Confession: I set the table primarily for myself. The good dishes and the brass candlesticks and the tall tapers. The cloth napkins rolled and threaded into napkin holders. The broom sedge or cotton stalks or whatever I’ve foraged from the fields around the house staked into vases and pitchers and crocks.
I do it because I like the way the sunlight reflects off the creamy white china and the way the candle wax puddles and quivers for a split second before plunging over the edge in a long, slow stream. I do it because I like the heft of the glasses, the forks, the knives in my hands as I circle the chairs to drop them into place. I like the way the wrinkles on the tablecloth stretch and smooth underneath the weight of all the plates and platters.
This predilection does not reflect the Thanksgiving tables of my childhood, cleared of everything — even the white crocheted doily and bud vase of plastic flowers — but the roasting pans and Corningware dishes and thick crockery bowls that held the day’s feast. The tables at which the men gathered first to eat quickly and ravenously of the turkey and dressing, creamed corn, sweet potato soufflé and chicken and dumplings. The tables around which, after the men had gone outside to play pitch penny in the autumn sunshine, the women circled to eat slowly and deliberately, taking deep breaths for the first time since rising that morning. The tables under which I sat quietly among the crossed ankles of my mother and grandmother and aunts and listened to them talk.
Their voices, all of them thick with the country Southern accent I did not yet know was an accent, lifted and fell in waves of soft laughter, half-hearted complaint, honest inquiry and communal instruction. Their conversation was punctuated with names of people, some of them familiar, others not, that I knew intuitively were my people — Minnie Lee. Annie Belle. Lessie Mae.
In the dimness, unable to sit up straight without hitting my head and rattling the dishes, I learned that a lady didn’t say the word pregnant in public and, instead, referred to someone expecting a child as being “p.g.” I learned that in-laws, at least in our family, stood on equal footing with everyone else. I learned that, in that time and place, being a woman meant eating last and enjoying the meal more.
And I learned how to tell stories. I learned which details to include and which ones won’t be missed. I learned how to mimic the voices of the characters and where to throw in a “bless her heart” or “Lord, have mercy.” I learned the value of an appreciative audience and the necessity of a powerful ending.
Underneath those tables, the ones without a single cloth napkin or lit candle, I felt the first stirring of an identity, the first inkling that words are powerful, that story is what connects us, that sharing can make us whole.
That is why I set the table. I make the sharpness of the knife blade and the curving lip of the bowl an offering. The lit candles become a prayer. I say to those who gather around it, “This is a place deserving of attention, deserving of time. The table is not just for holding food, but for holding us.”