We ate at seven because the store closed at six and it took my father time to empty the cash drawers, roll up the awning, double check all the doors including the big steel door in the back where we got the big shipment every Tuesday, boxes and boxes to unload, rip open with box cutters and empty into neat stacks in the backroom. By 6:20 or so, he’d switch off the lights from the main box in the back and he’d walk down the aisles, all the merchandise covered with coarse sail cloth so as to avoid dust accumulating overnight. Thirty minutes later he would walk in the side door from the garage. It would be time for supper.
When something went wrong, well, really only one thing ever went wrong. When my mother got sick and had to go to the hospital, the hands on the clock stood still. It seemed wrong so I kept it a secret or would have had anyone asked how I was doing but my worry for my mother, whether she would get well soon and come home, was overpowered by my yearning for supper. The five place settings. Glasses at our places, coffee cups at theirs. Paper napkins folded in triangles and dessert set out in small saucers, a half inch of butterscotch pudding, a single canned peach.
Each time in my life has its own precious routine. When I was a single mother, my daughter and I ate supper at the kitchen table except on those nights when disorder and not caring left dishes in the sink from the day before. I fed her mac and cheese out of a box on a plate on her lap. She watched television while I lied on the couch, smoking cigarettes, my glass of cheapest white wine balanced on the bumpy carpeting. I was too tired for more, too fraught with leaving and being left. I knew the precious routine would give me comfort but comfort was not what I wanted. I wanted the yearning more.
Then, things brightened and we sat at a new table in a new nook in a new house, then we crowded in a high chair, then a booster seat, then we moved to the dining room and we set the table every night and each place had a napkin folded in a rectangle. We drank coffee at dinner, too. It was dinner now and not supper, supper having gone to the farmers to keep precious. Each of the three more children had their place added to the original girl’s, their dad and me at opposite ends of the table, being as if in a picture of dinnertime on a magazine cover or an ad for positive family development. When something went wrong, someone sick or gone, angry or silent, it was dinner I yearned for more than their recovery.
Now it is just the two of us. Sometimes we set the table in our nook, sometimes we eat off plates on our laps while watching television. When my children come home, we eat at the dining room table. It feels big and unnatural, unnecessary but I know they are wanting their seats, wanting to see us in our places. We may have shed the routine but it is still precious to them. And so we act out what was once how we anchored our lives. We are adrift now but we don’t want them to know that we are happy floating. So we sit at the big table and all is as they remember. It is the precious routine of life.