When my family moved from the city to the country, no store-bought dinette would do for the kitchen. My father built a sturdy farm table and let me write everyone’s name on the underside in my seven-year-old’s handwriting.
More than eight feet long and too heavy for one person to lift, the table still dominates my parents’ kitchen. It is the kind of table on which you can fill flowerpots and cut potatoes. And when dinnertime comes, you can push the newspapers and junk mail to one end and still have plenty of room for the food.
The tabletop is scarred with crisscrossing lines from many knives and pizza cutters. Spots of gray paint show where my sister and I decorated plaster elephant statues. There are also paint flecks from my mother’s peace-rally signs, tape from my dad’s last project, and wax from last year’s Hanukkah candles. My father recently offered to refinish the boards. “What?” my mother said. “And erase all these years?”
My friend Susan’s mom worked as a cocktail waitress and was never home in the evenings, so when I was visiting, Susan and I were left to our own devices for dinner. She would whip up lasagna and divulge her crushes while I finished my homework.
After graduation Susan and I took different paths. I went away to college, and she got pregnant and had a baby girl she named Liza. The father was a jailbird, continually changing aliases to avoid paying child support. After a year Liza was diagnosed with a mental handicap: the doctors said she would have the IQ of a three-year-old for life. Susan stopped writing me after that.
Nearly twenty years later Susan and I are back in touch, and I visit her at her government-subsidized apartment. Liza is grown, and Susan has two other kids to look after and a crippling back condition.
Every evening at 5:30 sharp, Susan bellows in a drill-sergeant voice, “Dinner! Hurry up! Move it! Move it!” She has set placemats on a vinyl tablecloth decorated with a holiday motif — for a holiday a month gone by. Liza, led by her teenage sister or brother, lurches across the room and bats her lashes at me. Getting her into her adult “highchair” is a challenge. I take my place on a cracked seat while Liza’s favorite Barney episode plays in the background.
Dinner is still lasagna — with ground beef this evening because I’m here. There’s a salad of only tomatoes and lettuce, because the food stamps have run out. The kitchen counters are littered with cartons, homework assignments, dirty dishes, and medication bottles. Liza spits out half-chewed mouthfuls, then grins impishly. The other two kids sass their mother and feign outrage at each other. “Mom’s a real good cook!” they tell me.
I return to my quiet, childless home. The kitchen table is stacked with mail and papers to be filed. I haven’t changed the tablecloth in years, not since my boyfriend left me. I can eat anytime I want, and at 10 P.M. I throw something in the microwave. Eating by the light of my computer, I’m reminded of how unused my dinner table is.
Daria A. Fand
The summer I turned fifteen I was a youth delegate in a cultural-exchange program. I flew to Japan, where my fellow delegates and I learned about the art of calligraphy and the tea ceremony. We memorized and performed (pitifully) the folk song “Sakura Sakura,” the Japanese equivalent of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Each night I looked forward to eating dinner with the Shibuyas, my Japanese host family. At their table I learned more about Japan and its people than any book could have taught me.
Before we began to eat, Mr. Shibuya would hold his chopsticks with both hands, bow his head, and say, “Itadakimasu.” We’d all repeat this one-word prayer of gratitude for the food we were about to eat.
Dinner always began with postage-stamp-sized dishes of pickled pink vegetables, then bowls of miso soup with nori (seaweed). Then Mrs. Shibuya would spoon steaming rice into a dish for each of us and add grilled fish or chicken from a frying pan on her two-burner stove.
One evening, as Mrs. Shibuya hurried from stove to sink to refrigerator in the tiny kitchen, Mr. Shibuya asked me in practiced English, “Do you know what today is?” He paused, then answered his own question: “Hiroshima.”
The small kitchen grew even smaller as I imagined the presence of the 140,000 people who’d died in 1945.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice cracking.
“No, no. We are sorry,” Mr. Shibuya said. “Our friendship with you . . . it is the future.”
“Itadakimasu,” we said in unison, and we began to eat.
When my parents divorced, my mother, my brother, and I moved in with my maternal grandparents on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had trouble adjusting. My Hungarian grandmother, a large woman with arms thicker than my thighs, argued constantly with my German grandfather, who was skinnier than a barbecue spit. I struggled to make new friends, and my grades in elementary school fell.
