I learned a lot at my mother’s table. Lessons about sharing, loving, acceptance. I learned frugality and common sense. At my mother’s table there was always room for another chair, and another plate, and the food always stretched in a loaves and fishes way. There was a hand on your shoulder. A hug. A home if you needed it. Our friends, students of my father’s, refugees, exchange students from foreign countries, cousins, and, when the time came, grandparents who could no longer manage on their own.
My mother grew up wearing dresses skillfully made from flour sacks, in the coal regions of Pennsylvania; the granddaughter of a gruff, taciturn little man, my Pop Pop, who supported his family at 13 years old as a coal picker. Raised by her grandparents, her father, and her aunt, she learned those same lessons from “Mom”, her grandmother Cora, for whom my sister is named. Cora’s dumplings are still the standard. Her soups, her jams and jellies reproduced for us, “just like Mom’s” – the ultimate stamp of approval. Her strawberry shortcake was mashed fresh strawberries with a couple teaspoons of sugar “to bring out the juice,” ladled over hot baking powder cakes, and eaten with milk poured over it all for dinner. That was a supper we always looked forward to, that spoke summer to us in an elemental language. Eating strawberry shortcake for dessert with whipped cream was a frivolous extravagance that strawberries, dark red and still warm from the sun, didn’t need to shine. A hot meal for hobos wandering through on the railroad was always provided. There, but for the grace of God might go any of us.
My mother wore the same clothes forever. I thought for a long time it was just because she loved them. She never said it was because all their income went to clothing us, giving us music lessons, buying us books to read, instruments to play, music to listen to, encouraging any interest we might have with trips to museums and cities, for riding lessons and any of the countless pets we wanted to adopt. At Easter we would go with my father to the florist. We’d buy her a corsage for her Easter dress; yellow rosebuds and baby’s breath with feathery ferns, and the wonderful green florist smell when the little plastic treasure chest, chilly from the refrigerator, opened just before church.
Their yard is overgrown by gardener’s standards. I suggested cutting some things down, to neaten it up. “We all have to share this earth.”, was her reply. She feeds the multitude of birds that come to her window – hummingbirds, wrens, finches, cardinals, bluebirds, chickadees, doves. They have bushes and trees for cover, houses, and pieces of string and dryer fluff for nesting, seed and oranges and nectar for their nourishment. Toads have a little house under the magnolia, and the trees she planted all through our childhood are now soaring green groves of cool shade. Little dishes of food are put out for the neighborhood cats, and they all have names.
When I drive somewhere in the evening, I look without thinking for deer at the edges of woods and fields, look for hawks, chipmunks, and weasels, keep an eye opened for foxes, bears, and butterflies. My father mows around the large spreads of violets that come up in the yard solely because they’re so pretty. I see and feel the wonderful beauty of nature and know the names of countless trees and flowers, and birds because of her. When I hike, her voice whispers in my ear, “Sshh…or you’ll never see anything.”
At my house, I like to cook for people. I like to cook with people. We like to laugh, and we feed birds and squirrels. We love our three cats and care for them well. I plant flowers and bushes to entice butterflies and birds to stop awhile, and celebrate the arrival of honeybees. Family, and friends who are so dear to us the line between “family” and “friend” blurs and disappears, gather together. I spread my mother’s hand sewn tablecloths on the tables, and place the family china around. I make the food whose recipes aren’t even written down. We sit, and eat, and talk, and tease, and laugh, and reaffirm our ties that don’t so much bind as they hold. As they embrace. We gather in and welcome back. We settle in and we look outward. And we go forward. And we carry with us the precious glowing lessons we learned at my mother’s table.