Mealtime in the house where I grew up was a lonely affair. My older sister left home for good by the time I was ten, my even older half-siblings had never lived with us, and my parents were not ones to entertain. Occasionally a friend of mine might stay for dinner, and even sleep over, but most evenings I ate alone with my parents, an I Love Lucy rerun on the small black-and-white television at our side. All the while, a fourth presence lingered at our quiet dinette table, that of my parents' unhappy marriage. My mother and father, I knew, each felt stuck. They held years of pent up anger. Neither had much to say to the other, which was why we counted on Lucy and Ricky to help us pass the time.
Naturally, I came to envy my friends with big, raucous families who teased and elbowed each other as heavy plates of food were passed among them. For a brief time, I fantasized about living in a commune. Or maybe I'd grow up to have a large, boisterous family of my own one day. Whatever scenario I imagined, the picture that went with it invariably had a dinner table at its center. Somehow, though I certainly hadn't learned this in my own lonely household, I understood the potential for a shared meal to offer not just nourishment but community. A sense of belonging, like a basket of warm dinner rolls, always within reach.
As it turned out, I wound up in my own difficult marriage—to a man, it so happened, whose preferred place to eat was in the living room in front of the TV. Yet, when Richard and I first separated, a wave of sadness always hit me at the dinner hour. What finally changed this was noticing that the meals-for-two I shared with my toddler weren't parched and sad like those I'd shared with my own parents. Ethan and I played music as we ate. We laughed a lot. We talked and talked. The year Ethan was eight, and I started seeing Dan, the three of us began to enjoy family dinners together a few times a month.
Still, as my boy grew into adolescence, I felt my old longing for a fuller table, this time on his behalf. I wanted Ethan to be at the hub of good humored jostling and easy conversation, while I provided the space, the plentiful food, the proverbial welcome mat grayed with sneaker prints but legible nonetheless.
In some ways, this ideal of mine was realized. Through middle and high school, Ethan's friends made themselves at home in our apartment, kicking back with their feet on the coffee table, spending the night on our pullout couch. But those crowded meals I imagined as the centerpiece of our evenings rarely happened. This wasn't a commentary on my cooking skills—which, while not necessarily noteworthy, are decent enough—but maybe on the times, and certainly the place. In Hoboken, where we lived then, there's good, hearty grab-and-go food on every corner.
"You guys want to stay for dinner?" I'd offer whenever teenagers filed through my door. Nearly without fail, they'd hold up paper sacks as they answered. Panera. Qdoba. Hoboken Bagels. Mario's Pizza. "No, thanks. We're good."
Too soon, I found myself helping Ethan pack his things so he could head off to college. As we zipped up the last of his duffle bags, it seemed the opportunity for those social gatherings around our table had passed. Weeks later, I packed up my own belongings, including my underused table leaves, and moved in with Dan. As we settled into our newly shared home, Dan and I threw a few small dinner parties that quenched something deep inside me. We were good at hosting together, my soon-to-be husband and I.
When November came and Ethan's Thanksgiving break drew near, he had to figure out, as children of divorce so often do, how to best divide his time between two households. His solution came with a surprising request.
Ethan would spend Thanksgiving with Richard, his new wife, and her family. It made sense. This would be their first major holiday since their spring wedding. But Ethan asked that I make a Thanksgiving dinner too, a big one with all the trimmings, on the Saturday before the holiday. Several of his high school friends were now in college in Philadelphia, just minutes from our new house. The guys would all converge in my kitchen, hungry for their first home cooked meal since August when they left for school.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather I make something else?" I asked. "Everyone will have the exact same meal again come Thursday."
"I'm sure," Ethan insisted, so Dan and I got to work.
We bought three different kinds of pie and mason jars filled with cranberry sauce at our local farmer's market. On the morning of what we dubbed Freshman Boys' Thanksgiving, Dan put together a green bean casserole while I made stuffing, sweet potatoes, and seasoned a 14-pound bird. We still didn't have a couch in place, so when the guys arrived, they perched on the coffee table and sprawled on the arms of chairs until dinner was ready, telling stories and laughing so loudly they startled the dogs. Called to the table, they teased each other, ate ravenously, and reminisced like war veterans.
The evening was such a success, we all decided to make it an annual event. This November, the Sophomore Boys' Thanksgiving went just as well. Not that we had to wait an entire year to fill our table with hungry young men. When Ethan got back to campus after that first turkey dinner, he signed us up as a host family for his crew team. Now, whenever Penn State participates in nearby regattas, a literal boatload of famished rowers appears at our door. Ethan and his teammates tend to arrive late, after nine o'clock, so they're always a bit surprised that Dan and I have put off our own dinner to eat with them.
"Of course we waited," we say as we usher them inside. Their favorite pre-race dinner includes lots of carbohydrates and protein. We've made them pasta bolognaise, burgers on the grill, and lasagna. But, as I quickly realized, it's not the food that's our greatest offering. It's a place for the guys to pause from their schoolwork, their 6 a.m. workouts, and the rushing and multitasking that make up their days.
After we serve up the meal assembly-line style, Dan and I squeeze in next to the guys to hear how confident or nervous they're feeling about the morning's races, how the school year is going, and who has what plans for the summer.
Through it all, I sneak peeks at Ethan who, like me, clearly enjoys his newfound role as host. When he's had his fill of dinner, he tilts back in his chair, hands propped behind his head, and sighs contentedly. I see now that it's through these dinners with his friends and teammates that Ethan has claimed this new home of ours as his own. Meanwhile for me, our communal meals have been a way to heal from the past. They've also brought with them a lesson. Life may give you what you ask for, but not necessarily in the order you expect. Be patient, I always seem to learn and then have to relearn. Keep that welcome mat in place and see what comes.