I've spent most of the Thanksgivings of my adult life at the head of my own table. Living 3,000 miles away from our parents forced my husband and me to establish our own traditions for our family during the holiday. Granted, this usually entailed multiple phone calls to my mother, with questions like, "What kind of bread crumbs do you use for stuffing again?" and "How do you know if a turkey is done if it doesn't have that little red popup button?" My mom was the master; I, a mere wannabe.
I guess I never really felt like a true matriarch. I can cook a turkey to perfection and make mashed potatoes for 20 people, but my table settings were makeshift and just didn't measure up to the Thanksgiving table of my childhood. I did my best with the plates and flatware I owned, and went to the Dollar Store to buy matching wine glasses. Sometimes I made napkin rings. But my table never gleamed with shiny silverware or sparkled with white bone china. I didn't have a heavy linen tablecloth with matching napkins. My Thanksgiving table was, like me, a bit of an imposter.
Until last year. Last year, my mother moved to Oregon to live near me and brought all her china and silverware with her. Granted, all of this stuff had been stuffed away in her cupboards. My mother hadn't hosted a Thanksgiving herself for years. At 92 years old, she used her oven to store overflow pots and pans, not to cook dinners anymore. But she clung to all her fancy dishes and promised to leave them to us in her will.
"Jule, I'd give you the bone china but that would be too hard to ship," she told me in the years before her move. "So I'm leaving the china to Jane." Jane (my sister) didn't really want the china but that never registered with my mom. "You'll get the silver, Jule, and the little cabinet I keep it in." My mom loved nothing more than contemplating and discussing the disposal of her belongings after her death. I didn't love this subject as much, but I was kind of excited about the silver.
When my mom moved across the country to live near me, she refused to get rid of much of her stuff. She was not that sort of person. In fact, she chose only about ten of the 200 or so books she owned in her small apartment to donate. I had to laugh when I saw the top title of the little pile was "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up." My mom did not mind a little clutter.
"Mom! You're never going to use this stuff again! Let's get rid of it!" we begged and pleaded in the days prior to her move.
"You never know," my mom sagely replied. "Let's just bring it along and decide later."
Since most of her clutter could not fit in her new apartment, as predicted, it ended up in my garage. And, on Thanksgiving, it graced my table.
I unpacked box after box of carefully packed china, delicately nestled wine glasses, neatly stacked silverware. I tentatively washed and dried the plates, and bought polish for the silver. I spent several days polishing each fork, knife and spoon. I found the heavy tablecloth and sprinkled it with water to make it easier to iron, just like my mom used to do. The day before Thanksgiving, I spread the cloth on my table and carefully laid out each place setting. I ditched my Dollar Store wine glasses in place of my mom's crystal. My table gleamed and shone as brightly as the ones of my childhood.
Best of all, my mother arrived and sat at the head of it. Or rather, the two of us sat at one head with my husband and one of our kids at the other. We don't have a giant table; we have to squeeze in a bit. But the point is, my mother got to see all her beautiful things laid out and used again. "It looks so lovely, Jule!" she said, taking her seat next to me. "Is this all mine? I can hardly believe it!"
"It's all yours, Mom. I unpacked all the boxes," I said. "And washed all the dishes. And polished all the silver."
"Did you use Weiman's Silver Polish? That's the best kind." My mom picked up a fork and inspected it.
"Yup, I used Weiman's. And I sprinkled the tablecloth with water before ironing, just like you used to do."
"Oh, Bobo [my grandmother] used to do that too. That's where I learned it. Some people use starch but I don't think it works as well." My mom spread her hands across the tablecloth. "It looks really nice, Jule!"
The rest of the family and our usual Thanksgiving guests joined us at the table and we said grace. This year, we didn't make up a grace like we usually do, but instead said the old Catholic prayer we used to say before meals growing up. Somehow my mom's presence at the table made this seem natural.
We dug into the food but my mom kept stopping every few bites to look around. "I just can't believe this, Jule," she said. "Your table is as pretty as mine ever was! And the food is as delicious too!" Her words warmed my heart. My mother had suffered a number of losses in recent years: her sister, brother, husband, daughter. But she had survived all this loss and moved across the country to live near me. Now we were sitting down at a table that sparkled and gleamed with more than just dishes; it sparkled and gleamed with memories of the people who shared meals with us before. My mom was right in keeping this stuff. I was right in using it for Thanksgiving. And what a joy it was to get to use it all with her sitting right by my side.
I won't be so lucky this year. My mom passed away in April. I haven't set the table for Thanksgiving yet, but I will soon. I'll get out all my mother's best china and silver, and polish it up. I'll lay it out carefully and sit at the head of the table again. My table will gleam and sparkle just like the tables of my childhood and I'll think of my mother, leaning into me and whispering, "Isn't it beautiful, Jule? You're really the matriarch now!"