Then the school began teaching something called the “new math,” a convoluted process of solving math problems by breaking them down into many discrete calculations, all of which had to be shown on paper. I couldn’t grasp it. My grandmother, unrelenting on the importance of education, began to sit down with me at the dinner table and help me with my homework. Her knowledge of math was limited to grocery shopping and balancing her checkbook, but she studied my books with me and learned the new math herself.
“So, what do you do with this number?” she’d ask. “Are you sure that’s right? Let me try.” Sometimes her frustration level surpassed mine. “Ah, shit on it!” she would grumble, throwing down the pencil. But a minute later she’d pick it up again. “You got to get this learned,” she’d say. And somehow I did learn despite myself.
Years later I returned from college for a visit. My grandfather had died, and my grandmother now lived alone in a trailer park. I stayed with her that summer, sleeping in her guest room. She was happy to be cooking for someone again. The first morning I was there, she served me a massive breakfast. I had not eaten so well in a long time. As I ate, I ran my hands over her old kitchen table and felt faint indentations. Pressed into the wood were numbers, often overlapping, from the new math. Neither my grandmother nor I had thought to use a pad under the paper to protect her table.
My grandmother saw me looking and, putting on her glasses, peered at the marks as if noticing them for the first time. Then she looked up at me, smiled, and said, “So, you think you learned well enough, college boy?”
St. Petersburg, Florida
While working for the Peace Corps in a small Amazonian frontier town, Rue and I became acquainted with all the other non-Bolivians in the village: a fundamentalist missionary, a handsome young Frenchman escaping his past, and a German businessman who had the only concrete house in town; the rest of us lived in bamboo-and-adobe huts with thatched roofs.
One night the German businessman invited Rue and me to dine with him and his family. We looked forward to a break from our usual meal of yuca and boiled beef. At dusk we put on light cotton dresses and flats and walked through the village to their house.
The businessman greeted us at the gray steel door, and we chatted in Spanish, our common tongue. His thin, nervous wife offered hors d’oeuvres while their two adolescent daughters giggled and their son, a sweet-faced four-year-old, played with toy soldiers on the ceramic floor: lining them up, whispering orders to them, rearranging their ranks.
After a dinner of imported ham, new potatoes, canned green beans, and Swiss chocolate, the wife brought out silver goblets of cognac on a tray. As I accepted the goblet, I saw that it was engraved with a swastika — clearly the careful, deliberate work of skilled artisans.
My fingers trembled, and the cognac sloshed in the cup. Rue slid a hand to her throat and surreptitiously dropped her grandmother’s Star of David, which she wore on a chain, inside her dress. Both of us had Jewish last names, though Rue had been raised as a Quaker and I as a Unitarian. We sipped our drinks and waited a polite interval before offering our thanks and heading home.
Rattled, we walked too fast, furious at our host, and at ourselves for having been so naive. In our hurry, under the moonless sky, I stumbled and fell, which unleashed my tears. Rue vomited ham and cognac onto her shoes right there in the middle of the street.
Margaret S. Mullins
One Thanksgiving my mother, her friend Sharon, and I delivered dinner to a group of homeless people who lived in the woods beside the train tracks. I was only eleven years old and afraid of strangers, but we knew these people well; many of them had stayed in our home for weeks at a time. We had been homeless ourselves in the past and had met Sharon while living at a shelter where she was a social worker.
We cooked a traditional holiday feast and brought it, along with folding tables and paper tablecloths, to the woods. The homeless men were surprised to see the aluminum dishes of piping-hot mashed potatoes and sliced turkey, and they jumped up to help us unload the food. I wondered how many holidays they’d spent in the cold and wet, drinking away their troubles.
We set the tables up like a buffet, and everyone grabbed a paper plate and plastic fork and dug in. People sat on old logs, tree stumps, and blankets spread on the ground. I looked around at the grinning, weathered faces and felt proud to be sitting at that Thanksgiving table.
I had worked in child welfare long enough to know that adopting a teenage boy would not be easy, but somehow I felt that it would work between Kevin and me. He was a good kid who’d had a bad life, and I, as a single father, could nudge him in the right direction.
We had our first argument at the dinner table. Kevin had been playing with his new neighborhood friends when I’d called him inside to eat.
“Why do we have to have dinner together every night?” he asked.
“Because you and I are a family, and families eat dinner together,” I said.
For the next several months Kevin tried to counter this logic with his own reasoning. When that failed, he began showing up late enough that the food would be cold. Occasionally he wouldn’t show up at all. But I never gave in on what I thought a functional family should do.
