“We will need the extra table,” I remark to my husband, Kevin, as I write down a menu for an upcoming family dinner.
Carne asada. Tortillas. Salsa.
“I think we’ll have street tacos,” I add cheese to the list. And avocados.
“Won’t the table in the kitchen be enough?” Kevin asks.
I count the guests again. Four grown kids. Two spouses. One fiancé. Three grandkids. Kevin and I.
“The kitchen table only holds eight and that’s a squish.”
“Let me know when you need help moving it.”
I go to clear off the extra table—a drop-leaf table located in our living room. Because it’s near the front door, the table is covered in miscellaneous objects in various states of arrival and departure.
I remove keys. A jacket. My husband’s briefcase.
At it’s smallest—with the leaves down—the table seats two. When we pull out the sides and add two additional leaves, the table seats twelve. It’s the perfect table for any size group.
Which is one reason I wanted it.
Four years ago, my two sisters, brother, and I were choosing items from Dad and Mom’s estate, an arduous task of sorting through the belongings from our parents’ fifty-five years of marriage, including a barn, garage, outbuildings, and their two-story home with complete basement. The items were detailed in a six-page, two-columned, single-spaced inventory list Mom created when she had learned her cancer was terminal.
I requested the table.
“The oak one?” my youngest sister asked, putting her own check mark by the cedar chest.
“No. The vintage drop-leaf table that used to belong to Grandma.”
“I think the oak one is more valuable.”
“It doesn’t have the memories.”
My sister nodded in understanding.
I put down the list to check out the vintage table tucked behind a couch in my parents’ living room. On the table’s surface was a collection of photos of Mom and Dad. Their 50th wedding anniversary. Them riding a bike. Their wedding day.
I smiled at the black-and-white photo of Mom in the dress she had made for $18 and Dad with his bow tie and happy grin.
I thought of the thousands of meals served around this piece of furniture. My grandmother—the original owner—was a South Dakota farm woman who married a widower with eight children. She brought a niece into the marriage, and they had three more kids, including my mom. Accustomed to feeding hungry farm hands, Grandma served six meals a day on this table: breakfast, snack and coffee, lunch, snack and coffee, dinner, and before-bed snack. The tradition continued even when the farm hands moved on.
Mom inherited the table after we were grown, but in the summer, when we all returned with our children and children’s children to her dining room, she pulled out the table. We stumbled out of rental cars on stiff legs toward the waiting silhouettes under the porch light and held on tight, words spilling in did-you-have-a-good-trip-it’s-good-to-see-you-look-how-tall-you-are conversations.
Getting into the kitchen involved a receiving line of shoulder-slapping, neck-hugging relatives with Mom (aka Grandma) asking, “Would you like a little snack?”, a phrase translated to mean food overflowing on all available surfaces—a skill she had learned from her mother.
In my parents’ living room, we stretched the vintage table as far as it would go, adding extra table leaves and chairs as Dad (aka Grandpa) said grace. We held hands in a room-for-one-more circle with bowed heads and lumps in our throats as we passed the platters of food to the person next to us. Nighttime meant locating beds wherever we could find them, all through the house, but the cousins (our children) stayed awake in the basement later than all of us, playing games and telling stories. My dreams mixed with laughter coming up through the vents in the floor.
Returning to the present, I rub my hand over the table’s smooth surface. Adjusting to a small table has been difficult as our children have left home one by one. One grown daughter remains at home, but she is often busy with her own life. I still struggle to downsize recipes for six and often have a fridge full of leftovers that nobody is interested in eating.
I like the hustle and bustle of a table full of food and conversation—like my mother and grandmother before me—but in a flash of insight, I realize my memories are not the entire story. Because I lived halfway across the continent, my trips home to my parents coincided with holidays, special events, and family reunions. My memories centered around an extended table, but weeks and months would have stretched by for my mom and grandmother when the table was small, and they ate with only their husbands in a quiet kitchen.
I long to ask Mom how she did it. I ache with a knowing that she is no longer here to teach me how to be the matriarch of a spreading family and how to manage downsizing from the crowd to the two.
Yet, in retrospect, I realize Mom left me an unspoken message.
When not in use, Mom kept photos of her and Dad on the table, folded down to its smallest size. Pictures of kids and grandkids filled other nooks and crannies in their house, but on this table, Mom highlighted her love for Dad, the original love of a couple, a love that expanded and grew to touch four generations.
Fifty-five years of marriage. Four children and their spouses. Thirteen grandchildren. Four great-grandchildren.
I skootch the table away from the wall and call to Kevin, “I’m ready to move the table.”
“Do you want to add the leaves?”
We jostle the table into position. Tonight, the table will be large and filled with food, laughter, and did-you-have-a-good-trip-it’s-good-to-see-you-look-how-tall-you-are conversations, as twelve people share life in an ever-growing circle with room for one more. But for now, I leave it folded up.
The perfect size for two.
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Lynne Hartke celebrates the difficult and the beautiful with her husband, Kevin, in Chandler, Arizona where they have pastored a church for over thirty years. When not on hiking trails avoiding rattlesnakes, Lynne writes, volunteers, and keeps up with their four grown children and three grandchildren. She is the author of Under a Desert Sky: Redefining Hope, Beauty, and Faith in the Hardest Places (affiliate link). As a breast cancer survivor, Lynne was named a Voice of Hope with the American Cancer Society in 2018. You can find Lynne on her blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter