I didn’t have to ask whether the tiniest fork was placed to the right or the left of the dinner plate when I set the table because in my family, members needed only one fork. It was stabbed into a slice of turkey if we chose to not use our fingers and it punctured our salad when we chose to actually eat it rather than use it to camouflage the cooked cabbage.
We weren’t barbarians. We ate on clean Corelle dishes—unless grandma had the gumption to invite the china from the cabinet to join us at the festive table, but that required time—time she seemed to not want to spend. The dusty dishes had to be rinsed and dried and she’d marvel at how dust accumulates inside of a cabinet whose doors remain closed 360 days a year.
Sometimes, particularly when extended family joined us, we set out the best the paper plate line had to offer, Chinette with divided sections so people’s gravy wouldn’t run into their macaroni salad.
Extra people meant the kids were assigned to the kitchen table where a single rose saluted from a vase rather than to the main dining table where a lavish bouquet adorned the center. When I hit about twelve I didn’t want to sit around the “kid’s” table anymore, and grandma would squeeze an extra chair beside of dad for me.
We were “Living high on the hog,” as grandma would say, her glance bumping across the table strewn with as much a variety of foods as the variety of patterns on the serving bowls. The layout looked like an obstacle course one could play on, rushing from one event, or dish, to the next in search of the next yummy mouthful.
A platter of ham sat between two pillar candles which one lucky youngster lit. Grandpa was the designated prayer-giver so everyone folded their hands and bowed their heads. “Lord, bless this food and the hands that prepared it. May we always have food in our bellies and peace in our hearts.”
“Hay-Men,” one younger cousin would say, and we commenced to feasting.
Dishes were passed to whoever had an available hand, not to whoever happened to be sitting to your right. A gravy boat drifted up-stream while a basket of rolls roved down-stream followed by the candied yams. Puttering past me clockwise and counterclockwise were bowls piled high with mashed potatoes and salads heaped with veggies no one really wanted to crunch into, but who all must have felt obligated to eat after overdosing on the apple cobbler from the night before.
Uncle Bill insisted that goldfish, not reindeer, flew Santa’s sleigh while my sister dug her jelly-spotted spoon into the butter dish, and Grandma tossed me a roll from across the table.
It was a comfortable chaos—as soothing as the eggnog sliding down my throat. My fingers weren’t dipped in bowls of sparkling water, they were dipped in the ease of the moment—in the peace of accepting things just the way they were.
I didn’t need two forks. I didn’t need matching serving bowls or linen napkins. The peace I felt wasn’t served in a pan. It bubbled up from somewhere inside and simmered throughout my whole being.
Even then I knew life was an ordered chaos—a casserole into which I’d been tossed. I was both the ingredients and the entire recipe. All I had to do was hold the space for the peace and not get devoured by the rules.
Since then I’ve traversed the well-bred tables where fingers are dipped into bowls after eating to remove the sticky and there are more waiters than the number of asparagus spears on my plate, but I didn’t enjoy the food or the company any more than I did that group of clamoring people and casual fare that co-mingled around my grandmother’s handmade placemats.
So, I follow my own etiquette handbook, permitting a bit of sauce to dribble onto my chin before catching it with my napkin. I maneuver the food to one side of my mouth before talking and keep my elbows only a few inches to either side of me on the table so my neighbor has room for their elbows too.
My digestion begins and ends with the peace of knowing dining rules are just like other behavior manuals—man’s way of creating order out of chaos. I, however, enjoy biting into that jovial disorder. It soothes my famished soul.
Michele Zirkle Marcum is a native of Meigs County, author of “Rain No Evil” and host of Life Speaks on AIR radio.
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