At the Old-New Table

I have one hour. How will I spend it? Sitting on the darkened library steps, come to tell you a story.

One way to keep my kids at the dinner table for longer than seven up-and-down minutes, I’m learning, is to tell stories. If I ask how their days were, I get nothing. But last night I tried something new: “Tell me something that made you laugh today. Tell me something that scared you today. Tell me something that surprised you today.” With these invitations, I actually learned something from each of them that I might not otherwise have heard about–a change in the play, a funny moment on the field trip.

Honestly, they could be telling me about what color their boogers were–I’m just happy when they’re talking to me. And of course they love hearing stories about themselves–don’t we all? Especially ones that involve blood, injuries, or any kind of drama: licking frozen flag poles or falling down a steep flight of stairs with no railing, the dodged catastrophes of their so-far lives.

Later, when the lights are out, they ask me to tell them a story from when I was a kid, always one they’ve never heard before, and often I’m at a loss at first, digging past the easy ones about my favorite green corduroy Gloria Vanderbilt pants or the fight where my sister slammed her bedroom door on my thumb or when my family moved across state lines and Patches, the cat, tried to go back to Buffalo and turned up months later, leaping into my other sister’s arms in a parking lot in Western Mass.

But really, the story I wanted to tell tonight is about saying thanks before dinner, a family ritual that often this past year felt like a casualty of transition and change–and that just this week, I’ve seen warming back to life.

It must have been one of the very first meals Greg and I shared in our dumbbell-shaped apartment on South Fourth Ave in Tucson. It was 1998, late August, and the swamp cooler did little but serve as a place for mosquitoes to fester. I think we paid something like $400/month! The “dining room table” was under a window and across from the couch, sort of halfway between the galley kitchen and the single bedroom that opened to a porch where pigeons woke us at the crack of dawn each day. We reacted so differently to those noisy birds–I liked their cooing; he closed the windows. We laughed about it.

I imagine we sat down to something simple I cooked–quesadillas, who remembers. And we talked about creating some kind of ritual, a pause before eating, a moment of awareness and gratitude. At that point, neither of us really brought any tried-and-true rituals to the table, or so we thought, so we decided to make up our own. Somehow, over the course of that first year living together and the many that followed, this became a practice of naming and thanking all the sources of our meal, from the cows and chickens to the sun and the soil, all the nameless farm-hands and factory workers and cashiers who contributed to bringing this food to our table. We held hands as we did this, then ate.

From the time both girls were babies, they’ve partaken of this, added to it, learned that when we sit down at the table, we wait before diving in, take hands and make a Circle of Love.

The circle may be unbreakable, but for much of the last year, broken is how it felt, or like a lasso gone slack. Mealtimes were especially hard to manage and maintain alone, without the balance of two parents, our foursome. While I knew Greg had kept up our ritual, with me the girls resisted it, refused to take hands, started eating before their bums even hit the chairs and then they’d pop up as soon as they were sitting down, one of them fussing or angry or leaving.

Dinnertime on Clymer Street, where I lived for six months, was more often than not something to get over with, a pit-stop on the way to the bathtub. So many nights, I felt I had lost this, longed for that pause, the brief coming together after busy days. And it was all I could do, in the kitchen of the “Tall Wife House” (the owner is about 6’0″ and I had to stand on a stool to reach things), to make sure everyone ate something before bed.

One day last week, Greg came over to start organizing and clearing out his stuff in the basement. (I almost wrote “our basement”–it’s still funny when I hear him say “your house”–these pronouns surprising me with something I’m slowly coming to experience not only as painful but also empowering. I realized today–this is an aside, but related completely–that I rarely stop to give myself much credit for what I’ve moved through, taken on, and accomplished. I guess I don’t think of it as “accomplishment” because for all the pain and paradox of it, the choices I’m making fit, like the new pants I bought tonight, 40% off the sale price. No bargains, these choices, but a life re-envisioned. Recycling scraps of sacred fabric, it takes time to see the new shape.)

Anyway, I could hear him whistling down there–I was home from work since I have the good fortune of working for a Jewish company that’s closed on major holidays–and I sat in my study paying bills and puttering while he heaved and sorted, eventually emerging to fill his car with boxes bound for the dump. We sat on the deck and talked a long while, then hugged. I could feel in the silence after years of so many words the deep current that runs beneath, between us.

Later, I went to the basement and found that I could actually see what was down there–still plenty of stuff to deal with, but also a great deal more empty space. And there it was against a wall, the small oak table my parents gave us when we first moved to Vermont (the one we got from our wedding registry was too big for the cozy dining room of our first house). It immediately caught my eye, piled high with stacks of printer paper, office supplies, and Costco-sized packages of paper goods my father no doubt bought during some visit or other: the table where Aviva saw her first Shabbat candles burning low and ate fistfuls of avocado and banana mash as a baby.

I hauled it up the narrow stairs crowded with umbrellas, first the dusty leaf then the body my mother refinished in Buffalo. I got out an old cloth diaper, now a rag, and sprayed the table down, wiping cobwebs and revealing its worn, warm grain. I dismantled the big table with its one broken leg. The old-new table felt proportionate to my life now, encircled by an inviting crowd of colorful chairs.

Last night, we sat down to eat eggs and toast. I reached out my hands, and Aviva reached out hers without my asking, then Pearl, though the way she placed them under the table at first had Aviva bent way over. (“Well that was awkward,” she said later, cracking me up.)

“Who wants to go first?” I asked. Pearl did, and I forget what she said she was thankful for–bread, I think. Then Aviva, who said, “Very Merry,” the theater group she spends five hours a week rehearsing with. And then it was my turn, and I said I was thankful to have colleagues to laugh with at work, and for this circle of love. We ate, and recalled dramatic moments from each of our childhoods. We sat for, oh, I don’t know, maybe 20 whole minutes?! I mentioned that this table felt good to me.

“Because it’s just three of us now,” Aviva said, though we agreed there was plenty of room for guests.

And this, I realize as I finish writing tonight, is a story that makes me hopeful.

8 thoughts on “At the Old-New Table

  1. julie (Kavanaugh) Peisel says:

    I cried at the end of this piece. I almost didn’t leave a comment because I couldn’t put into words so eloquently as to why I cried, but then I just wanted you to know, Jena, how much your words touch me.

    Like

  2. Jennifer says:

    Lovely, Jena. Grappling with many of the same issues. One small thing here that cracked me up is your daughter’s use of “awkward.” My kids have been using this a lot lately. It must be in the K-12 ether!

    Like

  3. John says:

    And a shout from across the not-so-great divide for that rare precious bond between you and Greg, both of you kindred spirits I know without ever having spoken a word to either of you. Those lines struck me like an arrow… “We sat on the deck and talked a long while, then hugged. I could feel in the silence after years of so many words the deep current that runs beneath, between us.” Such good fortune within the devastating misfortune of loss and separation, I see that on good days in our mirror situation on the West Coast. That unspoiled undercurrent of connection is such a gift for each of you, and your children, and your readers and friends, love that runs deeper than possession and marriage and self interest, love anchored in freedom. Thank you both so much for the beauty of your loving separation.

    Like

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