I wish I’d known it would be the last time we’d all be together, but, of course, you never do. Every Sunday after church, for who knows how many years, we made our short trek to Grandmom and Grandad’s for Sunday dinner. We referred to their home at Wrightsville Beach on Causeway Drive as the beach.
This was our routine: We pulled the drop leaf table away from the wall to the center of the living room. We set the table leaves up, covered the table with a plastic cloth and then spread out the nice linen tablecloth Grandmom chose. It would be the white, yellow or blue one. We set the table with silverware, napkins and whatever centerpiece Grandmom created. There would be roses or pansies cut from the yard or a green plant from the grocery store.
We took turns walking upstairs to collect enough chairs for everyone. It’s funny when I think of the awkwardness and inconvenience that had become so routine. Regular instructions were given as to which chairs to use and in what rooms they’d be found. If I got there first, I’d sometimes wait for the younger family members to fetch chairs so they could help. We counted heads about five times to get the number right, and even then it never was. We’d add or take away a place setting because we never knew for sure who’d show up.
My mother-in-law, Billie, is the most hospitable and generous person I know; we’d invite whomever we hankered to include at the table. I worried the food would run out, so Tom and I would go last in the buffet line, just in case. The amount of food always seemed to work. If there happened to be food left, Billie would insist that she did not want any leftovers. I always found that to be extremely gracious since I loved having leftovers.
Billie and Dub’s long time friend, Mae would usually show up right as we were about to sit down to eat. She’d been widowed years earlier and loved Sunday dinner as much as we did. She’d walk through the interior entrance from her home next door. Each time she’d say, “Is there anything I can do?” But she timed her arrival so well there usually wasn’t. She made us laugh. “How tall are you, Katherine? When will you graduate, John? You never gain any weight, do you, Tom?” Then she said, “Myra, you do have to watch your weight, don’t you?” (that on the heels of the comment about Tom who always stayed slender.) “Yes, I do, Mae.”
“The only way to truly feel peace and joy is to live fully in the present.” C.S. Lewis
There was laughter and joy around that table. We’d roll our eyes, turn our heads and grin because the same exact phrases were repeated every week. But it was what we did in that era of our lives. Sunday lunch told the story of who we were and who we are still: family. Martin was a regular guest, as was Tavitris, Grey, David and many more. I’ll never forget the hilarity that came out of that bunch of folks. Billie and Grandad Dub, always got tickled over all the silliness and as I glance back I realize it brought life to them.
Dessert was an essential part of the occasion. Chocolate pound cake, hummingbird cake, berry cobbler with ice cream; those were the most popular. No matter the dessert offering, Dub would say, “That’s my favorite!”. Billie said her daddy expected dessert after every meal and she intended to carry on the tradition. She was the best cake baker on the planet. My personal favorites were hummingbird cake and carrot cake. I’d often be so full I was about to pop and couldn’t take another bite. I’d refuse dessert quietly, for fear it would hurt Billie’s feelings.
I don’t think we realized how much we loved Mae, our routine and the random people until after the last time. We didn’t know it was the last so we didn’t celebrate it. Billie found meal prep difficult and we were concerned about her safety in the kitchen. One Sunday I decided to host the meal at our house. Mae had experienced a health incident and was staying in an assisted living facility. Dub suffered ongoing health issues and it became impossible for him to join us. Sadly, he passed away a few months later. Just like that, our loud, raucous, joyful Sunday routine changed forever. We’d taken the gathering for granted and enjoyed it so much. Then it was gone so quickly.
Life is full of unknowns. As I revisit our long-standing tradition at Grandmom’s table, I’m reminded that the only way I can celebrate the “lasts” is to celebrate today. It’s easier said than done. I’m thankful for the gift of today and I cherish the experiences that brought us here. I’m going to say yes to some table-gathering dreams I have in my head before it’s too late.
“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.” Psalm 90:12 NLT