Growing up, I ate dinner with my parents and at least one grandparent every single night until I got a part time job my senior year of high school. This was our time to share the day and tell stories of past lives. It’s how I learned to remember my parents first meeting, even though I wasn’t there to witness it. It’s where l learned of the adult world – of office etiquette and family strife, of money and how to save it or lose depending on your habits. The food we ate was simple, always something green and more often than not a variation on baked chicken. It was purely the reason we were able to sit down together and talk.
Weekend breakfast was a little different. Whoever woke the earliest made the coffee and read the paper quietly until the rest of the house came alive. My grandmother was usually up first, and her sound was that of the spoon scraping the bottom of a cup, gently stirring sugar into her coffee. That was the sound I heard before my eyes opened and I knew she was sitting in the morning kitchen light waiting for us, maybe thinking about the day, maybe thinking about the past. Of all the dinner table talkers in the family, she was the quietest. And I’m sure that we had many conversations on those mornings, conversations that I don’t remember, because what do we say to our grandparents when they’re present each and every day? When they’re just as much a parent as our own, witnessing the mundane details of a multi-generational home?
Before it was her alone in the kitchen, there was another, a grandma and grandpa silently stirring, silently reading. I never knew him before the stroke, so to me all grandpas had canes and wore matching Dickies shirts and pants in olive green, and watched televangelist on TBN. They all went to the VA and puffed out their cheeks when something was difficult, blowing a raspberry into the air. He was sick and I knew it. I also knew that I was special because I was able to see him every day while my cousins could not. He was my first death, my first funeral, my first wave of guilt. Not saying goodbye, even at a young age, is very specific and horrible feeling.
After the funeral, after everyone left except for family, we sat around the same table, speaking in normal, subdued tones, until gradually we laughed again. Each person had a story and each person waited their turn to share it. It was meant for the adults, a way for them to accept the loss and all the kids knew this. We happily listened to the same old stories, but were enthralled by the new ones, the kind of stories that are only told when that person is no longer part of the physical world. And they were sincere stories, the kind that carried the love of this man through the air. We were going to miss him.
The family table has changed both literally and figuratively. It went from seating six to four, and most nights there are only two diners. When I do eat with my parents, we resume our assigned seats and the conversation falls back in time. Back to when my parents met, back to the way we remember birthdays and funerals and old homes, back to business of living.
- Andrea Martinez is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and currently lives in Dallas with her rescue dog Ulysses. She dabbles in a little of this and a little of that.