Eventually Kevin adopted a new tactic: make dinner unpleasant. “This would have been better without the onions,” he said, tediously separating the onions from his stew.
I tried to sneak small slices of onion into dishes, but Kevin would pick them out with his usual complaints.
Our relationship got better, and I watched Kevin grow into a tall, outgoing, confident young man. During his first year at college, Kevin drove home unexpectedly over a holiday break and arrived to find me sitting down to dinner with a friend.
“Hey, can I have some?” Kevin asked.
“It’s French onion soup,” I replied, thinking no further explanation was necessary.
But Kevin joined us at the table and cheerfully ate the soup while talking about life at college.
Later, clearing the table, I noticed a tangle of uneaten onions at the bottom of Kevin’s soup bowl. He hadn’t complained once.
Rociada, New Mexico
The mood at the dinner table was always set by Dad. If we’d spent the day working in our field, he was relaxed and jovial. It pleased him to see his three boys and three girls all pulling together. He’d butter his corn cakes, slather them with strawberry jam, and tell a story about growing up in Kentucky, or about a prank they’d played on a co-worker at the mill, putting jalapeño peppers in the man’s lunch.
Those were the good meals. But there were others — when Dad was working nights and wasn’t able to get much sleep — that weren’t so good. Then the food was not cooked to Dad’s liking, or my hair was not brushed properly, or my sister Cora hadn’t washed her hands well enough to suit him. Dad would bait each of us, trying to trick us into talking back or being disobedient, but we’d limit our conversation to requests to pass the food. The tight cords of muscle in his neck told us: Be still. Say little.
One night Joe, the tallest yet the weakest of us, said to Dad, “Could you pass the butter, please?”
“Here you go,” Dad said, passing the dish, then the butter knife, blade first. As Joe reached for the handle, Dad pulled the greasy, blunt blade through his fingers, leaving Joe’s hand slick with butter. Dad laughed, but no one else did. He’d pulled this trick on Joe over and over. This time Joe snapped.
“Very funny!” he shouted, throwing down his fork and standing to leave.
Dad’s hand, which had been lying in wait, whipped out and caught Joe across the face.
The rest of us kept our heads down and waited for dinner to end.
My father, an eminent academic, was given to delivering dissertations on his children’s faults and failings at the dinner table. Sometimes his measured, scholarly tones would escalate into screaming, and on a few occasions he lifted the entire table and brought it down hard on the floor for emphasis. My siblings and I endured his rages and cowered in silence.
Decades later, after my divorce, I would bring my thirteen-year-old son to my parents’ house for dinner a few times a month. One evening, as we were eating, my father cleared his throat and said to my son, “Danny, there is something I have to tell you. You have a very serious fault, and that is your failure to pay attention to the world around you.”
“Dad,” I said, “please don’t talk like this to Danny.”
“I will talk like this to him,” replied my father. “I want him to know his faults.”
My forty-four years of cowering came to an end, and I started to scream at my father. I jumped out of my chair, paced the dining-room floor, and waved my arms. I even put my face right up to his. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that my father apologized.
When I’d finished, I looked around and saw that my son had left the room. I found him upstairs watching a wrestling match on TV. I took his hand and said, “Danny, I am so sorry that Grandpa was mean to you.”
My son shrugged and said, “That’s OK, Mom. I wasn’t paying attention.”
New York, New York
I knew how long each of my mother’s boyfriends was going to stay based on where he sat at dinner. Once a boyfriend started sitting at the head of the table, it was clear he would be sticking around for a while. Not long after he’d taken over the head seat, his clothes would show up in the laundry room, his favorite beer would fill the fridge, and the furniture would be rearranged to his liking.
Before moving in, all the boyfriends exhibited a false chumminess toward me, and after they’d become head of the household, they all expressed resentment at my presence. I remember one boyfriend was yelling at me for no apparent reason when I made a decision about my own future dining-room table: it would be round.
The sound of the chow cart rolling onto death row at 4 A.M. is the most effective alarm clock I have ever heard. It isn’t humanly possible to sleep through the racket as the guard slams the cart into the metal doors to push them open. The cart this morning reeks of pancake syrup, once again shattering my hope that we might have that rarest of gastronomical delights: eggs.
