One of the most abiding of human acts is to have a place at the table

Justin Isherwood
That oak table was the core of the Isherwood family where they talked, argued, and occasionally prayed.

My mother’s kitchen table was oak, the plain sort of thing, no claw-footed legs, no scroll work, no flutes, just plain old oak. Closer to ship hull construction than to furniture.  The same durability as a sea-going hatch cover, and as likely to take a beating.

This was the table’s fate, the altar of my mama’s bread making.  For my mama (I  never called her mom, always mama which doesn’t sound adult unless you’re from the former confederacy where it is both polite and adult to call your mom, mama. To believe the Confederacy might have been right about one thing.) 

Bread-making at the farmhouse was a WWF event, it even had rounds, lacking only a bell in between.  Bread is not made, bread is wrestled into being. Twice a week, six loaves each the size of a frigate shell.

Twice a week, Justin Isherwood's "Mama" would make six loaves of bread, each the size of a frigate shell.

The table also suffered chicken, at least their disassembly, and the occasional carburetor repair. 

At supper it set 5 people, two brothers, our parents, myself. We each had a side except my little brother who fit in at my father’s left hand. Mama was on the east cardinal, brother Bobby to the south, I was west under the radio shelf, Dad and the little brother on the north flank. 

The advantage was our little brother got the serving plate first from my father. Next our mom, brother Bob, I the last of the serving tray. Funny how a set practice like this can affect life habits. To this day I find myself waiting to the end of any serving line. I don’t know why. I do believe in survival of the fittest as much as anybody, but I still don’t need to be the first in line, or even in the ample middle.

As luck and fate have designed, I have developed a taste for the touch-too-burnt chicken, hot dogs, fried potatoes with a crust. I don’t mind burnt toast either. To observe there is a certain distinctive taste of pancakes burned when combined with dark maple syrup.

That oak table was the core of our family. We talked there, we argued, occasionally we prayed. My long dispute with religion began at the same table because of the absurd, ritualized, poorly worded, to the end boring sing-song prayer we uttered. The canticle of which is tattooed into my brain. 

A prayer that maybe wasn’t so bad when uttered the first time, but the second to the 27-thousandth time rendered this prayer shop-worn. Even to my young mind, if a prayer insults you it will probably insult God or the OverSoul or Newton’s gravity or whatever ear of the universe you wish to propitiate. 

A prayer done with no more mental resolve than scratching an itch, robotic. Robots don’t need to pray. Sooner or later even a kid feels the weight of that artifice. In the end this was the lesson of that table and a certain ability to see beyond the artifice.

I am now much better at prayer because of that table. I know a good one when I hear it. Same sense when you let the ball go knowing it will drop through the basket, when from the sound off the bat you know the ball will clear the fence. Same with prayer. Appreciated by God or the dark.

Sad to say I don’t know what became of that table, it wouldn’t have gained entry into an antique store, it was that plain. Maybe one of the grandkids has it, perhaps I should ask. Perhaps I shouldn’t because that would suggest I want it and I have a good table, maple this time. It is round, we found that more efficient, besides, food can be passed both ways, if clockwise still is the norm, so there is always a kid who learns to like the burnt piece of toast. Even evolution understands the proficiency of the mechanism.

I cannot walk by or see an old table to not imagine the lives that table tended. How the currency of the family, any family, flows around a table. I have come to think of tables as holy of sorts, of the anchoring a table plays in our lives. A table where each has a place; one of the most abiding of human acts, to have a place at a table.

I was at a place on a Saturday morning called the Burrough Market, an open air market under a London railway bridge. It’s a food court of hundreds of tables selling seemingly every food of every nation or tribe on the Earth. Every language there spoken. Every hue. People standing up, milling about, eating everything from Hindu curry to sushi to TexMex, aided by beers, teas, wines, champagne. All of us in our fragile humanity around some metaphoric table.

Sometimes I believe the task of finding world peace is a lot easier than the suits would have us think. If push does come to shove, it’s still only a food fight. But to observe, burnt toast isn’t so bad.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.