Before the house went quiet my grandparents had a lovely dining room. At the center was a dark wooden table that nearly stretched the length of the room. It’s windows paneled the corner that looked out onto the street. There were glass cabinets holding stark blue china on the right. On the left was a side table full of platters, lap napkins, and other dressings. Despite living in a house that raised a large family, my grandparents kept most of it neat and organized. However, no one seemed to care about the dust that collected, since it was rarely used. My grandma would sometimes pop in and sit at the head of the table to look at a young pine tree that held a robin’s nest. She’d dote on the robin, and look after her eggs while she was away.
On holidays when the table was strewn with lace and set with recently dusted porcelain, my grandma would sit at the head of the table and my grandpa at the other end. The family was large and a bit scattered from home, but everyone came out of hiding for the big holiday dinners. Uncles, aunts, and close family friends would pour through the door. We’d hug and compliment each other’s nice clothes as we filled the remaining chairs.
This would be one of the few moments all year the table was in use, and the room would come alive. Rich colors of cranberry compote, browned poultry skin, and yellow bricks of butter brightened the room. Conversations volleyed over the serving spoons and crumbed plates.
It wasn’t everyday we got to eat our grandmother’s cooking. Looking at the table you could identify every dish, but their flavors were so much more. Her meals were rich and insistent. She learned to cook in a different time, when food was made to keep death away.
My sister would eat as many potatoes as she could. My cousin, who always sat next to her, watched in envy and amazement as she piled the potatoes wide and high. She never reached for seconds, as her mother monitored her from the other end of the table. Had to keep up appearances and such.
I’d spend my time pouring lots of gravy onto my mound of potatoes, to make a volcano, a swimming pool, or even a river. You’d never know we were related without the table to put us in the same room.
While the robin outside the window was never disturbed by our revelry that didn’t stop my grandmother from periodically checking outside.
“Have you all seen the lovely robin’s nest out here by the window? Isn’t it lovely?”
A few years after my grandpa died my grandma stopped cooking. The kitchen, which was a mixture of Norman Rockwell and “Home on the Range,” seemed to go dark. There was pale tile laminate on the floor and thick wooden framed windows that let in enough light to make washing the dishes look romantic. In the center was a large block of a table that was low to the ground. It seemed the perfect place to butcher a farm animal, if any of us had a farm animal, or a stomach for that sort of thing. What I liked most was the antique tea kettle.
It was leftover from when we had a wood stove protruding from the wall. The billowing steam gave the air in the house such a frontier feel. It combined with the wisps of smoke from the stove, which made the air thick and rustic. If we were really lucky this would all be garnished with my grandpa’s pipe smoke. But all of that was doused when the house was modernized. The stove was one of the first things to go. Since then, the kettle lived on the gas burners of the stove as a reminder of when we were more old fashioned. After my grandpa passed it was really the only kitchen instrument my grandma used anymore.
She spent more and more of her time tucked away in a den she had made out of the dining room. She’d paint still lifes, watch television, and look out the window towards the empty pine tree. I’d visit and talk with her, but it was easy to see her mind was elsewhere. More and more family visits would take place in the part of the kitchen where the stove used to be. It had been made into receiving area/dining room. A table had been covered in picnic cloths, and a plastic cover, adjoined by spare chairs from other rooms of the house.
The makeshift dining room was much like our new family gatherings, cobbled together and a little slapdash. We’d hunch over cups of tea with Oreos. Some nights it was club soda and hot dogs. Or lemonade and reheated roast. We’d smile and catch ourselves up on each other. Periodically we’d look in the den, but she was miles away. Sometimes all you could do was sit down, play cards, and have a few beers. They weren’t anything like our holiday meals, but they were honest and intimate. No one was clanging a fork on stemware to make a speech or a prayer. We had ditched our Sunday best for denim and plaid shirts. All the grandeur had been left behind with the side tables, platters, and lace. What remained were the essentials: food, drink, and the warmth of each other’s company.
Looking back I realize one thing had remained intact: the table. It was the same one from the dining room. Without the glass top, stitched table runner, and porcelain trivets, I hadn’t recognized it. It too had been relegated to the outer kitchen and given its own version of denim and plaid.
Times always change. The robin’s nest was gone. The wood stove was rusting in a junk yard somewhere. The aroma of pipe tobacco had faded from the fibers of my grandpa’s chair. My grandma’s paintbrushes had since dried up. But the foundational things change with us. The dining room table, which used to sport cloth napkins and salad forks, was now adorned with stained saucers and chipped plates. I think about which meals meant the most to me, the grand feasts or the little repasts, and I honestly can’t decide.
Which I think is best.