Like the sheep we are encouraged to be, we head to the basement for fellowship after the memorial service for my Future Farmer of America Father-in-Law, who was lucky enough to die weeks before covid lockdown, so friends, family, farmers, Methodists, teachers and students could gather around the crockpots to pay respect, share stories, and say good-bye.
Church ladies hurry and worry about having enough creamer for the coffee, plates for the hungry, chairs for the many. The line is already forming, men congregating near the food tables, at the ready to scoop one broccoli, ramen, and cheese salad after another, get to the deviled eggs before they’re all gone, ladle competing scalloped cheesy potatoes onto sagging paper plates.
Crockpots of many colors line up like pawns in a chess match, their extension cords dangling like mangey donkey tails off the plastic-covered tables set up for just this occasion. This celebration of life.
Church ladies do god’s work. And everyone else’s.
The men gather around each end of the tables lined with casseroles and cupcakes, talking quietly if at all, hedging their bets on which end the line will start, one eye on the doorway awaiting the signal. They’re waiting for the blessing, of course they are. The handholding prayer, the checkered flag of etiquette signifying it’s time to eat, that will cut them loose, allowing them to pile high the mac and cheese, potatoes and cheese, beef and chipped gravy (no cheese), while the women, who bought, prepped, cooked, prepared, transported, chilled and reheated the bounty, then set the tables and organized the celebration of life, wait their turn.
The men act like the cattle pushing up against the gate, it’s feeding time, impatient for somebody to give them a sign, permission to commence, so they can have at it. They are regulars at these functions. Jockeying for position, once the lady minister makes it down the stone steps from the sanctuary, then seeks out and holds hands with the widow, she will offer the blessing. Everyone reaches for each other, strangers or not (mostly not), holding hands throughout the basement, throughout the generations, a chain link of fingers and bones and germs. Let us Bow Our Heads and Pray is the ‘on-your-mark, get-set — AMEN’ alerting the hungry it’s time to eat.
I keep a mini bottle of hand-sanitizer in my waistband and not so discreetly squirt all my kids, all grown-ass adults or thereabouts, but these grandchildren are also from the big bad cities of New York, Boston, and Denver, and a little hesitant with all the handholding and sharing of serving utensils. COVID hadn’t struck the fear of god in upstate or downstate, not yet, but it was inevitable. We just didn’t know it.
Not Amish, but it sure seems so sometimes, these Methodists are a throwback in time, the only woman in the buffet line is the grieving wife, and any woman waiting on her man, or men, making sure they get their plates, as their man grabs a seat at a table and waits to be served. This drives me nuts. It shouldn’t. It is not my life.
This drives me nuts. It shouldn’t. It is not my life.
I knew I’d be last. Old men first, then travelers, surviving cousins who make the trek around the state, funeral-by-funeral, to say goodbye to the “originals”, the patriarchs of their big, strong farming family, of which my father-in-law was second youngest of eight, and dying off in about that order. Only his little sister remains, now 83, too frightened of the pandemic to make the trek from AZ to upstate New York, taking this (fake news) COVID thing very seriously.
So in this mini pre-superspreader, we fill the church basement with those high risk: old people, fat people, immunocompromised people, people with oxygen tanks and people with walkers, and here we gather together. To pray and cry and hold hands and squeeze in tight around the church tables set, methodologically for eight, chairs lined up perfectly. Four on each side, like lego blocks. No more, no less.
The church ladies set up the tables for eight each, lined with plastic table cloths, and tiny vases of tiny flowers in the center of each, but the visitors don’t follow the rules. Chairs are pushed and pulled, families piling in around each other. No one wanting to eat alone, wanting to create a community, especially now that there was one less.
The widow leads the buffet line, the first to go, proper church etiquette, and fills her plate sparingly, a dab of this, a dollop of that, a carrot stick, maybe, piece of ham. She makes her way to the table near the center, sits down, pulls her chair in, puts her napkin on her lap, and begins to eat. Alone. At the table. No one by her side, because the rest are in line, waiting for the men to finish grabbing the grub.
Go sit with Grandma. Hurry.
I bully my kids – cut the line, go sit with Grandma. Now. Go. She shouldn’t be alone. And they go, one by one, and surround her with their being. Then her own sons, and their wives, squeeze in too, and more grandkids and partners. There’s ten, twelve, and even more squeezed in at this table carefully set for six. Chairs borrowed and rearranged, pulled and pushed in at odd angles, some balance plates on laps, but all eyes and ears on her. Stories and smiles, and room for all. Everyone with a place at the table, and dishes overflowing with marshmallow salads and sliced ham with itty bitty dinner rolls and ittier bittier pickles, and so much love.
Laughter and stories fill the empty space.
I finally get my own plate, and turn to the table I helped fill, but there’s no room. Not for me. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, and I smile and walk past, and mumble, ‘it’s okay.” My husband looks up from his plate, finds a chair, but our daughter, unaware of the emptiness and loneliness around her, sits in it, thanking her dad. He, impervious to my predicament, shrugs a silent “what else could I do — I tried” and sits back down with his family.
I move past, holding my plate above their heads, weaving around the backs of chairs draped with overcoats and pocketbooks, making it difficult to get around them all. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be okay,‘ I lie to myself, walking toward cousins Mike and Nancy, who made the long trip from Rochester to pay respect to their last Uncle, and ask, voice shaking, if I can join them at their empty table. Zero hesitation – please do!, Mike insists, nodding to an empty chair. ‘Lucky us,’ says Nancy, but her eyes ask why, what, how — and I struggle not to cry and explain, yet again, why I am not with the others.
Written July 8, 2021 NYC Writers Coalition workshop w Tasha. Prompt: The Dinner Table
Another strong and evocative piece, rich in illuminating detail. Bravo, Kate. You’re the real deal.