So Thanksgiving is in a few weeks. My favorite holiday. Whenever the holidays roll around, I can’t help but think of my Nana’s table. Now it may seem odd to think of a table when so many others are thinking of turkey and stuffing, and later on presents and Santa Claus. It is odd, but for me it’s perfect. This mahogany table with its Colonial-style chairs and its lacy tablecloth is for me the complete representation of family holiday and tradition. So many memories were created there and so many stories are deeply embedded into its rich dark grain and curlicued chair backs. It remains at the heart of my family. Growing up, it was where we all gravitated to when the holidays arrived. You could even say it is our family’s heart.
Creepy 1950’s Thanksgiving instructional video…creepy like your Aunt Ida, and sloooooow, like treacle…
My Nana’s table resided in the middle of her dining room and was so large it almost filled the entire space. Eight people could sit at it comfortably, and we did, often, when Nana was still alive. Since her death in 1999 it seems we’ve gravitated to other tables to create new memories. It’s a shame because I can remember sitting in the chairs that looked like they came from George Washington’s Mount Vernon tracing my hands through the curlicues carved into the backs. The wood was always so slick and shiny. It felt like glass. People would be eating or just sitting, sipping coffee and telling old stories that I’d heard a thousand times before. I would trace my fingers over the familiar patterns in the back of the chair. There were three teardrop-shaped holes in the top of each chair. A poet would say they looked like flowers. Then I would tap my hands on the lacy rough tablecloth, careful not to spill anything. Even as a very young child I knew it was special and therefore not to be messed with.
It was the holidays that brought the Jordans to the table at River Drive. The town of Front Royal is small, a factory town, but still relatives would travel from far and wide to make it to Nana’s. There were no fancy holiday parades, and most of the streets were and still are quiet by 8pm, but at Nana’s the feast was never-ending. Every inch of Nana’s table was covered with food for hours on end. When dishes were emptied of their stuffing or greens or succotash or candied yams, new ones would be brought out to replace them. All of this rang true except for Nana’s staples: pickled eggs, Watergate salad, and country ham biscuits on potato rolls. When these were gone, more of the same would be put in its place. The constant grinding whine of the electric knife in the kitchen was a symphony to our ears because it meant that more country ham was on its way. Nana was known around our table for her specialty dishes. Every year she would ask us what we wanted to see on her table, and every year we would beg and plead for these three. I’ve already written about my love for Nana’s pickled eggs. Her table would be empty without them.
Thanksgiving at Nana’s table always involved saying grace. But not just any old way, our grace ended up being a 15-minute affair complete with tears and memories and so much reminiscing the food threatened to get cold. First of all there were at least 10 people around the table, and most of the time twelve or fifteen or twenty – friends of relatives who had tagged along for their second or third Thanksgiving of the day. Those numbers didn’t even include the kid’s table – a card table set up in the living room for all the young cousins, including me. My Aunt Judy always made us hold hands all the way around, so inevitably, I’d have to stand up and stretch my arm through to the dining room. Being the oldest cousin, I had the longest arm. It looked like we were about to start singing Kumbaya, but instead, Aunt Judy would have everyone go around and say what they were thankful for, all the while holding hands. This took at least 10 minutes, the food getting colder, and our hands getting sweatier by the minute. But I loved it.
Because inevitably, Aunt Judy would start crying when she talked about what made her thankful. That would start everyone else to crying happy tears. I also loved it when she said she wanted to remember all the people no longer with us – people like Pop-Pop, who passed away when I was eight, and Ya-Ya, my great-grandmother. I always felt they were right there with us at that moment. Still around the table, watching everything. Once I had a dream I was watching everyone around Nana’s table, standing just off to the side – invisible like something out of “A Christmas Carol.” Pop-Pop’s arm was around me. He softly whispered in my ear, “Remember this.” I watched my mother spoon food into my mouth – I was in a high chair, a toddler, with bangs, wearing a celery-green sundress. I woke feeling warm and cozy like I had just taken a nap before a roaring fire.
Nana’s table changed its meaning in March of 1999. I can remember driving to her funeral – through the rolling mountains surrounding Front Royal. Nick Drake is on the stereo, and I’m thinking about all the times before when I’ve made this trip. I know the route by heart. As a young child, bundled up against the cold, Nana’s table was a beacon guiding us to home, food, and family. As a sullen young woman, hitching a ride with my cousin, smoking, dreading the visit, the questions, the looks, all the expectations placed. Traveling in my own car much later, now looking forward to the embraces, the questions, the looks I now knew to be love, the high expectations for reunion and feeding of the soul and spirit. Where before I just wanted to be left alone, I eventually came to see how important and how rare these family connections were to my well being.
