by Joe Baumann
The meals of my youth centered around two tables: the first was a white Formica kitchen table in my parents’ house, shaped like a comma and jutting out from the wall between the microwave and the garage door. There, my mother served us meals of mashed potatoes and meatloaf, poured berries and grapes into glass bowls and topped them with Reddi-Wip, and reheated squares of pizza she brought home from the grade-school cafeteria where she worked. The second was my grandparents’ massive dining room table, a hand-made, heavy oak monster surrounded by ten high-backed chairs, each inscribed with swirling patterns that, as a child, I traced with my fingertips, relishing the sharp tug of the grain against my skin. My grandparents’ table was always covered by a heavy cloth with intricate lacework at the edges, which I would fiddle with when I didn’t want to eat whatever vegetable medley was laid before me, freshly plucked from my grandfather’s garden—visible through the picture window that ran the length of the dining room.
At my parents’ house, my family had an unspoken understanding that there were assigned seats; I was squeezed into the tight space near the door despite being the eldest child, my hip constantly banging against the low-hanging drawer—built into the table—where my mother kept the phone book, her coupons, and gift certificates to chain restaurants. I had to tuck my chair in tight, my ribs bristling against the table’s edge, lest the back of the chair smash against the doorknob. I regularly caught my knees on the support column at the table’s center. My father was always on my right, then my two younger sisters, and, finally, my mother—sitting squarely next to the microwave that was pocked with Post-It notes and business cards with phone numbers and appointments scribbled on them. Every night before dinner, she would remove a ceramic fruit basket and the cordless phone dock from the table so that all our plates would fit on it. I remember our arrangement as snug, regular, and warm. We talked about schoolwork and television shows. My father, a chemical engineer, sometimes gave lectures, teaching us about protons and bonds well before my sixth-grade teachers introduced us to the subatomic world.
At my grandparents’ table, the seating was looser: aunts and uncles and cousins scattered around it in a random order. But my grandparents always took up each end of the table, my grandmother nearest the galley kitchen, surrounded by her newspapers and ashtrays and pink cigarette case. My grandfather sat opposite her, his back to the four-sided fireplace that separated the living room from the dining room and rose like an obelisk at the house’s center. Their chairs were the only two with armrests. On the rare occasions I sat in one of their seats—almost always my grandfather’s, and only while I was playing cribbage or pinochle and he was asleep or outside or staring over my shoulder, his glasses and white beard making him look like an imposing owl—I felt oddly caged, the chair’s cushion lumpy and uncomfortable, bent to its usual owner’s shape and unwilling to change. I spent my time at this table learning how to shuffle and deal cards, to bid appropriately in pinochle, and to accept the sour taste and texture of radishes.
But these two tables, and their chairs, have changed. My grandparents died, one after the other in quick succession, over twenty years ago, and their table was shipped off to my aunt in Nebraska, where it sits in her dining room, trellised by a new white cloth. At my parents’ table, the fruit bowl is now accompanied by a Lazy Susan on which a large vase of baby’s breath rests. The phone book no longer occupies the drawer, and the only gift card tucked away is to our favorite local Mexican restaurant, where my sisters and I can split pitchers of margaritas. My father has become a staunch conservative, my sisters and I hardline progressives. I am an out bisexual, one of my sisters has been married and divorced, and the other has adopted kids and announced she is gender-queer and polyamorous. Now that we’re much older, none of us can fit in my cramped corner. When we eat, we sit in the living room or migrate to my parents’ dining room, where my father, now retired, has cleared away the spare change and magazines and briefcase that used to clog up that table when I was a child. The basket that now houses onions and lumpy potatoes no longer has to be moved.
Now, my parents are planning a grand renovation. The wall between the kitchen and dining room will vanish, and old appliances will be ripped out like bad teeth. The curved table will be replaced with an island, much to my mother’s chagrin. When I was asked my opinion, I told my parents I like open spaces. But when I tried to picture the kitchen without the curved white table, without the placemats and phone and flowers, I felt something gnaw and tilt low in my stomach. My father talks about relocating some of the cabinetry to the basement and garage, but when I ask about keeping the table, he shrugs and says, “What would we do with that?”
On television programs, the dinner table is often depicted as a safe place. Families, their days filled with sorrows and exhaustion, find solace as they sit down together, feasts of sweet potatoes with marshmallows, buoyant leafy salads, and perfectly basted hunks of meat shining beneath the glow of chandeliers and candles. But in real life, table settings change and morph as life marches on. Safe places become foreign, unknown. They disappear altogether. The grain of the wood splits, and we mend and sand and wish, looking back, seeking something reliable and filling, ever-hoping to get a taste of the food, the sound of the voices, the hum of the air from a time that you can only touch in memory.