The people we miss around the table.
When I was a boy, my mother would take me to her best friend’s house about once a month or so for Sunday dinner. The house was in northern New Jersey, and the friend had an Italian background. If you know anything about Italian New Jersey women from this time, then you’re already imagining the six-quart pot on the stove, the steam escaping every time the lid is opened, and the wooden spoon going in and pushing around meatballs and sausage.
This wasn’t just a dinner, but a ritual. For many families I knew, those six-quart pots overflowing with the smell of tomato and sweet Italian sausage were so much a part of Sunday afternoon that, for them, they felt like a feature of nature itself. The sun rises, you go to church, and then in the hours that follow, the dearest woman in your extended family’s collective life makes her sauce. Or “gravy” — there were always fights about the naming of this wonderful substance. One of the reasons you held on to this ritual was that other weekly dinners were falling apart. Friday’s pizza nights were migrating from the dining room toward the television. On Saturday night, people might be out.
At those dinners, my mother and I traveled under the collective noun “company.” It was a phrase I also knew from my own grandmother, who kept certain items fresh “in case we had company.” We have company, so put your napkin on your lap. No, you can’t just leave the table and watch television, we have company.
About a year ago, I began thinking about establishing a more regular Sunday dinner in our home. For us and for company. At the time it was probably asking for too much. The kids are still so young that any and every mealtime can be demanding. Still, the thought was on my mind because it was a year ago that we were finally settling into a place with a proper dining room.
One month after the dinner table made its way from storage into the dining room, the whole world shut down in a panic. It sounds so stupid now, but for a time we weren’t even letting cardboard boxes into our house without bleach-wiping them. It took almost a month before we had two friends over for socially distanced drinks in our front yard.
Though I already knew it by instinct, I learned the hard way this year that the home doesn’t function well as an island in which one nuclear family is marooned. The relationships in a nuclear family are given rest and revivified by our neighbors and extended family. Cousins, aunts, godparents, church friends, and old friends are all irreducibly unique humans themselves. And each tend to bring out something unique in us when they are present, which causes the people in our own households to see us in a different light. In essence, they help us to escape our own narrowness.
Company is also so good for our children. COVID life has been fully one half of my youngest son’s time on earth. And one quarter of his older brother’s. And all I want to do is to show them that life is not like this. We don’t surround them with fear or anxiety. But there’s nothing we can do to end the closures on all the indoor spaces where they would play, or to make them unsee the masks that are out there in public. This uninviting world is the only one they’ve known.
I know in some areas of the country, lockdown has been a bit more “theoretical,” even sometimes a joke. But here in the suburbs of New York City, I’ve seen it destroy the businesses that were a regular part of our lives, including the pre-school that my first two children attended and loved. Governor Andrew Cuomo is only now talking about ending this period of spasmodic restriction and supervision. And while I’m anxious to get out, I’m longing to invite more people in.
All the stupid miseries and indignities of this past year would have been easier if, more frequently, there was a big pot of red sauce on the stove, or a roast in the oven, and the house alive with the expectation of the doorbell ringing, and glasses being lifted up. Those Sunday dinners can’t come back soon enough.