I sit up in bed and assess the six-by-nine-foot cage that has become my world. Each day I meticulously clean my cell in the manner of a man who has nothing left but a sliver of pride. As I move to plug in my hot pot, I look at the six photographs of my family and my ex-fiancée that I have taped to the wall above my table, which is really just a piece of rusted metal attached to the wall.
The chow cart arrives at my cell, and I accept my meal through the slot in the door, which is then slammed shut. I pour my coffee and sit down at the table. Once again the cooks, through some form of penal culinary alchemy, have managed to make pancakes taste like cardboard. I barely touch them. I don’t wake up in the mornings to eat, you see. I get up to have my morning conversation around the table with my loved ones. We speak without words, sharing memories of a world forever vanished. I push my tray away, get back in bed, and tell my family I will see them later at dinner.
“Everything on this table is from the garden except . . .” My father said this nearly every night at dinner. Depending on the meal, the exceptions might include butter, tofu, rice, salt, or olive oil. My brother and I would suppress grins, but the meals we ate were delicious even to my finicky palate: stir-fried vegetables with garlic rice and homemade gravy; tacos stuffed with salsa and fresh lettuce; hearty buckwheat pancakes with seasonal berries; thick, flavorful stews.
In the early seventies my parents had bought forty acres of land in rural Maine and promptly built a house and planted gardens and orchards. My brother and I helped by shelling peas, pulling weeds, and squashing potato bugs. But the isolation could be tough, and somewhere along the way to adulthood, my brother and I both decided to lead a more urban existence. I have spent most of my life since then in a midsize city, where I eat a lot of takeout.
Last year, at thirty-three, I bought a house with a small backyard, and the nesting urge led me to plant a raised garden bed. Although my first solo garden was plagued by groundhogs, insufficient sun, overwatering, and failure to weed, I managed to produce some edible food. The other day I made a beautiful salad with arugula, raspberries, and goat cheese. I caught myself thinking, Everything in this salad is from my garden except the cheese.
When I was seventeen, I became a vegetarian, hoping I could use the excuse of being repulsed by meat to avoid having to sit at the dinner table with my mother and stepfather. My stepfather had a temper and used the word nigger frequently. He would give me a hard time for having black friends, saying that I was lowering my worth by associating with them. And God forbid I should ever contaminate myself by having a black boyfriend.
My mother would gently admonish him, but one evening she admitted that she had always thought there was something “dirty” about black people. She’d grown up in Virginia during the fifties and sixties, but I felt that was no excuse.
I began bringing The Autobiography of Malcolm X with me to the dinner table every night and reading passages aloud while my mother and stepfather ate their meat. My stepfather practically had steam coming out of his ears, but my mother asked to borrow the book because she was “fascinated by true stories.”
A year later she confided to me that she had been walking alone in a deserted parking lot when she’d met a group of young black men walking in the opposite direction. For the first time in her life she hadn’t felt the impulse to clutch her purse in their presence. She said she’d thought of Malcolm and smiled.
Santa Monica, California
On Easter Sunday 1943 my aunt and uncle came to dinner. This was not unusual, as they showed up around dinnertime every Sunday. My aunt always remarked that she couldn’t eat a bite, then put away large servings of everything offered and accepted leftovers to take home.
My mother, who was just entering her forties, had employed all her best recipes for this dinner: a honey-mustard-glazed ham with cloves and chunks of pineapple; candied yams; asparagus spears with hollandaise sauce; and a white three-layer cake with freshly grated coconut. She’d even prepared a salad of pear halves made to look like bunnies, with raisins for eyes, almond slivers for ears, red cinnamon candies for noses, and dollops of cottage cheese for tails.
I sat at the table and wondered how I could swallow any of this food after what I’d overheard the night before. After midnight I’d been awakened by my mother’s voice, near hysterical, asking my father how he could do this to her and to his daughter, who was approaching her teen years and needed a father’s guidance. My father’s mumbled reply was that he had to leave and marry this woman, or her brothers would kill him. I held very still, not wanting them to know I was awake.
By the time daylight shone through the blinds, I’d realized that “this woman” was Ann, my father’s assistant at work, who was eighteen years his junior, and that he’d gotten Ann pregnant. I was twelve and knew how babies were made. I wondered where my father had been when he’d given Ann a baby. Had it been in the basement of the department store where they were employed? I thought of my father’s work area, with its wooden bins filled with mannequins and holiday decorations for all seasons: mechanical Santas; Easter eggs and woven pastel baskets with ribbon bows; satin valentines; and a huge bottle of champagne with crystal glasses for the New Year. Had my father gotten Ann pregnant in this magical place?
