The table was covered in white linen. It dominated the room. I had to stretch thin to pass between the creaking chairs and the bookcase laden with trinkets. The carpet was brown, a brown of teddy bears, worn in by sixty years of tread.
My feet used to dangle off the chair. When I finished eating my vegetables that never touched my meats, and the adults started to speak about their private things, I would crawl underneath the table and be in a world of legs and shoes. I untied every lace and was happily invisible.
My grandfather sat at the head of the table until he died. I called him “Papa Irv” or “Papa.” His yarmulke covered some of the wispy white hair that he had left. He spoke softly with a voice that was scratchy and kind. He coughed when he laughed. Eventually the cough sucked his flesh away and swallowed him. My grandmother sat at the other end of the table. She wore an apron over her dress through the entire meal. She would bound out of her chair back to the kitchen for more food and her plate would be empty while the rest of us ate. It was only when every inch of the dining room was covered in kugel and green beans, chicken and London broil, bread or potatoes or fresh pasta and salad and French dressing, peach juice and water and seltzer that she would start to put food onto her plate. She ate noisily, smacking her lips and sucking on chicken bones. She ate in a way that could make someone hungry even if they had already eaten.
My grandparents kept kosher, so every plate or utensil that touched milk had to be replaced before the meat. She often asked me to set the table when my brother was too young and I was just old enough. She liked matching dishes with black and white patterns. The silver wear made a horrible scraping sound when she gave me handfuls of knives and forks. When my brother was tall enough to see over the table he helped me with the faded linen napkins.
Each year when autumn came, it came all at once. I woke up to air that smelled clear and cold and I would see fleece jackets and colored leaves. My grandfather would walk with me on the giant stone path to the backyard or let me swing on the hammock on the side of the house. He had a white and grey beard and red cheeks and could never sing on key. When he spoke it was always out of turn but it was slow, like he had thought about everything he wanted to say beforehand but some of it had fallen into his beard.
He was in the navy, stationed on an aircraft carrier and won a medal for being a hero. There was an honor guard at his funeral. When he was so sick he could not eat or breathe he still sat up and talked about how he once saved men on his ship and he had proud eyes even though his body was evaporating.
My mother said he used to get angry and hit her and her sister and her brother with a belt. She said it was just what parents did back then. By the time I was born, he was mellow and kind and I did not believe he could have ever hit anyone. He was an architect after the war in Korea but he never made enough money to keep my grandmother happy. She was the kind of grandmother who gave my brother a card with thirty-five dollars for his birthday.
At the table on the Sabbath, Papa Irv would bless the bread and the wine. My brother never ate the challah unless we showed him there was not a trace of raisins left in his piece and I had to drink grape juice until I was old enough for wine. We always blessed the wine first. I liked the blessing over the wine better, the way it sounded in my grandfather’s scratchy voice, like he was out of breath and it hurt to get every word out but it still mattered so he had to say it: “Barukh attah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam,borei peri hagafen. Blessed art Thou, LORD our God, King of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine.” He always said the Hebrew first and the English second, and the rest of us would say “Amen.” I always felt silly saying it, and I didn’t know if I should say “Ah-men” or “A-men” so I would mumble. When I stopped believing in God, I wouldn’t say anything at all.
We weren’t allowed to make jokes or talk while Papa was blessing the bread and wine. He never yelled but if I talked or my brother giggled he would look at us and clear his throat and send a stern “shush” through the room. After he died, there was no more “shushing” and we talked even when someone was going to start making the blessing. My father started doing it but he did it wrong and my grandmother would yell at him and hand him backwards books to read from. Even though my father could read Hebrew and wore a yarmulke, he didn’t believe in God.
My grandparents’ house had two entrances and we always came through what my grandparents called “the back door,” and any special guests came through “the front door.” I always mixed up which was which. When we visited, we came in through the door to the kitchen, and it seemed only fair that it should have been the front door. The backyard was actually on the side of the house and nowhere near the backdoor, so it was really a side-yard even though it was big and filled with grass and bushes of rhododendron. There sat a tiny jungle gym and a tree swing with a red seat that was only there when I was very little. It really only mattered which door was which on the Passover holiday, when one of us had to get up from the table and the open the door for Elijah, and of course the prophet would only come through “the front door.”
My grandparents always yelled at each other. It usually was not meant to be harsh and it was more like a smile covered in a yell. Papa would yell “Faith!” anytime he needed salt or something to cover the challah or his medicine. As they began to lose their hearing and Papa started to get sick and my grandma was tired from worrying, he would yell louder and with less of a smile.
My grandma comes from the callous side of the family, the Waxman side. She liked to tell people what to do, what to eat, how to treat their headaches, and how to drive, and said mean things without realizing it. My grandmother grabbed my mom’s fat on the sides of her stomach that only came from being old and having two kids and said “oi, look at you.” Papa would never say the mean things, he was the one who would stretch my mouth in different directions and say, “your lips don’t match!” or he would come by my chair at the table and rub my shoulders for a second and say “Faith loves having her back rubbed and so does your mother.”
I sat at the white table. There were fewer chairs because my grandfather was gone. My father sat in his place. My father had grey in his mustache and what was left of his hair. My brother had a deep brown beard. My mother had hair dyed to hide the grey and her skin was loose but her eyes smiled. My grandmother was slow and quiet and under cooked the green beans. I sat with grown up secrets. I wished my father would recite the blessing the way Papa used to, but he does not want to do it carefully, he has bags under his eyes and does not believe in God anyway. Barukh attah Adonai…
EK Silver is 23 years old.She received her BA in English from McDaniel College and is currently pursing an MFA in creative writing at Carlow University. She tends to write about her own experiences and her passion is for language. She carves her future every day out of wet sand.