Setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner was always a big to-do, almost ceremonial. My father liked to orchestrate, enlisting several sets of hands to expand the antique table to a size that could accommodate a minimum of a dozen, generally more. Consulting first with my mother for a headcount that was always changing, the man who always sat at the head of the table would venture into the cavernous hall closet for additional boards to extend the table. The boards weighed a ton, made of the same dark stained wood as the heirloom table, with each board numbered to ensure a seamless extension. Our dining room chairs with the needlepoint seats had curvy backs and wide legs, too unwieldy for Thanksgiving. My father dove into the rear of the hall closet to unearth uncomfortable folding chairs with black leatherette seats supported by wooden legs. When unfolded, the chairs were guaranteed to pinch your fingers as you set them in place. My mother accumulated the chairs in the 1960s and 70s when S&H green stamps were popular. The stamps were distributed at supermarkets, gas stations, and department stores, collected by all the moms, and pasted into booklets. When you had amassed enough, the green stamps were redeemable for products featured in the S&H catalogue. Based on the number of folding chairs tucked away in the closet, my mother must have been collecting and redeeming stamps with a passion.
Once the table had the requisite number of boards in place, my father retrieved the table pads and lined them up; sandwiching the narrow ones in the middle, securing them between the wide ones with the rounded edges. Having anchored the table and chairs in place, my father wandered into the kitchen to ‘supervise.’ This meant bantering back and forth with Jessie who was the mastermind of Thanksgiving dinner preparation. Jessie padded across the kitchen floor, checking on the turkey in one oven, rotating pies and root vegetables in the other, adding a shake of Wondra flour to the pearl onions simmering in cream. My father liked to stir things on top of the stove, add a little extra salt to the matzoh stuffing, check on the status of the pigs-in-blankets we would nibble with cocktails before dinner.
My mother was busy in the dining room, poised before the doors of the breakfront, going through an imposing stack of perfectly ironed linen tablecloths and a dizzying stack of napkins. From my vantage point on the other side of the room, all of the table linens looked pretty much the same; assorted shades of white, ivory, palest yellow, or sage green embellished with intricate monograms and a sprinkling of French dots. Etched within the threads of the initials were the generations of people who had once circled the table. My mother knew the history of each cloth, recounting stories of birthday dinners, anniversary celebrations, countless Thanksgivings, all tethered to starched linens. Up to her neck in tablecloths and napkins of varying sizes, her commentary was muffled beneath the damasks and jacquards.
Expanded to capacity, the dining room table stretched into the living room. Often we needed my grandmother’s card table for additional seating, its green Naugahyde surface draped with the perfect cloth, echoing countless games of canasta and solitaire. Occasionally, there would be a need for a kid-sized Samsonite folding table, to accommodate the very youngest, but for the most part we sat elbow to elbow, youngsters and grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins. We lingered long after turkey and pies, exhausting the centerpiece of vibrant grapes and dried fruit, emptying the candy dishes filled with salted cashews and thin chocolate mints.
It was my favorite holiday, the one that echoed through the dining room the following morning as we dismantled the table and folding chairs, restoring the dining room to its original, everyday formation. The cranberry stained tablecloth and the napkins smudged with pumpkin and chocolate tumbled into the washing machine, facing a deluge of hot water and laundry detergent. My mother retrieved the clean linens promptly out of the dryer, whisking them away to her full-sized ironing board to restore their creases with her serious iron, before folding them and returning them to the breakfront.
Thanksgiving arrived a little early this year, with our group of eleven fitting comfortably around a long table without boards, without monogrammed linens. As my sister and I earnestly ironed a contemporary tablecloth with stubborn wrinkles, it occurred to me that there was no need for a kids table. All of the kids have grown up.
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