Maybe this is a generational thing, maybe it still happens, but family dinners on Sundays and holidays used be quite formal.
At the centre of it all was the large dining room table. During the week, it might the place for doing homework, for cutting out sewing patterns, or once at our house, for a quilting bee. On holidays, the table was extended to fit 12 or 14 people. The boards that extend the length are called leaves, as though we were adding to a tree. The final act of transformation came when the white linen cloth was placed on top. Pure, fresh. A sacred space created.
In the afternoon before the dinner, real silverware, bone china dishes, wine glasses, a centrepiece, napkins, serving dishes, butter dishes, crystal stemmed salt and pepper shakers, and gravy boats were set out on the white sea. The table was set.
Recently, I met Marilyn, who told me she is in her eighties and how she found some table cloths that she had no use for, but there were memories attached. She asked me over for coffee, then spread out her mother’s and grandmother’s linen table cloths on her dining room table. They’d been well-used. Here’s where the gravy spilled, still a large yellow stain. And there were holes, small ones from the wear of weekly washings, and a large plate-sized one. Perhaps a hot pan had burned through. Marilyn asked if there was enough “good” fabric to make a set of large table napkins, as a keepsake for her niece. To throw the linen out seemed wrong.
When I delivered the set of eight large linen napkins, Marilyn didn’t look at them right away. Instead, she talked about another kind of table she’d sat around. When she’d first come to London, she became friends with Mary Campbell, also from the west, but an activist who would start a co-op movement in this rather white-collar city.
Marilyn remembers the Campbells’ table, how she read there, reading things she didn’t always understand: Communist treatises, trade union booklets, socialist literature. She remembers falling in with a movement where working as equals was preferred, and then having the courage to leave a bad marriage and go to college to become a social worker.
Now it’s a choice for a woman to stay in a marriage, but 40 or 50 years ago, to leave brought on a lot of judgement and shame, like spilling gravy or red wine on the white table cloth. I thanked Marilyn for her courage, for making it easier for the women of my generation. It’s not that we don’t love the traditions, the white linen and beautiful place settings, but we know there are other tables, tables set with a different cloth.