When I think about how many dinners I’ve eaten in my life, most of them have been with my dad. I know this is a great privilege, something most daughters can’t say they’ve had in their life. A lot of time we ate in silence while listening to Marketplace. “Now, let’s do the numbers.” We knew the market was bad when we heard more minors than majors. Despite my steady diet of Kai Ryssdal, I’ve managed not to absorb any real stock analysis. Is stormy weather playing today? I still weave in and out at just the right moments. I’m not sure how much my dad has absorbed either. As a figurative painter, he may just wait for the ending music too.
When I was 12, I started to realize that our family was special for eating at a table together every night. I always had to leave my friend’s houses early because I needed to make it back in time for dinner. Suddenly, eating in front of the TV seemed very cool. I envied the concept, how we could just sink back in the couch and forget presence. When I was 13, we experienced our great move from the dining room to the kitchen. After my mom died, the dining room echoed. Gone were the grocery bags flown across the table. Gone were the beautiful white trivets. We moved into the kitchen where the table was smaller and we could hear each other better. Not that we spoke much. I brushed off my dad’s attempts at discussing sex and puberty by snapping “mom told me about this.” I shoveled food in my mouth, food that my dad tossed together, burned and then finally surrendered us to. Even when I was 13, I knew his cooking was a potent test. How much pain could this man take? At 74, he suddenly had to raise a daughter alone. For years I wondered when he would move her pillow from the left to the center. I always checked his bed before making my way down the hallway and into my room where I thought the wall would open in the most spectular way.
My dad arranged for brilliant and beautiful women to live with us. They would work on their art, help us with bills and cook some meals. They were mentors in their own subtle ways. My dad still cooked most of the time though: beef stews, chicken thighs and vegetables, meals that guaranteed 2-3 leftovers. Somewhere between being 16 and 17, I realized that I needed to take over the cooking. I raised my mother from the ground and learned from the women around me in the house. Cynthia taught me about the ease of orzo while Rita taught me about the joys of butter, wine and truffle oil. At the cusp of 23, I cook everyday.
On a micro level, the table is a line to draw my day to. On the macro level, it is the great timeline, the image I conjure when I need to remember important advice, conversations and silences. Who have I sat across? And who no longer? How many seats have I drawn closer? And how many chairs have I folded and put away?