I thought about how my life would be without my father. Who would take me to the movies? Who would play beauty shop and read the Sunday funnies with me? Who would make the valentine box with white lace doilies and red ribbon for my classroom? Who would convince my mother that I did not need to sit through Sunday school and church? Who would bring me beautiful dolls from the department store?
My mother was more serious than my father, always telling me how I should act and what I should do to be more popular at school. I felt a stab of pain for her as I sat at the dinner table. What would happen to my mother now? Did she really think that pear rabbits with cottage-cheese tails could measure up to Ann’s pert breasts and slender thighs?
I lowered my head so I wouldn’t see the fear and panic in her eyes or have to watch my father push the food around on his plate.
The next morning he left.
Gramma Jean had lived with us for as far back as I could remember. There were five of us: her, Mama, my older sister, my older brother, and me. Daddy and Grampa had died within months of each other when I was only two. Mama’s odd jobs and Gramma’s Social Security barely kept us fed. We became vegetarians out of necessity: we just couldn’t afford meat. The dinner table was always filled with fresh vegetables from the garden: turnips, black-eyed peas, crookneck squash. Our diet was healthy, but my taste buds craved more.
We had a yard full of chickens, and on special occasions Gramma would sneak up on an unsuspecting victim and wring its neck. She’d finish the job at the chopping block, getting blood on her white apron, then toss the chicken into a tub of hot water. After it had been plucked, cleaned, and quartered, the bird would become the main ingredient in a pot of chicken and dumplings.
I, who had hidden indoors while the butchering was in process, would be the first to the dinner table.
When I was a kid, my father used to read the Bible to us after dinner, a chapter or two a night. He went through the entire King James Version at least twice. My mother reluctantly went along with the ritual since she knew that religion was important to my father.
Every evening, after our plates were cleaned to his satisfaction, my father would settle back into his chair with the Good Book and keep one eye on us as he read aloud. Sometimes my younger brother would rest his head on the table and nod off. Our father would lean in and hit the table with a loud smack, right next to my brother’s ear. The sound would startle all of us and snap my brother to attention — his blue eyes round and wet, bottom lip quivering. My mother would gather my brother into her lap and glare at my father as he continued to read.
We all learned to walk the line between tuning my father out and appearing respectfully alert. I’d stare blankly at his moving lips while I thought about the boy who’d been calling me on the phone. My mother might absent-mindedly pick at her arm. My brother would fidget in his chair. Then one night, in the middle of the reading, my brother got up from the table unannounced and headed for the bathroom.
My father jumped up so suddenly his chair went sliding back across the floor and slammed into the cabinets behind him. He grabbed my brother’s arm, and our mother shouted, “Ben, no!” Dangling my brother by his arm, my father hit his backside: smack, smack, smack, smack. Then he released my brother, who sat back down. “You ask to be excused from the table,” my father said.
I don’t remember if my brother cried. I do remember that my mother stood up and told my brother and me to get up, too. She informed our father that he could no longer force us to sit there while he preached at us like a hypocrite.
My mother eventually moved into the guest bedroom, and my father never read the Bible at the dinner table again.
Growing up a painfully shy child in rural Vermont, I had few opportunities to shine. But during the winter of 1958, when I was in second grade, I became the center of attention at our dinner table each night.
My family had left our farm and rented a walk-up apartment in a dreary tenement, furnishing the place with other people’s castoffs. In a fit of Yankee ingenuity, my father had turned a discarded exterior door with an empty window opening into our family dinner table.
At mealtimes I would duck under the “table” and take up my perch on a stool in the window opening. With everyone else gathered around me, I felt like a queen holding court on her throne.
When I became a single dad to two little girls, meals were a challenge. My ex-wife had been a great cook, and my daughters, four and seven, were aware of the declining quality of the food and the anxiety I brought to the kitchen.
I eventually learned to make simple, tasty meals, but there still seemed to be something missing. To address the girls’ sense of loss, I turned dinner into a celebration. Deanna would make decorations, and Michelle would color place mats. They would choose the music, light the candles, and occasionally set a place for a favorite stuffed animal. Dinner might not have been a culinary triumph, but it was festive.
Deanna and Michelle are now grown and living on their own. Recently my house burned down, my fiancée left me, and I developed pneumonia. My life had turned into a country-western song.
