Place at the Table

Normally my ancestors’ stories sit just below the surface of everyday life, and the rhetorical whitecaps show you where. For example, when I was pregnant, Rebecca objected to the idea that the baby would use her old high chair. She used to stand on its flat wooden seat to reach the counter and cook, but she’d been too tall to do that for almost a year. “Rebecca,” I reminded her, “Your great great grandma used this chair with her three children. All of her grandchildren sat in it. My brother and sister and I and her other great grandchildren sat in it when we visited her. People sat in this high chair before you, and people will sit in it after you.” It’s not the first time Rebecca’s heard this kind of argument, since half of our toys belonged to someone else in the family before her. I suppose it doesn’t do much to acknowledge her feelings and desire for control, but it sure feels good to say.

This Samhaintide, I’ve been trying to tell Rebecca more stories about the things in our house, so that she hears them as her heritage and not just deployed against her. One time I was trying to come up with a story about the highchair and asked myself if I could remember sitting in it. Suddenly, yes, I knew I had. I’d requested salmon for dinner, since I’d heard that’s the most delicious fish there is, and I was sitting in the high chair at Great Grandma DePauw’s waiting for it. Can you imagine how disappointed I was when I got a plate of funny-smelling brown blobs instead? I screamed that I wanted salmon. My mom looked pained and explained to me that this was salmon, and to her grandma that she’d never made salmon except in patties, so she didn’t know what I was talking about. Actually, I was thinking of the baked white fish with almonds that my mom made. I couldn’t imagine any fish more delicious than that, so I’d concluded it must be salmon. I didn’t know what else to call it, and when I found out what salmon really was, I was so disappointed–-it was just shattering. I refused to eat the salmon patties, and for the rest of my childhood, my mother never made them again.

Now, how many times have I read threads on BabyCenter complaining that someone’s kid asked for food and then changed her mind and had a tantrum? Apparently I did that, too, and that’s worth remembering. Especially because lately I’ve been fretting over parenting advice that’s forgotten the long perspective and the child’s perspective together. I can analyze it to death, but when I start remembering and telling stories, that’s when I know in my gut that much of what I’ve read about limits and managing kids’ desires is off base, and that’s when I know that worrying too much about how my parenting looks is silly.

Other things about the high chair I remember less clearly. At first I tried telling just the facts I know: Rebecca’s Great Great Grandpa Charles DePauw carried it home from “downtown” Kewanee, Illinois, in 1925, when his first daughter was a year old. That didn’t grab Rebecca. You need to feed your ancestors’ stories, put some flesh on their bones, if you don’t want them to sit around your table looking like dead things. The way I tell the high chair story now, it was an impulse gift. They could’ve made due without it, but it was high time for Baby Marie to sit at the table and be a regular part of the family. So when Grandpa DePauw saw our white high chair in the window of the new department store, he decided to buy it then and there. He didn’t even have his milk wagon with him to carry the high chair home, so he had to lug it all the way back himself. But it was worth it for the surprise.

The process of telling stories may give them details they never had before–living things do grow and change–but the image I prefer is of Odysseus offering fresh blood to the shades so that they can speak. I mentally tried out a couple different versions of the high chair story before settling on the one above, and when I first said that the high chair was an impulse gift, I was trying to make something up. But marvelously, as I said it and pictured how it might’ve been, I started to hear my mother trying to remember the same thing, and the pictures in my mind were things I think I first imagined long ago, when I was talking with her. Has my creativity tricked me here? It seems more likely that the creative process draws impressions from deeper parts of my memory, and that maybe this is where I’m porous to my ancestors’ voices.

The more I keep my eyes peeled for stories, the more our house and bodies read like an acrostic about people who’ve come before us, and the more I see our continuity and humanity. Rebecca, on the other hand, likes new things. She likes the romance of presents and excess packaging and knowing that something is just hers, fully hers. I mean, she’s four. So this year as we took down the collection of bric-a-brac and heirlooms from our Samhain altar, I started something new. I gave Rebecca part of the altar: the glass deer that her Great Grandpa Schirra had bought in Italy while he was in the Navy. It’s high time for Rebecca to start receiving part of her heritage as a gift, so that she can control it and feel out its stories for herself. These things belonged to people before me, and they will belong to others after me.

(It was a hit. Rebecca adores deer.)

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