The Kitchen Table

During the years when I was growing up at 30 Green Street, a young couple, Bill and Alice, lived diagonally across the street from us.  When I was in elementary school, I walked their cocker spaniel, Suzie, and when I got old enough, I answered their business phone when they went out to dinner.  I was their children’s first babysitter.  They held my wedding reception in their home. And on an almost daily basis, they had coffee at my parents’ kitchen table.

This was the way of life in the neighborhood where I was raised.  Neighbors spent almost as much time at each other’s homes as they did their own.  Everybody used the back door, and rarely rang a doorbell.  Instead, we gave a quick knock, cautiously opened the door and called, “Anybody home?”

In my neighborhood, we held impromptu pot luck dinners, pooling our salad, pasta and sauce, carrying chairs to each other’s homes to cram around the table.  We cooked out and played no-rules croquet games in each other’s yards during the summer.  We shoveled each other’s sidewalks during the winter.  When someone’s car broke down, men rolled up their sleeves to make repairs.  When someone died, women delivered casseroles and comfort.

At my parents’ house at 30 Green Street the coffee was hot and plentiful and everyone was welcome for a cup and a chat.  It always amazed me that people flocked to our old house. Its old plaster walls were riddled with crumbling holes and peeling wallpaper.  The furniture was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs.  The rugs were faded and threadbare.  And the kitchen table- the altar around which all people gathered- was rickety and small, with warped extenders that wouldn’t stay open unless a matchbook was wedged between the leaf and the support that held it up.

It was at the kitchen table that I struggled with algebra, kneaded bread, and learned to sew on buttons.  At the table I gave haircuts to my brothers and taught my sisters how to apply makeup.  At the end of the summer, my mother and I would can tomatoes from her garden, lining dozens of Ball jars on the kitchen table and listening for the lids to pop as they cooled.

I think my parents’ guiding belief was “if you brew it, they will come,” because our kitchen table was always surrounded by people sipping coffee.  On Saturday mornings, the lady who delivered eggs stopped for a quick cup and to update my parents on how the chickens were laying.  Tuesdays, Ernie the dry cleaner hung the clean wool suits in front of the cellar door and had a few slurps before trotting back to his truck.  Young mothers spooned sugar into their cups as they asked for my mother’s advice on potty training and temper tantrums.   Elderly neighbors sipped and shared small town gossip. The insurance man always drank two cups.  Father Kennedy, our priest from St. Patrick’s, usually had one.

One evening when I was nine, my father sat at the kitchen table with a man from the car dealership where he worked.  I had been sent to bed and was dawdling in the bathroom when I heard their voices through the metal grate between the bathroom floor and the kitchen below.  I got down on my knees to listen more closely and could see their steaming cups of coffee on the kitchen table.  The visitor’s voice cracked with emotion as he told Dad how sad he was since the death of his father.  My father’s voice was low and gentle, and reassuring.  I don’t remember the words he said, but I remember going to bed that night proud that my father was someone who could give solace to a broken heart.

If the kitchen table was the mecca for conversation, coffee was the vehicle by which it was served. When I was very young, my father would pour his own coffee, and then pour a small amount into my cup and fill the rest with milk. He would stir in a spoonful of sugar and we would sit and talk.  He did this with all of his children, encouraging us to share our opinions about school, sports and politics.  At the kitchen table there was no rank. Everyone’s ideas were welcome. Everyone had equal value.

The kitchen table was Switzerland- a place on neutral ground over which family arguments were solved. At the table, broken hearts were soothed and tears were dried.  At the table, my parents lectured me about my grades, my boyfriends, and my lapses in judgment.  One Sunday morning during my teen years, I sat at the kitchen table nursing a headache left by too much wine and not enough sleep.  My father entered the door, carrying a wine bottle I had hidden under the front steps and sternly declared, “Three o’clock in the morning is too late, and don’t ever leave your trash lying around like that again.”  Then he poured me a cup of coffee.  I never made either mistake again.

Last week I received word that Bill had passed on.  Sunday there will be a memorial service for him and I will again return to my old neighborhood.  I will hug his children and share their tears, because although we are adults, we are orphans.

And after the food and the embraces and the tears, I will walk very quietly by the house at 30 Green Street, because I am sure if I listen closely, I will hear laughter from the kitchen table.

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