One Saturday evening I was sitting in the little apartment I’d rented after the fire, feeling depressed, when the phone rang. It was Deanna. I told her I was struggling. “I just can’t get my feet on the ground,” I said. “I feel lost, lonely.”
“What are you having for dinner?” Deanna asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ll just make a sandwich or something.”
There was a pause. Then Deanna reminded me how, when she and Michelle were small, we’d had dinner with decorations and music. “I think you need to celebrate,” she said.
Reluctantly I took her advice. I went out and bought some fish to grill and a bottle of wine. To my surprise, as I listened to music and savored the wine, I smiled. Dinner was excellent.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
The dinner table was the first thing you saw when you entered my grandmother’s apartment. The table had room for fourteen people, which was good, because my grandmother had six daughters, all married, and countless grandchildren, who sat at separate tables.
On Sundays our large Italian family would all meet at Grandma’s for a traditional afternoon meal. My family would arrive early to help with the preparations. The kitchen table was where we rolled ground meat into meatballs, sliced salami and cheese for antipasto, cut the bread, and arranged the fruit.
After the meal, my aunts would put away leftovers and wash the dishes while my uncles lingered at the table. Then everyone would gather again for conversation: opinions, gossip, arguments. By the time dessert was served, half the adults wouldn’t be speaking to each other.
After dessert the table would be transformed into a card-playing surface. The ashtrays came out, and a deck of cards was tossed on the table. Curses flew when someone lost a hand to a bluff. We kids watched the action or scoured the floor for dropped nickels and dimes.
Brooklyn, New York
My wife, Claire, is planning a special dinner tonight to mark the halfway point of my chemotherapy treatments.
I frustrate Claire with my sloppy table manners and lack of appreciation for fancy foods. I come from a family of all boys who tossed chicken bones into piles and ignored etiquette. Claire’s formality, especially in the middle of the week, at first feels stifling to me. She polishes our nicked dining-room table to a glossy shine, drapes it with a crisp white cloth, and places two pewter candleholders at the center. Out comes the china from storage. We haven’t used these beautiful silver-rimmed plates since we received them at our wedding a year ago.
The menu tonight is baked salmon with a teriyaki glaze, fresh green beans from the farmers’ market, and homemade garlic bread. My contribution is tossing the salad. The house smells like an uptown bistro.
With no children in our lives yet, we’re able to enjoy a fine meal without interruption. But there is always my cancer demanding attention, calling out: Don’t forget me. The fish melts in my mouth, but my numb taste buds can’t enjoy the wonderful flavors. The cabernet looks rich and dark but tastes metallic on my tongue.
Amid the clink of silver against china, we talk calmly about home projects, my next chemo appointment, and Claire’s teaching job, but we are both scared, like two scrawny dogs cowering from a loud noise. I’ve heard Claire on the phone: “We’re doing OK. Things will work out.” But we’re never totally sure. If this treatment doesn’t work, I will die.
At the table everything is ordered. The plates are centered, the wineglasses placed just so. It’s the opposite of what’s going on in my chest. The disorderly cancer doesn’t know what to make of such a beautiful arrangement. Perhaps I should make every meal elegant: Cheerios in a Lenox bowl, Tropicana from Waterford crystal, and a silk napkin for each setting. Against such order and beauty, the cancer wouldn’t have a chance.
East Lansing, Michigan
It’s been about six years since I sought treatment for anorexia. My disorder started in seventh grade, lay mostly dormant through my teens and twenties, then reemerged during my thirties after I got divorced, changed careers, and went back to school.
With treatment I stopped the downhill slide, but I hit a snag when I reached a weight above which I didn’t want to rise. Since then I have maintained a restrictive diet-and-exercise regimen that permits me to function but not to thrive. The pleasures of the dinner table have become a memory.
Most evenings I hover at the kitchen counter and eat a container of yogurt, a small low-carb tortilla, and a cup of steamed cauliflower — my safe foods. Deviation from this routine floods me with anxiety. I want to return to the table, but I don’t want it enough. What I still crave more is seeing my bony shoulders in the mirror.
It is June of my nineteenth year, and it is hot. In all the years I have sat at my grandmother’s kitchen table, I’ve never been this upset, even when I broke my toe on one of the table’s hand-turned oak legs. Today the elders of my family are talking about my future as if I were not here. I hear the word abortion. My tears fall on the polished oak, but my family ignores me. I look up at the whirring ceiling fan. My grandfather slaps the table to bring me back to reality.
