In honor of family, members who have died and those who live on to keep the traditions . . .
In honor of big tables that always have room for another chair . . .
I am pleased to offer the following Thanksgiving guest post from a member of my family.
Making the Table Bigger
Annie and I spent a recent weekend down in Texas to be with Annie’s people. Her side of the family all hail from the Lone Star State, and have been there for several generations, so that is where we go when we need to catch up.
Although she has gone to heaven now, being in Dallas – and driving through her neighborhood and by her old home – got me to thinking about Great Granny Alma.
Great Granny Alma was the matriarch of my wife’s family. She was a diminutive, reserved and modest senior lady with a depth of life experience I have rarely encountered anywhere else . . . and a will packed into that tiny body of tempered steel.
Alma was a depression child who would economize in ways that just flummoxed the rest of us. For example, we weren’t allowed to use her dishwasher (too wasteful of water!) or throw away cottage cheese tubs (and because recycling was uncommon at this time, the tubs began to fill her kitchen cabinets).
Alma was fiercely protective of her family. This meant, of course, that we all knew she’d bail us out if we got into trouble. But it also meant there were some big and deeply buried secrets in her house. (My wife’s cousin and great childhood friend was in prison for a year before Alma grudgingly revealed the fact.)
Finally, Alma also had the strongest imaginable opinions about how to live life well, and about what constituted real success in life. She was pretty tough on family members who weren’t serious about getting an education, finding her version of a “good” job, or being disciplined about doing that job to the very best of their abilities.
But for all of this, Alma inspired us. Not only because of all that she had survived growing up with so little in the 1920s and 30s but, far more meaningfully, because of her big old heart, the way she consistently, generously, humbly and prophetically reached out to be of loving service and support to other people.
Yes, she was great to her family. And I was blessed by my marriage to Annie to be on the receiving end of many kindnesses. But the truth is that lots of folks are good to their families. What inspired and moved me (though it took me years to realize this was going on) were the innumerable ways Alma shared what she had to help other people, often people who were virtually unknown to her.
As a landlord, she sometimes helped folks who rented from her by covering their rent or utilities, or by hiring them for an odd job or two. Other times, she helped friends of the family or friends of friends by paying for their education, car repairs or groceries. But just as often she helped virtual strangers, people she just happened to meet and listen to living and working in her day-to-day life.
In all of this, Alma taught me both what it might mean to LOVE in a concrete and meaningful way that challenged my stingy notion of sacrificial giving, and she also taught me just about the most expansive definition of “neighbor” I have ever seen.
Great Granny Alma died eleven years ago this autumn. The family asked if I would say a few words at her graveside. I remember worrying over what in the world to say. Her life was too big and her impact on that family too great to begin to scratch the surface of all she’d meant to us. In fact, I don’t know all that I said on that funeral day except for one thing: I remember that I talked about Alma’s kitchen table.
For me, the great symbol of Alma’s generosity and spirit was the table around which we’d gather for meals when we visited her home. Hers was not a fancy table. It was a dinged up old oak piece, undoubtedly ordered at some point decades back from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. It was not stylish or fashionable in the least.
The one notable design feature of this table was the fact that it could grow to an amazing length, as leaves were added by the number, to accommodate the astonishing bounty that would be set out at meal time and to make room for every guest. Alma could always make a bigger table.
And that’s how it would go. At suppertime, the family would start milling around the kitchen and Alma would begin calling out favors and chores:
“Scott, here’s ten dollars, run down to Krogers and get us a couple bottles of wine.”
“Annie . . . look out in the garage, Hon . . . bring us up one of those big jars of sweet pickles, and fill up one of those little crystal bowls from the sideboard over there.”
“Shannon . . . check the back of the bottom shelf of the icebox. There’s a cottage cheese tub back there full of some pulled pork leftover from Sunday.”
And as the family scurried about taking orders and setting the table, our numbers would begin to swell as stragglers walked through the door, family and friends both, all of whom would inevitably bringing along friends and acquaintances both known and unknown to Alma.
“Jason – grab another leaf! Let’s make a bigger table!”
Let’s make a bigger table!
And we would.
When we finally sat down to eat it was a vision of God’s kingdom . . . every time. There sat some toddler in a high chair at the corner, throwing mashed carrots around and giggling like a madwoman. There sat some old uncle in from the West Texas oilfield, hands and fingernails stained black despite five minutes of washing up. There sat somebody’s shy new boyfriend from Nebraska (“Why, Honey, he’s a Yankee!”), unable to summon the courage to speak through the din, but doing his part by piling a plate so high with food that the rest had to stop eating and stare, mouths agape.
And there would be stories, and there would be arguments, and there would be laughter, and nobody left hungry.
Because the table was big enough for all.
Scott Barker is an Episcopal Priest and the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. He is also my awesome life partner.
What about you? Do you have a favorite family story, or memories of a loved one who was always up for making the table bigger? Please share!