I’ve been thinking a lot about food and family and my Kentucky home, figuring out how gathering at the table makes us who we are. I’ve been trying to pull those thoughts together, and the following is a portion of an essay I’m working on about it all. I’ve found that the tables at which we rest bring us through the world, bring us to our people, and feed us in ways much deeper than physical – past our stomachs and into our souls.
The table was always the center of our home; each of us sat in the same place for each meal, and it was from my particular seat—across from Mom, with Dad on my left and my sister on my right—that I began to move through the world.
We use kitchen tables and their chairs for all kinds of activities—homework, art projects, as a place to drape our coats and drop our purses. We prop a foot up to tie our shoes. Our moms braid our hair after a shower. We sign papers and play board games. We talk about our days and leave notes for the morning. But most often, we gather for meals.
At this table, I learned to love food and my family. I laughed until tears ran down my face and snuck bites from the meal to the dogs, who were always circling, looking up at us with big brown eyes. I savored the familiar recipes Mom made as the seasons changed—the pumpkin bread that greeted me on October mornings, the soups and crunchy bread that warmed me on Christmas Eve, the cold pasta salad I scooped from big bowls on the table and ate sitting on the back porch in the summer while the grill sizzled. I lingered in the kitchen while Mom cooked, either gathering or putting away ingredients for her or perching on the kitchen island, talking and observing a meal coming together, swinging my stocking feet.
Now I don’t feel like I’m truly cooking a meal unless a towel is flung over my shoulder like one always was over Mom’s. I email Mom for recipes I helped her pull together over the years and make them on my own. I send her recipes I think she and Dad would love. When she makes them, she sends me photos of Dad holding up an emptied bowl of soup and the dog looking longingly at the table, as always. I call my grandmother to ask about pie crusts and guacamole. I learn, over and over, that no one knows what the measurements for these classic recipes are, and more often than not, the directions include the phrase “until it looks right.” So that’s what I do, too, trusting that I saw baked beans made enough times growing up that I’ll know when it looks right, too.
I don’t live in that Versailles house anymore—in fact, my parents don’t either. A new job after 17 years in Kentucky took my parents back to Indiana, where much of our family lives. In a total plot twist, they live in the same town we left to move to Kentucky when I was beginning second grade. I remember sitting at the kitchen table in that Indiana house, crying, because at the age of seven I was devastated to have to leave my friends.
Later I’d return home from a trip to France and cry with my family as Dad told us he had taken several interviews with a company in Indiana. I knew as soon as he said it that the deal was closed—we were moving. They insisted that they wanted my sister and me to be a part of the process, but I said I didn’t think they wanted the daughter who got emotional when we had to replace the old microwave to weigh in on this one.
It took only from June to September for my parents to be out of Versailles house and into the new house, and I wish I could say I handled it like the adult my age says I am. Instead, I snapped at my mother for crying in public. I cried myself to sleep on a number of nights after holding it in all day. I left a going-away party full of my parents’ friends and went book shopping late at night because I couldn’t stand the small talk. I was rude and angry, tense and cold. I was broken open in a way I had never been before.
But then everything was packed: cupboards and drawers emptied, open jars of jam tossed out, “moving week” suitcases packed. It was emotional triage all summer figuring out what to keep, toss, and pack for the days on the road with our stuff loaded onto a giant moving truck. Digging through my room, anything could bring me to tears. There were things on bookshelves that had been there for all 17 years I lived in that room, and packing it all away was not like transitioning into a new stage of life: it fully was. It was moving states and moving forward, and the dates were scheduled before I had a say in them.
Soon calls with my Mom were filled with details of the new place; she raved about all the kitchen space and the huge trees in the backyard, just bending into autumn when they arrived. I ached to see the trees outside the Versailles house again, the trees from which I’d yanked a few leaves on my last afternoon there in a desperate attempt not to lose my home.
But one day Mom sent a photo of the kitchen and I saw our coffee pot plugged in with the same Tupperware container of coffee grounds next to it. I knew the same tiny yellow scoop was inside it. For some reason, knowing the same dinner plates and old plastic cups were in those cabinets settled me. This would not be the same kitchen I grew up in, but it would be one prepared for me to keep growing in. The old recipe books would be standing at attention by the stove, and the blue plastic tubs of flour and sugar would be in the cabinet any time I needed them. We’d roll out Christmas cookies and pull loaves of banana bread from the oven, just like we always did.
Soon I began to see my apartment differently. That kitchen took its place as the room I knew most intimately. I began to go home to that place, not holding onto the Versailles house as the place I could truly dig in and become the truest version of myself. I could be who I was in the Versailles house in my tiny apartment kitchen, and cooking there night after night began to show just how much I needed to be.