“Did you hear me?” he asks.
“No, Papa, I did not hear you,” I whisper.
“If you have an abortion, I will buy you a car.”
I look down at my plate and remember that there is food in front of me. Instead of answering him, I begin to eat. The only sound in the room is the whir of the ceiling fan. They all stare, expecting me to say something. Finally I stand up, grab a biscuit from the basket, and say, “Fuck you.”
In Twelve Mile, Indiana, the annual Fourth of July celebration included a greased-pig-catching contest: piglets were slathered in lard and released on the baseball diamond for children to chase. As a girl, I was an eager participant in the event. Every time I grabbed a piglet, it would slip through my arms, and the audience would roar with laughter, but I remained focused. One year, while I was sitting on the ground, a small pig ran across my lap, and I managed to get ahold of his back legs. I dragged him off the diamond, and we stuffed him into the back of our Suburban, to my father’s chagrin.
I named him Wilbur. (What else would an eight-year-old girl name a pig?) He lived in a stall in our barn and grew into a pink giant. When he was two — a full year older than the age at which he would normally have been sold at market — he was four feet tall and weighed more than nine hundred pounds. (His breed was engineered to grow very large, very fast.) When I sat high on the fence, his neck was too thick for him to look up to see me.
Wilbur became so huge that he had trouble standing up. My mom felt sorry for him, and while I was at school one day, she took him to market. I was devastated when I found out. Mom said Wilbur had struggled with the men who were trying to get him out of the truck. She’d cried and suggested that maybe she should bring him back home, but they’d convinced her to leave him.
A few weeks later we all sat down to dinner and were served gigantic pork chops. “Is this . . . ?” I asked.
My brothers and my father all looked down, and my mother said, “Yes, Elizabeth. I am so sorry.”
I cut Wilbur up into tiny pieces in silence. Then I carried my plate to the potted plants, made holes in the dirt with my knife, and put the pieces into the holes.
I wasn’t the only one bothered by the meal. Wilbur was hard for everyone to swallow. Mother gave the rest of the meat to neighbors.
Central Lake, Michigan
Mile after mile, I listened to the sound of the steel wheels rolling over the iron railroad track. It was October 1937, somewhere on the plains of Montana. My dad; his younger brother Gottlieb, who was sixteen; and I, five, had just finished picking crops near Newburg, Oregon. Finding no more work, Dad had decided to hop the freight trains to North Dakota, where his parents lived. He hadn’t been home in nine years, so he thought it was time to visit.
We traveled light, each wearing three sets of clothing. To catch a train, we would wait by the water tower for the engineer to blow two short toots on the whistle: that meant the train had finished taking on water and would begin to roll forward. When it had gotten going, Dad would pick up our bedroll, and I would hug Gottlieb around the neck and hang on. They would each grab a rung of the metal ladder on the side of a boxcar and pull themselves up. Gottlieb would push me against the ladder as he climbed so that I wouldn’t fall beneath the train’s wheels.
On top we would walk along and look for an unlocked boxcar that we could crawl inside, where it was warm. Dad or Gottlieb would be the lookout, watching for the railroad bull — the dreaded enforcer hired by the railroad to kick bums off the train. The bull carried a handgun and a twenty-four-inch billy club. If he caught us, he would lock the boxcar door, trapping us inside, and then kick us out at the next town.
If we could not find an unlocked boxcar, we were stuck on the top all night until the next stop. Dad and Gottlieb would take turns watching me so I wouldn’t fall off. It was cold. I remember looking up at the stars and feeling the train rocking back and forth. When we went through a tunnel, it was scary and hard to breathe because of the coal smoke being puffed out by the engine.
After a couple of days we got pretty hungry. We decided that, as the train slowed for the next town, Gottlieb would jump off and run as fast as he could to a store to buy a fifteen-cent jar of peanut butter and a five-cent loaf of white bread. If he didn’t make it back before the train left the town, we would jump off.
We kept a sharp eye out, and finally Gottlieb came running and jumped onto the train. As the sun set, we dined with the Montana plains rolling by. We were chilled to the bone, hunkered down in the wind: two men and a small boy, faces nearly black from the coal smoke. An eighteen-inch-wide plank atop a swaying boxcar was our table.