Around the Table, Making Memories


On a good day, Great Aunt Hattie topped out at four feet, eleven inches. She fascinated the little cousins. Here stood an adult woman not much taller than we were. Salt and peppered and wrinkled, she could look us right in the eye.

We measured ourselves against Aunt Hattie, our living, breathing growth chart, at every holiday gathering, which gave her a kick. Once you stretched past Aunt Hattie, the family promoted you from the kid’s table to the grown-ups’ table, another source of fascination for impressionable, young ears.

The adults, aunts, uncles, parents — great and grand, told all the stories and laughed and laughed until the laughter evolved into silent shakes and produced tears. You never knew what you might hear when they got going.

The grownup table at my house was an extra-long picnic table set up inside the kitchen along the long double window. It made an economical choice to accommodate a large number of guests. The benches allowed everyone to squeeze in, meaning there was always room for one more. Though you had to exercise caution when sliding down to make room or your bottom might find itself on the pointy end of some tweezers. 

No one else I knew had a picnic table inside. My friends’ families all had shiny, substantial tables from fancy places like Ethan Allen. They adorned beautifully appointed dining rooms where you were not allowed to touch anything.

Our picnic table, by comparison, felt thrifty. “You have a picnic table inside?” friends coming over for the first time would ask.

The picnic table eventually made its way to the back porch. A handsome, sturdy trestle table built from white ash by my sister for a furniture design class replaced it. She made it specifically for the space, narrower than a normal table. Long and lean, it sits a crowd. 

I have an annual nostalgia for that old table and the people around it that accompanies Thanksgiving. Tucked in, our shoulders touched while we lifted bites of turkey and dressing and canned cranberry sauce to our lips. Glasses were filled with Aunt Gayle’s sweet tea, and eyes wandered to Aunt Shirley’s desserts. The food was good but secondary to the intimacy and warmth, the laughter and love shared at the table.

Those large family gatherings for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries dwindled as children grew and started families of their own and as the passing years brought newly empty seats once occupied by the aunts, Hattie among them, uncles, parents — great and grand. 

Now the little cousins are the adults. And it is a rare occasion when we gather in the same way. I’m expecting only five for Thanksgiving. With my family of four plus my mother, there is no need for a kids table this year. 

I may yearn for those days when the table was crowded with people, but for now it’s crowded with rich-tasting memories. And for that, I’m thankful.

Among all the symbols for Thanksgiving — turkeys, pumpkin pies, cornucopias, pilgrim hats — I nominate the table itself as the best: the place of gathering, bread-breaking, shoulders touching and memories in the making.

What about your table this Thanksgiving? Will it seat a party of 12 or one? Is it stately or humble? Is it a wobbly tv tray or an elegant mahogany heirloom from Ethan Allen? Will memories be made or remembered? I hope it is a little bit of both. 

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