The table consists of a small circular glass slab supported by a wrought iron base with feet that curl upward. Four woven place mats are neatly arranged beneath a stack of heavy, lacquered ceramic plates in descending order: dinner plate, salad plate, bread and butter plate. Cloth napkins stand stiff tucked into matching cups that rest on top. At the center of the table, there’s a bronze, plastic vase filled with an overwhelming bouquet of artificial foliage. Painted plastic leaves and synthetic flower petals gush forth nearly touching the surface of the thick glass. The colors match the home decor of the moment, burgundy and mustard with gold and red accents.
Everything is tasteful yet borders on excess. Our dining table reminds me of something you’d see in a furniture store. Something that has been meticulously styled by visual artists in a severely ornate color scheme, bearing signs that say “Do Not Touch”. It’s meant to attract and entice, to psychologically manipulate you into buying it without giving it too much thought. These tables do not communicate warmth, family, or food. They’re cold and impersonal. They say, Hey, look how pretty I am! Anyone who comes to your home will be impressed! They might even think you guys have a lot of money!
We don’t eat at our table. I’m old enough to understand that this probably doesn’t make sense, but too young to assume that there’s anything wrong with it. My mom, my sister and I make ourselves comfortable on the couch or on the floor while we eat and watch our favorite TV shows. The table sits in the corner beautifully decorated and deserted. When I see people eating together at the table on television, my adolescent brain interprets this as a nod to nostalgia, cute but not realistic, something done only for show or out of a sense of moral obligation and tradition. For us, this happens at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It’s only when the chitlins and the collard greens and the macaroni and cheese and the ham and the cornbread and the stuffing is ready, that it’s time to eat at the Table. For reasons I implicitly comprehend, these dishes require more pomp and circumstance. A traditional Southern meal such as this begs for proper etiquette. My mom makes us wash the decorative dinnerware that’s been sitting at the table unused for the past ten months. There’s a fine layer of dust that has accumulated on the rim of each plate and I rinse them under warm water. We sit on chairs with cushions that are upholstered in a striped metallic brocade and encased in plastic, with heavy wrought-iron frames and legs that curl up at the ends. They’re uncomfortable to sit on, heavy to move and cumbersome on our carpeted floor. It is a ritual that tells my brain that we’re about to eat a real meal. That we’ll sit at the table like the families on TV and have lively conversation and it won’t be weird. Except it is.
It’s awkward at first. Not in the way in which strangers whom you’ve just met share a meal together, but in a way that’s startling, reminding you of the people you’re related to. At first, I just want to get through the meal and go read a book or watch Biography. But, besieged by so much food, I start to see them. I forget how soft and subdued my mom can be. I’m surprised by my sister’s wry sense of humor. Once I get past the novelty of what we’re doing, I get comfortable. It starts to feel right. But it doesn’t last long. Just as soon as I’ve settled in, made peace with the moment, we move on to the sweet potato pie. My mom gets up and goes to the kitchen, her dessert plate in hand and comes back carrying a small slice. She settles on the couch.
I wonder what it would be like to do this all the time because in these moments, I feel wistful. I think about how nice it would be to sit at the table with my mom and sister and be present for those fifteen or twenty minutes it takes to eat. But ultimately it wouldn’t make sense because our meals aren’t really meals. My single mother relies on convenience foods that don’t ask for effort. It’s the kind of food that’s meant to take the hunger away. A tuna sandwich, chili cheese dogs with chopped onions or pizza eaten at our table seems incongruous in the least, vulgar at best. I know I’d rather watch The Simpsons while eating Costco spinach ravioli than to be bothered to sit at the table anyway. It’s takes more work. I have to move the fancy dinnerware since my mom doesn’t put them away. She likes to keep them out never considering whether or not my sister and I would one day, on a day that isn’t a holiday, want to eat there.
My in-laws eat at the table every night. Theirs is large and oval-shaped and made out of fake wood. It’s covered with an embroidered white tablecloth which is covered by a transparent plastic one. Plastic place mats with photographed portraits of various fruits are stacked in the middle of the table underneath a wire napkin holder. Every night my mother-in-law cooks. Meals where there’s rice, some version of meat, fried sweet plantains and sometimes a salad. Every evening she sets the table, removing the place mats from under the napkin holder and arranges them neatly at each seat. She puts a paper napkin, the really thin kind that fall apart the moment friction occurs between greasy fingers, on the right side of each mat. On top of the napkin she lays a mismatched fork and butter knife, even though we almost never use the knife.
At first, I participated. I wanted to be polite. I didn’t want them to think I had bad manners. But after getting more comfortable, I began to rebel. I put up a fight. Sometimes they scolded me and I felt guilty. Why didn’t I want to eat with them? Why did I feel like I was suffocating? Why did I get anxious as dinnertime approached and angry when my mother-in-law asked me to set the table? Sometimes I got my way and ate on the couch but at that point I felt like a petulant child. Why was this so hard? A table is meant to be eaten on, I know. But it doesn’t make sense.