by Lizzie Broder

by Linda Broder

My table is turned the wrong way. The kitchen drawers can barely open; we turn sideways to squeeze past. I’ve bumped my hip so many times, blue and green bruises are layered over yellow ones. My husband never asks why the table is turned. The kids never complain when elbows brush against the kitchen counter. None of it matters because there are four of us sitting at the table, when last week there were five.

I turned the table late one night because I only saw that empty spot where my son once sat. During the day I can pretend he’s at high school or out playing with friends or in his room doing homework. But not when we sit down for dinner, Brendan’s favorite time of the day. “What’s for dinner?” was the first thing he asked when he came home from school. As soon as he smelled garlic melting into oil, he hovered by my shoulder, waiting until the strips of steak caramelized before sneaking a taste. Once, he asked for a crockpot for his room so he could be surrounded by the smell of roasting meat.

It’s nearly impossible for me to sit at the table without him. I try to fill the hole with laughter and stories and food the neighbors bring by. But grief takes over and the hole seems only to grow. For months, we throw mail, sympathy cards, and forgotten schoolwork onto the table until there’s barely room for any of us. Still, I set the table and call Zack and Lizzie down for dinner.

Until the night I reach into the cabinet and pull out plates. I freeze. My arms shake as I feel the weight of five plates pressed to my chest. I can’t put one back. I leave all five on the counter and grab a package of paper plates.

“We’re eating in the den.”

My daughter is thrilled she can eat in front of the TV. She and her brother settle on the floor, plates perched on their laps. She’s too young to remember the last time we spent weeks eating in the den.

I bought this table seven years ago because our old one was too small for the five of us. I knew exactly what I wanted – a farmhouse table with thick, carved legs and a top so large it would fill the kitchen. I bought it unfinished, entranced by the idea of staining it myself. Every day I spent hours working on it. “Is it done yet?” the kids would ask, but I’d feel another bubble beneath my fingers and I’d sand and stain again. Finally, the day came when it was smooth and polished and ready to sit in the center of our house. The kids ran to get their books, Lizzie too young for real homework, but still grabbing paper and pencil like Brendan and Zack. We stayed at that kitchen table, books scattered about, until Michael came home. We cleared the table and the five of us sat around the table for dinner.

It was exactly as I pictured it. But when I cleaned the table that night, I found scratches all over it. I could see Zack’s name and Lizzie’s scribble scrabbles and Brendan’s math problems. No matter how much I scrubbed they wouldn’t come out. I shook my head, resigned to something else ruined by young children, like the juice-stained couch and most of my clothes.

We used placemats at first, trying to minimize the damage, but that didn’t last long, and soon the table was covered with so many scratches I no longer noticed them. I’ll sand it down when they’re older, I thought.

We eat in the den for weeks before I remember the scratches. I stare at the table covered with the clutter of grief. I clear it off and grab a flashlight. I hunt for Brendan’s name. I jump from section to section, jerking the flashlight each time I think I found it. I move faster, but I can’t find his name. I find part of it under Zack’s spelling words. In the corner of the table, I can see the beginning of it, but the rest is covered with Lizzie’s name. I search all afternoon but find only fragments.

Somehow, they are enough.

I never find his whole name; each time it’s layered with Zack’s cartoons or Lizzie’s letters to Santa. But there are bits and pieces of him in this table, along with his brother and sister. In this table are the coupons for hugs and kisses he made me and the scratches from the Lego house we built together and the song he wrote in third grade. This table filling my kitchen is exactly how I’d imagined it years ago, with all three of my children woven together.

That night, we take turns shining the light onto the scarred wood and finding the memories carved deep within. Michael smiles when he sees the word lunch. “It was always about food for him.”

Brendan rarely offered words of love, but he showed them through the sharing of food. He saved his money so he could walk with his brother and sister to eat pizza. When he found out his cousin Sean had never tasted pastrami, he ran to us, insisting we take him into the city that weekend. “I can’t take the chance of him trying it without me,” he said. “I need to see his face when he takes that first bite.”

For him, love meant sitting down together and sharing a meal.

Michael and I turn the table the right way. In the evening light, I can see only a patina of scratches, but I can feel what’s there, what will always be there. I can feel him ask what’s for dinner and even more, I can feel his words of love settle inside me.

The kids push in the chairs and we all sit down for dinner.