The table was beautiful because the table was always beautiful. A spotless tablecloth set with my great-great somebody’s china, an over-the-top silver set, crystal goblets, and a centerpiece of lilies and white candles. It would be impressive if it weren’t so predictable. This was how the dining room always looked at my parents’ house though, and honestly, I would have been more excited to walk in and see paper plates and disposable cups. I had thought about coming early and asking to set the table myself. I could have packed in all of the items to truly horrify my mother, which would have led to a truly enjoyable holiday for myself. However, that would have required being early, and as my family would gladly tell you, repeatedly, I am not great at being prompt to anything.
“Move or help!”
The command was from my mother and it was, also, predictable. Were I to try to actually help, I would be told to “shoo” and “go somewhere useful, like out of the way”. So I scooted to the side as my mom brought in a steaming dish of something followed by my perfectly dressed and coiffed sister carrying an equally large bowl of steaming mystery. They rushed back out and back in a few more times before I was asked to “make myself useful” and light the candles. My dad was nowhere in sight, because he was, if nothing else, incredibly intelligent. He was likely in his study reading a paper and getting his pre-dinner drink on. The man avoided the holiday hubbub in the same way every year, and it never did anything but make my mother angry, which, in turn, made me feel a bit of joy.
Mom hastened (not ran, never ran) out of the room to go get Dad, followed by my sister who made her way to fetch her husband from wherever he had been hiding. The table was set for six, which meant that either they were trying to make a dig about the fact that I was alone, or they had set me up with one of their insufferable friends.
Everyone made their way to the table and waited behind their designated seats, smiles superficially plastered to their faces. Mom removed her mysteriously spotless apron and set it aside. Then Dad sat down, and we were all allowed to gracefully fold ourselves, not plop, into our seats. So I plopped.
“You set too many places, Mom.”
“Oh, well, dear, we can always hope we’ll need it. Can’t we? Instead we’ll just say we made room for Jesus today.”
“So, Jesus is my date?”
“Stop that. Not right before we pray, dear. It isn’t right.”
Everyone bowed their heads which meant I had precisely five minutes while Dad “said grace” before the first backhanded compliment came my way. It was the only time I would have to myself for the rest of the day, and I was grateful for the moment.
At the end of the prayer, I joined in the chorus of “amens” so they knew I had been paying attention, and then I braced myself, counting down internally: five, four, three…
“Dear, what an interesting outfit you’re wearing today. I’m always so impressed with how you manage to find such unique clothes second-hand.”
The long, flowy skirt I was wearing had a bold, hot-pink flower print. It barely brushed the floor when I stood still and was perfect for twirling. The cropped white blouse sat a few inches above the waistband of my skirt, showing just enough skin to raise my mother’s eyebrow, but not enough for her to ask me to cover up. It wasn’t a second-hand outfit at all; in fact, this was the first time it had been worn. Knowing full well the age of my outfit didn’t really matter, I nonchalantly replied, “Thanks. I made it, actually.”
“Oh! That’s new? Amazing! I couldn’t tell. You should really let your sister take you shopping. She always looks so polished. Doesn’t she?”
“Yeah,” I responded, “polished. Like a rock. Or recycled aluminum.”
“What an odd thing to say. Sometimes I wonder where you came from.”
My mom turned to my dad and requested he slice the ham. Ham is the traditional Easter food served by Christians. We eat it because it is the epitome of non-kosher food. It’s a passive-aggressive dig at the past.
My family began to pass the meat the minute my dad had sliced it and taken the first piece. The patriarch always gets the first slice. This is another subtle dig, but it expands beyond Easter to encompass any meal served at a table. Men get fed first. Women get the scraps. The platter passed by me untouched, and Mom looked at me concerned.
“Oh, are you still not eating meat, dear? That is so unhealthy. Maybe that’s why you always look so pale?”
I have been a vegetarian for seven years. Seven years of this exact conversation. “Mom, it has nothing to do with my lack of meat consumption."
“She’s right.” My sister piped up. “She’s pale because her skin is so sensitive to the sun, and because she never leaves her dark little apartment.”
“Sweetheart, your plate is empty,” my mom starts back in. “Are you not hungry? I hope you aren’t trying to lose weight. You barely weigh anything as it is. At least take some salad. We made that just for you, you know.”
“Mom, it has bacon in it.”
“Oh. Can you not eat bacon either?”
Unlike the massive hog haunch everyone was now beginning to masticate, the bacon was not a statement about those who, for religious reasons, do not eat pork. No, this was a carefully planned statement about how my mother felt about my lifestyle choices.
“I’ll just go make myself a peanut butter sandwich.”
“Okay, darling, but please wait until after dinner. The smell will clash with the rest of the meal.”
Thus commenced the part of the day where I would sit and stare at my family as they put food in their mouths; each chewing a very specific number of times. It was peaceful for the most part. A munch here, a throat clear there. Napkins lifted from laps to dab daintily at lips.
My dad began conversing with my sister’s husband about stocks and bonds and the things that people in finance talk about that are of zero interest to anyone not in the same business.
My mom smiled dotingly at my sister as she patted her husband’s knee and purred about a promotion he was up for. It was the kind of life I had purposefully and cautiously avoided. The perfect housewife. Completely content with a day-to-day routine of caring for her man.
“It’s a good thing he’s up for the promotion, too,” my sister was saying. She looked at him with a secret kind of smile, and he kissed the top of her head in an act that would normally be disallowed from the table. “I’m pregnant!” The screech that came from my mother was the most unladylike sound I had ever heard her make.
After a moment of unabashed tittering, my mom turned to me with tears in her eyes, “I just wish you could know this kind of happiness, I really do.” There was no possible way for her to see my life as anything but miserable and childless.
Ignoring her entirely, I smiled at the couple across the table from me. “I’m very happy for you, sis.”
At that, Dad stood up from the table and asked my brother-in-law to join him for cigars and brandy in his study. Mom got up and immediately started clearing the table while simultaneously cooing at my sister’s still-flat stomach.
“You can go get your sandwich, dear,” she said as she scooped up my still-clean plate from in front of me. “It won’t ruin anything now.”