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Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned at Her Table

Each night as my husband and I fall into bed we are literally out of breath but we don't know why. Life has us on some sort of frantic treadmill that is ironically only making me fatter. We are stressed and rushed. I always wonder what we are working so hard to rush for. Death? Retirement? If only we can get through this day, this week, this latest bout of sick or sleepless kids. At what point do we stop "getting through" and just start living?

Perhaps somewhat related and perhaps not I am thinking about this as I stare at a photo I smuggled out of my father's house during our vacation. Unlike many of the old family photos, I've never seen this one. I can tell it predates me, and captures my father's mother's birthday one year. His family is gathered around a carefully set table in our living room. I can see that my mother has one of her good tablecloths on the table that she definitely ironed. There is a pot of coffee in the middle and carefully set place settings for everyone. Cups and saucers, the good dishes. There are flowers in the middle of the table and she is presenting my grandmother with a handmade cake as they both smile, not at the camera, but at the pairs of loving eyes surrounding them at the table.

It is a portrait of a moment in time. A carefully set, slow, deliberate moment in time. My grandmother does not appear to be turning any special age. But she is clearly being made to feel very special in that moment. That took work on my mother's part.

I think a lot about the slowness and deliberateness with which my mother must have moved through that day. There are no paper plates or plastic. Nothing was thrown out; everything was probably hand washed. It is a simple understated scene of how to do something right and enjoy that moment. I think about how often we forsake the importance of this in an effort just to get it done, to move fast, to get through. There is no art in that. It is what leaves us breathless each night. And suddenly it occurs to me that perhaps the key is that we need to stop getting through and just get in. That maybe my mother is teaching me everything I need to know about how to parent, to mother, to truly live well right there in this picture:

1. Be Prepared.
Several months after my wedding, with the china we received still in boxes, my mother came over to carefully wash, and put everything away. When we wanted to use it to entertain in our new home together, we'd be ready. If we didn't invest, organize, prepare now, we'd likely never use it. We spent hours carefully washing and separating dishes and saucers, then rewrapping them with plastic wrap and paper so they'd stay nice. The lesson was a valuable one and not just about dishes either. Don't put off till tomorrow what can be done today. Be prepared and anticipate what's ahead, because if you don't you'll spend forever on that forever treadmill, just trying to get by, catch up.

2. Use the Good Dishes.
In the end, my mother had significantly less time left than any of us realized. And if I had known then what I know now, I would've unwrapped that china and put it right on the kitchen table and said something like, "Hey Mom. Life's just too damn short. Let's sit here and eat our Milanos on these fancy dishes just because we can, just because our time together is that special." And we'd laugh at how frivolous and ridiculous we're being, which is more joy than I've ever gotten out of those dishes. Six years later, I've only just unwrapped them. They've never been used. In fact they've barely seen the light of day. But I'm not sure what I'm waiting for. For as many things as she taught me in life, her unexpected death taught me this: don't wait for an occasion. Find a reason to celebrate each and every day. Use the good dishes.

3. Set Your Table (and live your life) with Care
My mother knew how to set a beautiful table which by the way, is much harder than it looks. It wasn't necessarily filled with the fanciest of things, but it was filled with special things, beautiful things that she took very good care of. Her nicest table cloth that she carefully ironed, each place setting laid out, an old vase in the middle of the table with a few simple and beautiful flowers. When you sat at her table, you felt the care she put in, and it made you feel appreciated. It was a celebration in the art of slow, and it created an environment in which her guests indeed felt like moving more deliberately, truly enjoying each other's company. She gave care, and it showed. It stands in such contrast to a life where everything seems to move very fast now. Sometimes when I'm not accomplishing something, sending that email, making that dinner fast, getting it all done quickly, I literally feel panicky. My mother's table was the antithesis of all this. It took time to prepare. It took even more time to take down. And in between you appreciated the artistry of its slowness.

4. Write it Down
It's not that I don't like Pinterest. I do. But it just doesn't match up with an old faded recipe card well annotated with my mother's handwriting on what worked, what needed to be tweaked. Long after she's gone, it is the closest thing I have to cooking alongside her. Briskets and birthday cakes, Jell-o Molds and trifles that she carefully prepared to dazzle "delicious!" or subsequently disappoint "terrible, tasteless."  I see her scrawl, the spatter of ingredients added in haste or care, and it gives each recipe history. That history is part of the love that flavors what I cook for my family around the table now. Nothing on the Internet will taste like that.

5. Know Your Home (hint - it isn't your house)
Each moment spent around our dining room table for birthdays and holidays were filled with the family and friends in our lives that we loved. More than the recipes or the china or the tablecloths, they are what made these moments special. She was often fond of saying that a house is just a house, but a home is wherever your family is. As I think about all those festive moments spent together, my mother was careful to remind me that if you surround your table with the people you love, no matter what, no matter where you are, you will always be home.

This Mother's Day, the best way I can honor her and my own children, is to not get through the day, but to get in it. I will take care to move more slowly, live more deliberately, and surround myself with the people I love.

From my table to yours, happy mother's day.


  1. Well, I am sobbing. Bittersweet, memory tears, because like you I am heading into another Mother's Day motherless. I have to tell you that reading the part about the recipes is what really took me over the edge. I was fortunate enough to find some of my mother's old recipes recently and seeing her handwriting was both gut-wrenching and uplifting. This is an AMAZING post, and I cannot wait to share it.-Ashley

  2. This is a truly beautiful post! My mom passed away last June, so this Sunday will be my first Mother's Day without her. Reading your post brought her vividly back to me for a few moments and for that I thank you very much! Like your mom, mine also knew how to make family meals and get-togethers extra special. She always set a beautiful table and created a very caring atmosphere. She took her time and planned every detail - from the tablecloth and fine china, right down to the perfect centerpiece. I used to wonder why she fussed so much - why she put so much effort into everything .... but now I know. Those special times would one day become precious memories - and she was framing those memories with thought and beauty and tremendous love. There are indeed a lot of lessons to be learned from the time and care that our moms took in doing things - and I thank you for so beautifully reminding me of it.

  3. This is just gorgeous and brought back memories of my mom polishing silver and setting pretty tables, not just for special occasions but just because. I have not done that for my own children, or when I have it's been rushed and filled with "have to's". Thank you for the wonderful reminder.


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