Being: Conscious, mortal existence; life.
Every month we welcome two families, two people, two voices to share their stories in whatever way they choose. We hope that you find joy in their daily lives, and their simple habit of just being.
Two weeks before my oldest left for college for the first time—don’t fear, I won’t get maudlin like I did last week—a photographer came to our house for a family photo shoot. We posed for photographs all over the house and yard, letting her direct us to where the light glowed softest, where the backgrounds colored best. There was one particular shot that I wanted, that I’d requested ahead of time: a photo of our family eating a meal around the kitchen table.
It was an unusual request, apparently. The photographer had never taken photos of a staged meal for a family photo shoot. To me, though, there was no question of where a photo of our family should be set. Around the kitchen table. There’s no place that we are a family more.
When we built our house, the table came first. Not the actual table, but the thought of the table. Before anything else, I imagined a long, farmhouse table, and a kitchen rising up around it. The rest of the house fell into being from there.
I did not want my table to serve as a kitchen island. I didn’t want to clutter it with cooktop or sink. I wanted it to be an old-fashioned table: a place where an Italian grandmother (or I) might roll out pasta dough, and later gather the family to eat it. We commissioned the three-and-and-a-half-by-seven-foot tabletop from a local company that builds tables from the pine floorboards of 19th century English factories. It felt right to bring some history into a house so new. For one end we chose tall, turned legs, which I stained in gold and green and blue and black, inspired by a favorite wooden salt and pepper set. At the other end, the one beside the window, beside the sink, we placed a cabinet with shelves and a slot for a mammoth cutting board. That’s where my husband and I stand to chop the onions and garlic that begin most every dinner.
It’s a comfortable place to stand and chop, since the table is high, like a bar. Five tall chairs form a semi-circle at the opposite end. That’s where we sit for dinner. Also for breakfast: buttermilk pancakes made by Daddy every Saturday. It’s where for fifteen years I have I grilled up sandwiches or tacos for lunch, maybe peanut butter on apple slices for a snack. Sourdough pizza every Friday night dinner. It’s where the boys tip their chairs, balancing them on a single leg and making their mother crazy. Where we say a prayer and then we eat, laughing and spilling and shouting and forgetting to use our napkins, speaking of our days and our world and maybe superheroes, and watching the youngest stand on his chair, because sometimes it’s the only way he can attain our attention. It’s where we sometimes cry, throwing down our napkins, severing the circle and stomping from the room.
When guests visit, they find a spot at the table soon after they’ve dropped off their coats. And they stay there. Parties always wind up in kitchens and that’s certainly true of ours. On occasion we dress the table in a white cloth to be fancy, but folks seem just as happy to sit at our naked table, eating nothing fancier than crackers from a can. A few years back we bought a blue velvet couch for our family room. Few guests have sat on it. They would rather be at the table. It has some irresistible draw.
A big table is a good place to work. A good place to sliver tangerines for marmalade, to ooze harvested honey into bottles, to make a grand Spanish spread of tapas, with potato tortilla made by a husband with Spanish blood. A good place for two teenage girls to make four-dozen cupcakes, in four different flavors, with four different frostings, when they are bored on a summer day. A good place to construct birthday cakes—so many birthday cakes—and to blow out their candles and wish.
It’s also a good place to do work unrelated to food. I’ve always despised that old homeschooling cliché: kids gathered around the kitchen table with mom, bent over worksheets and textbooks. As homeschoolers, we rarely use worksheets or textbooks; still we find ourselves at the table every day: reading poetry aloud, layering planet models in flour paste, sketching comics, carving soap, testing the alkalinity of cabbage and carrots. The eleven-year-old, resident artist, has stained his spot at the table for eternity, with ink and paint that have run through paper, off the edges of paper, without regard for paper at all. I rub out the marks as best I can and glaze over them with wax. I’ve tried, in vain, to encourage other learning spaces in our home: desks in the kids’ bedrooms, a chunky worktable in our office, the wool carpet in our family room. Why do we invariably find ourselves back at the kitchen table? Is it the way the sun slants across it from the backyard every morning? The proximity to snacks and hot water for tea? All I know is that my children’s homeschool memories will be as embedded with our kitchen table as the art stains are in the table itself.
When the photographer came that day, I made a meal that we didn’t plan to eat. It was 4:00 on an August afternoon, when the light was best, and we weren’t hungry. I’d picked lettuce from the garden for salad, made a Friday night pizza on a Tuesday and had my husband uncork a bottle of wine. We couldn’t really eat the food, even if we had been hungry, because who wants a photograph of a family with mouths full of food? The photograph wasn’t really about the food anyway. It was about the five of us sitting in one of our favorite places, smiling and talking and laughing together.
Maybe the magic of a kitchen table is never really about the food. Sure, coming together to nourish our bodies, to share the sensory pleasure of food is an extraordinary act. But maybe we overlook the importance of our arrangement when we sit together at a table. Think about it. Rarely, except at the table, do we sit so close, in a circle, orienting eyes, ears and attention towards each other. The physical array reminds us what matters: the people beside us, across from us. Our hearts beat toward each other, and I can’t help but think that there’s a very real force in all that heart power. Could any other place be the heart of a home? Could any other place matter as much?
This month we happily welcome Patricia Zaballos to the Being series. Patricia is a writer, homeschooling parent, knitter and urban bee keeper. Patricia writes about kid-centered learning and raising children to be writers on her blog, Wonder Farm, and recently published her first book, Workshops Work! A Parent’s Guide to Facilitating Writer’s Workshops for Kids.
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