In my writing program The Writer’s Studio Online at the Simon Frasier University, we are finishing up our last module on nonfiction writing before winter break. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would and I think it’s because of our nonfiction mentor Claudia Cornwall. I really enjoyed the mentor reading she did for our group and afterward ordered a copy of her memoir Letters from Vienna. The activities for this module were in two parts: first post a question about nonfiction writing that Claudia could answer and second write a nonfiction piece on a tangible object, providing its history/story.
I immediately thought of my post several months ago about my mother and father-in-laws’ dinner table. The original post was just over 200 words. It was one of my most liked posts, but also the most difficult one to write.
I took my Facebook post and revised and expanded it for this assignment. It is at 893 words (not including this introduction). Word max was 1,000.
This dinner table is a reincarnation of a previous dinner table. In its previous life, it was two separate square tables. At its peak, it sat sixteen people: my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, and my brothers and sisters-in-law—ten boys, and six girls. There were no twins, no triplets, no stepchildren, no adopted children—all were from the same parents.
They would sit eight at each table. My mother-in-law would be in charge of making dinner. The older ones would help her out. The next set would help set and clear the tables. When it was time to eat, the younger ones would be paired with the older ones.
Dinner was a type of one pot or one pan meal—glop, taco casserole, and stroganoff. If something were on sale, liver and onions or kidney stew would be on the menu that week. My husband remembers that potatoes and pasta were often part of the meals. I asked my husband if any particular meal stood out in his mind and he said on Sundays after his father had taken all of them to the beach—to give their mother a break—they had chicken for dinner. Sundays was always chicken. For birthdays, she would make pizza. He said she would even ask what each person wanted on his or her pizza. She’d mark each section in the baking pan with toothpicks so that everyone knew where their part started and ended.
By the time I joined them for dinner, the two tables were gone and the dining room had migrated from the front room to the dining area by the kitchen. Most of my husband’s brothers and sisters had moved out, started their own families, and had their own home. The current table sat only eight, but each chair was always occupied. Dinner at my own family’s home was quiet in comparison. I was naïve in thinking this experience would be the same way.
I was overwhelmed by all the conversations going on at once and surprised at how everyone chimed in to each other’s conversations without missing a beat. I don’t remember all the conversations (one was about sleeping patterns and another was about jet propulsion), but I remember how I felt: intimidated, out of place, and a little worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my husband’s family. (He was my boyfriend at the time, but I really liked him and I really wanted his family to like me.) Over the years I learned this is how a big family interacts: you have to speak up to be heard, but you also have to listen to be a part of every conversation going on at the same time.
Despite feeling somewhat lost in the conversations, I was never treated like an outsider. In fact, everyone acted like I’d had dinner there every night. My mother-in-law had a way of drawing you in a conversation–direct, but gentle with just a bit of drama. I was enthralled every time. I remember his mother and father asking me about my family, but it didn’t feel like I was being asked. I was happy to share anything they wanted to know. They were so used to their children bringing home friends that another person at the table was another person to include in the family.
There are a lot of memories associated with that table—Christmas Eve burrito dinners, Thanksgiving turkey meals, Easter supper with ham, and birthday parties where I became the designated ice-cream scooper.
But as you can see from the picture, the dinner table isn’t set. In fact, it’s been a long time since we all sat around the table. Prescription bottles are grouped to one side, ranging from pain management, sleep aid, to nausea. There is a pile of forgotten mail. There are stacks of magazines read to occupy time while waiting. There are a few books about hospice and palliative care and how to manage expectations during the final days.
My mother-in-law Colette fought stage IV lung cancer for several months.
In those months, we tried to spend as much time with her as possible. At first, we went over to their house and brought dinner. She was still able to sit at the table with us at that point. Conversations were still jarring as ever except for the transparent veil of sadness that gently sat on all our shoulders. We all tried to be brave because we all thought she still had a chance at the time. When the visits became taxing on her energy, gatherings were hosted at other houses and dinner ate at a different table. We still kept hope, but now the veil slipped from our shoulders and we were face-to-face with the reality that she would not be joining us at the dinner table again. Eventually, she became homebound. The visits were now for saying goodbye.
Most of her children were by her side when she passed away. She had been staying in the front room that used to be the dining room with the two square tables.
The diagnosis was made in January 2015. She was gone by July 2015.
It’s difficult to accept that the next time we sit at this table, my mother-in-law won’t be there. She has a strong spirit, so I know we will always feel her presence.