|A vacation table full of the people I love|
It wasn't always this way. I remember so clearly sitting with John at dinner with Jack on the table in an infant seat -- the center of our world. How darling he was! Hey, did you see him holding that toy? Look! He's swiping at that bar. We'd laugh at his latest accomplishments and barely discuss anything else that had happened that day...he was our day. Soon enough, we brought a high chair up to the table and began the craziness of trying to feed a baby and have dinner ourselves. We got good at taking turns eating or feeding hungry Jack. We found tiny puzzles or kitchen objects that would entertain him while we ate. Watching that tiny thumb and index finger work those Cheerios or bits of avocado or banana was just as exciting as any Food Network Show! It became a game of what foods we could introduce and which ones became favorites.
When Mary Kate entered the picture, dinnertime melded into short chunks of insanity. We'd feed our baby girl and try to entertain a toddler while trying to eat ourselves. Frankly, it's mostly a blur. I do remember a tiny tot standing on a chair next to me cracking and scrambling up eggs. Soon enough, it became two on either side of me or one sitting on the counter. Always present: the crumbs and chunks of food under the table. Stye-like, we wondered if there would ever come a day where we wouldn't have to clean the entire floor after dinner too.
With Patrick, I remember stumbling onto PBS in the late afternoon. There was no DVR, no Sprout or a million cable channels. Arthur was my savior! The show about the cartoon aardvark came on at about 5:00 pm and allowed me a glorious half hour with two kids occupied so I could figure out dinner or feed a hungry baby. Patrick didn't get teeth until he was 16 months old so we became creative with the finger foods. We filled up ice cube trays with tiny taste sensations to practice that pincer grasp.
By the time Caroline came around, miraculously we had three kids who could somehow sit at a table, eat in relative peace and occasionally wow us with the goings-on at school. Like some sort of group project, everyone took turns feeding the baby and one of my favorite memories is Jack and Mary Kate and Patrick all standing around the high chair breaking up Cheerios into thirds because she wasn't quite ready for a whole one yet. By then I had gotten wise to the idea that if kids help cook they will usually be less apt to complain about the dinner. Jack and Mary Kate routinely browned the meat, cut up the salad stuff or stirred the frozen pasta sauce. Watching John on the week-ends get fancy with food, made the two of them bold as well. They became exceptional, confident cooks in the kitchen.
Now, as if by magic, all of my kids can sit around a table, make conversation and be part of the dinner scene. It's perfectly normal to hash through some drama of the day from school or to hear something funny that someone noticed out in the world. It has morphed into something that is a given...six people eating together. We take for granted the tiny miracle it is. For ten minutes to thirty minutes we all gather around that table and come together. We check in and acknowledge what happened that day. Before we eat, we say prayers for the injured at school, the sick, the struggling and then we stop and say a prayer of thanks. Often that prayer is rote and takes up mere seconds; however, sometimes it is straight from the heart and said in a simple plea: "Please pray for Mrs. K., she slipped and fell and broke her leg and hip at school. I know it hurts."
For an entire school year, except for occasional holidays, one spot has been empty. At first it felt weird but exciting -- Jack was someplace new. Then it felt just plain sad -- a piece was missing. It started to feel uneven, wobbly and just like the table at a restaurant that has one leg a little too short...something wasn't right. Slowly, it began to feel uncomfortable but routine. All of the dynamics of that empty chair became a new normal. We satisfied our longing with the constant refrain: "We'll Skype him later tonight."
But for a little over a month now my dinner table has been full. All the chairs filled...all those faces hungry and present. There is still a craziness to the final sitting down. We still have the ever-present dilemma of who will pour the drinks. But it feels right and none of us take it for granted. We all find ourselves lingering longer, making plans for dessert and enjoying the later light in the evening. Since Jack and Mary Kate both work in the late afternoon, our dinners come later but no one seems to mind. That full table is worth the extra hour of hunger...besides I am my mother's daughter and I'm good at snacks.
It seems ironic to mourn the changing of the table. For truthfully, like the rest of our days, it's always morphing and melding and becoming something different. I certainly didn't complain when I added a new face and a new plate to the table as my family grew. We all know our dinner guests can't stay for long. I should be good at adjusting and changing and tweaking yet somehow it's always harder when things are comfy and no change seems needed -- or wanted.
So...for the next few weeks, I'm going to enjoy my dinner times with every seat taken. Soon enough Mary Kate is going on a summer adventure and her place will be empty. My niece will be visiting and a new face will gather. Changes will inevitably interrupt the commonplace and we'll have to figure out our spots once again.
But for now, I'm going to enjoy my meals and my party of six. I'm going to steep in gratefulness for the simple, ancient pleasure of breaking bread with the people I love most. I'm holding it close, no matter the table or the circumstances. It's a gift and mine to treasure.