And now I was traveling to Nana’s funeral – very sad, feeling much older somehow. I just couldn’t believe Nana was gone. The early spring sun was cold, but still I was comforted every time it decided to make an appearance. At one point a buzzard flew low and hovered over my car just as I passed under it. I was flying fast up a huge steep hill, the buzzard swooping down over me, just pausing before moving on. It was actually more sublime than creepy.
As I entered Nana’s house, I found my whole family sitting around her table – eating. The activity that brings so many people together. There were platters of country ham, vegetables, fried chicken, homemade biscuits, baked beans, coconut cake, green bean casserole, all those southern fixtures. All of it brought by friends and family offering those two essential Southern funeral elements – sympathy and victuals. Enough to feed an army. The Jordans sat there for hours, picking, as more visitors dropped by and more platters were placed on every available surface. We’d eat, get full, talk some, then eat again. We were stuffing ourselves with comfort. Stuffing ourselves against grief at Nana’s table. I couldn’t help but imagine old southern hands pulling down the cake pans, the flour, the sugar, saying, “Erma’s passed on, better make my special apple spice cake to send down.”
I took my place at Nana’s table, surrounded by cousins. I felt a part of something then, something greater. My Aunt Judy kept saying this was meant to be a celebration of her life. And it was…it was like a typically great Jordan get-together. Nana would’ve been so proud.
After the funeral, which was sad and beautiful and poetic and at times so poignant you couldn’t breathe, we of course all gathered again around Nana’s table to eat. This time I found a corner, my quiet corner at the first bend in the stairs just next to Nana’s table. As I nibbled on a peppery piece of fried chicken I thought about how often I had sat on these stairs, watching everyone at the table below, just like in my dream, thinking about all of them and where we’d been. It seemed very right that I had found my hiding place on this day once again. Hundreds of people filed through the house and made their way around the impromptu buffet set out on Nana’s table. I watched them pass, plates piled high.
Later on the beer began to flow and Aunt Judy’s friend Dewey stopped by with his guitar. Into the night he played and sang song after song. Everything from Roy Orbison’s “Crying” to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” There was even an extended version of a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song that I can’t remember the title of but sang all the words to. Everyone sang, even if it was only to hum along. Dewey’s 3-year-old daughter Rena danced and laughed and played with Easter eggs. it was nice to hear music in Nana’s house again.
I sat on the couch for a while and thumbed through an ancient photo album. In it were sepia-toned pictures of Nana as a teenager out with her girlfriends – all of them in cloches and sitting with guys in fedoras, smirks tucked into the corners of their mouths like small cats. There was a picture of three guys, one with a mandolin, another with a fiddle. A small jar of moonshine lay on the ground between them. I imagined Nana in high-topped shoes smiling and tapping her foot as the fiddler eked out a tune. Laughing in that way she had – that soft, rolling chuckle that sounded a woodpecker whose beak was wrapped in cloth. How I miss that laugh. Looking at that picture, and all the music it contained, then watching the musical scene unwrap itself before me felt like two periods of time wrapping themselves around each other. So tightly, until you couldn’t tell what was modern and what was the past. It made me feel like she was still there, in the room. And like we were carrying on this tradition of drinking and dancing and celebrating the dearly departed. In the Jordan way.
About midnight I went off to bed – fully realizing I would not sleep. Dewey was still going strong – his repetoire was endless. From Bob Dylan to the Bee Gees “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” to Buddy Holly. But I needed solitude – after so much hugging and talking and crying my spirit was tired.
I lay in Nana’s featherbed and listened for hours to the music coming from downstairs. It was so sweet, such a proper sound for this moment. It made me smile at the rightness of it. I can’t imagine a better way to remember her. I can’t imagine a more perfect ending to her beautiful life. She created this – all of this. She had connected with so many people. When Dewey began a soft, lilting version of Linda Rondstadt’s “Blue Bayou” I couldn’t help but sing. Which was ironic, because as a child I had HATED this song. But now, in this moment, it seemed perfect. The melody was perfect. The words that spoke of hope and longing so poignant. It all felt so utterly right, and I hoped with such a force in my heart that Nana was hearing it – hearing the wonderful music emanating from her house at this hour. All of the people at Nana’s table singing to her. Thanking her.