappy thing?” asks one. “Burn it,” the other suggests. They laugh conspiratorially.
But I remember the days when peanut butter was a luxury, when I only dreamed of having things like hand lotion and Scotch tape. I remember, too, having the freedom to hike and camp, to read books all day, to garden. I remember actively challenging the status quo and proudly using tools I’d acquired at a swap meet to put together my table. Maybe it’s not the best table; maybe my family would rather use it as kindling. But, all these years later, it still makes me smile.
Valerie J. Townsley
French Gulch, California
In 1953, our family of four would sit at our small kitchen table in our very small kitchen and begin to play a game. We two children would close our eyes, and Dad would remove something from the table. Then we would open our eyes and try to figure out what was missing: the salt shaker perhaps, or Mom’s dinner fork, or my milk glass.
One night Dad said, “Close your eyes. No peeking.” I squeezed my eyes shut and listened for clues. Not a sound. After a few minutes, Dad said, “OK, open up.” I opened and looked. The kitchen table was gone. The whole thing.
I still don’t know how he did it.
Cross Plains, Wisconsin
My grandfather was a great one for finding deals at auctions and garage sales. When the movie theater in his small town went under, he bought three rows of seats and separated them with a blowtorch. He gave me one. The forest green chair was too itchy to sit on with my bare skin, but it fit nicely in my apartment and was the perfect reading chair.
When I left Milwaukee for Manhattan, I gave away everything I owned except for a suitcase of clothes and a suitcase of CDs. My roommate S., a nurse I worked with, kept my kitchen table and the theater chair.
That was six months ago. Now I’m back in town and reinstated in my old job as a nurse’s assistant. In the break room a week after my return, I asked S. if I could have my grandfather’s chair back.
“But you gave me that chair,” she replied, sounding a little hurt.
“Well, yeah, but you have to realize that I’m living in a little hole of an efficiency without any furniture. All I have is a mattress and a sleeping bag that smells like it’s been stored in a wet basement. I could really use that chair.”
“But you gave it to me.” She shrugged. “What can I say?”
The break room was silent; my co-workers were all ears. I could feel the blood rushing to my face. “You can say that I can have it back.”
“No. I really like that chair. I have to say no.”
Looking acutely uncomfortable, S. crushed out her cigarette and left.
A couple of weeks after the break-room scene, my old roommate threw herself a birthday party in the house that we used to share. I hadn’t planned on crashing it, but a mutual friend suggested I go and talk to her.
When we arrived, the party was in full swing. S. gave us a brisk hello and disappeared into a bedroom. Everyone seemed to be gearing up for a big night.
I stepped out onto the upstairs porch for some fresh air. There, in a dark corner, dusted with snow, was my grandfather’s chair. She hadn’t even bothered to bring it in for the winter. I brushed it off. The seat was water-stained, and the metal legs were flecked with rust.
In my anger, I thought for a moment about dropping it off the porch, but I decided against it; I was three stories up. I breathed in the cold air and let my head clear a little. Then I folded up the seat, hooked the chair under my arm, and walked back into the smoke and the noise.
S. was flirting with a guy who had her backed into a corner. AC/DC was thudding away on the stereo, and everyone was so intent on testing the night’s possibilities for romance that no one noticed as I walked casually through the house, down the stairs, and out the front door with my prize.
I carried the chair down the street toward my new apartment with pride, feeling that I could do whatever I wanted, that I was above middle-class notions of property and ownership. Perhaps, I thought, this would be a good lesson for S.; she had definitely displayed bad form by refusing to give me back the chair.
After six blocks, the chair was getting heavy, and I was beginning to have second thoughts. I admitted to myself that I had stolen the damn chair and thought about how I would feel when I woke up and saw it each morning. I also knew I wasn’t going to haul the chair back so it could rust away on my old roommate’s porch. A block from my apartment, I cut down an alley and dropped the chair into an empty dumpster. The clank it made when it hit the bottom was surprisingly loud in the snowy night.
On the following Monday, I made the mistake of telling a friend about the chair. Within a day, the story had spread to all of my co-workers, including S. After that, she and I played a game at work in which I tried to catch her scowling at me before she could avert her eyes. Whenever we passed each other in the hallway, she frowned and looked away.
One day, I had to ask S. a question about a patient’s medication. I approached her carefully. “Addie asked if she could have a Darvocet,” I said, trying to sound matter-of-fact. “She said that her back is hurting.”
S.’s eyes flicked up with surprise. Then she returned to her task of dropping blue pills into little paper cups. She wore pink scrubs covered with teddy bears wearing stethoscopes.
“Has it been four hours since her last one?” I asked.
S., now frowning intensely, went on with her work. I could see the tension in her shoulders.
“Come on, you can at least talk to me when it concerns work, right?”
Still she held out. The other nurse’s assistants were straining to hear our one-sided conversation.
“Look,” I said, lowering my voice, “I’m sorry about the whole stupid chair thing. I was mad that you wouldn’t give it back to me, and I was pretty high.”
S. finally looked up, thought for a moment, and said, with a vindictive expression, “Well, at least I still have your kitchen table.”
My grandmother Nana taught me how to bake an apple pie at her kitchen table. Under her watchful eye, I rolled out the crust until it was just the right thickness and shape, then carefully placed it in the center of the pie pan, as she had shown me. Next came the apples I had so laboriously peeled and cut earlier that day. Nana explained how to add the proper amount of sugar, cinnamon, and butter. Then I placed the top crust on the pie and carefully pinched the edges together, the way Nana did. Lastly, I marked the top with a large A for “apple” and placed it in the oven to bake.
Later that night, after dinner at the kitchen table, the time came to cut the pie. As everyone was served, I could hardly contain myself. Would it be as good as Nana’s? I watched my grandfather’s expression. He took a bite, and a smile slowly spread across his face. I felt a rush of relief and pride as he pronounced my pie to be a fair rival for my grandmother’s.
It was only much later, after Nana had died and I’d become a professional chef, that my grandfather admitted my first pie crust had tasted like cardboard. Had he revealed how poor that pie crust was, I might never have had the confidence to pursue cooking and would probably have ended up a chemist, as I’d planned to be before that day at Nana’s kitchen table.