On The Table

I’m paying off a table I never bought.

It arrived in the back of a gray pick up, dusted with a light coating of red clay kicked up over the heat of the summer. It was carried in by an elderly black gentleman with eyes that smiled and warm, dry hands that wrapped around one of mine when he arrived.

“Let’s look at where you want it,” he said in a soothing voice that felt like a blanket around my shoulders.

I nodded. Mute. Yes. Please come in. I motioned towards the door.

I helped with the table and the boys helped with the chairs. Once they were all arranged, I felt heavier. As if we’d placed them upon my back, rather than in the small room off the kitchen.

He wished me blessings and joked with the boys, and I tried to thank him enough. Tried to give him back thanks in proportion to the enormity of the table.

Because I didn’t buy the table.

I didn’t tell my husband. Instead, I cooked. I wish I could remember the meal. The choice of herbs and the swirl of oil across a pan. The sizzle of meat or the deep rolling boil of pasta crashing against the surface of the water. I wish sometimes a smell will make it all familiar again. That maybe I’ll walk into a restaurant or market and inhale the rich scent of a yesterday that locked itself into a dark corner that’s been happily forgotten by the sunshine I’ve walked in since. I’ll stop and a wistful smile will pull at my lips.

Yes.” I’ll think. “That’s what we ate that day.”

Instead I remember only that I set the table. I placed the dishes upon it and raised the seat on the high chair so that it met the edge, and removed the tray from it so that chubby hands could reach across the table like the rest of us. The boys each grabbed a chair. A side. Seats that remain theirs today. Their claims upon that table and those chairs yet to be released.

I ran my hand along the edges that curled downward, softening where the top of the table ends and one pulls up a chair. There’s just enough room for six to sit. Two on each long side, elbow to elbow. One at each short end, alone. Room for all of us, plus a friend.

We decided which end should be the head of the table. That day it sat open, waiting for him.

I remember his arrival and the excitement that coursed through our veins. Palpable and leaping between the boys and I as we listened for his heavy boots across the kitchen floor.

I remember his eyes lighting up and the boys’ laughter ringing when they saw him and it sounded like Christmas morning despite the mid-September humidity.

I remember the clatter of forks against plates and the thud of glasses as they were placed down atop the dark wood of the tabletop.

I remember our eyes meeting and I watched as he struggled to swallow past a lump I felt in my throat as well.

I don’t remember the food.

I still own the table I never bought.

Meal after meal. Homework. Friends. Writing. Hot glue. Finger prints. Foot prints, even. Sweaty imprints of mischievous, chubby feet toddling across its mahogany-colored surface. Scratches and dings.

Thanksgivings. When it stood transformed and laden with proof that we have much for which to be thankful.

Its legs stand beneath the laughter that spills across the surface, shared between each of us. Its legs stand beneath the tears that splash from time to time on its surface. Its legs stand beneath the elbows that rest weary on its top. Head dropped into hands. Shoulders slumped by the baggage we need to carry with us on our journey. When the wheels that typically help us to roll it along give out and leave us with no choice but to hoist the baggage and trudge along through life, for a time trapped beneath its weight.

I can’t bear to part with the table I never bought.

I sit at it and recall the back of a small, two shelf, particleboard book case. Emptied of books we left behind and turned face down onto the floor.

I look at the boys, wriggling in chairs and kicking at each other beneath the table, and remember their legs twisted beneath them as they huddled over my mother’s China dishes set on the back of a bookcase. Our everyday dishes left behind.

I watch him as he sits at the table and recall his smile when he came home from work each evening and folded his height down to a cross-legged seat on the floor next to the overturned bookcase. “It won’t be for much longer now that I’ve got a job,” his deep brown eyes promised me each night.

I remember an email when I’d grown desperate. After school started and the boys had nowhere to sit to do their homework. Not a single chair. Not even a couch. We had the floor and the walls and the roof, and we were thankful for all that. I remember a reply within hours. Like the table, I cannot bear to part with it.

I am very sorry to hear about your situation and the difficulties you are having. That must be very frustrating. There have been times in my life when I did not have enough furniture (among other things) and it can be a very humbling and upsetting experience. Kudos to you for having the courage to ask for help. That’s something I did not do, but I sure wish I had! I am praying for you and your family.”

The next day an elderly black gentleman delivered to us a table I never bought.

I try to pay it off now that we can. I volunteer at the very organization that brought us the table. I cook food and serve it and struggle not to wrap my arms around mothers asking for extras for their children. Especially when it’s for their boys. I want to tell them they came to the right place for help.

I’m proof.

I try to pay off the table I never bought.

But it’s priceless.

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