Yellow oilcloth

Grandma Ruth always covered her table in shiny yellow oilcloth. It matched the yellow and white walls of the breakfast/dining room off of the tiny, tiny kitchen in their Bronx apartment. That table was the center of everything. Grandpa Morris sat at one end where he held court in his elder years, spending hours with The Times, and regaling guests with stories and curiosity about them and the world – but not ‘til he’d finished reading the paper! Grandma sat at the other, by the shoebox-sized kitchen with the Frigidaire, ancient white sink and white cabinets filled with sleek glassware and rubber-banded shut, arm’s length away from the small oven.

Food was abundant and delicious – oatmeal (made with heavy cream, I am sure) on the elegant blue and gold “oatmeal” dishes as my sister and I call them. Roast beef or lamb chops and decadent mashed potatoes on the rose-flowered plates. Coffee – with heavy cream and saccharin for Grandma, black for Grandpa – was Chock Full o’ Nuts, made in the percolator and served in delicate cups with gold-rimmed saucers. Angel food cake with a hint of coffee. With ice cream, of course. After the meal? The dishwasher, aka Grandpa, went to the sink and exercised meticulous skill with a judgmental eye.

That room and the entire apartment reflected Grandma’s decorator’s eye and Asian interests, and belied their means. That Asian-inspired table was built, I assume by Mr. Gress, the craftsman who Grandma hired to design and copy pieces she admired. The deep mahogany color and flowing lines graceful, the six chairs echoing the form and fitting smoothly as a whole. For years their seats were covered by orange cushions, covered in protective plastic or vinyl, and the table by yellow oilcloth, sheltering the pieces of that whole from spills, city dust and the like.

Years later, after Grandpa died, the table and chairs traveled to my Midwest townhouse. We unveiled surfaces of nicks and scratches, decades of loving wear. I had the pieces polished and stained – enough to restore their beauty but allow the character in those marks to remain.

Today the table continues to speak tones of welcome and good taste, my children ever aware that this is at the core of their great grandparents’ legacy. Moved to the living room, it’s become centerpiece of our days, meals, guests, holidays and homework. No more yellow oilcloth though. Now bold Marimekko prints invite us to the table while offering protection from spills, Sharpies and pencils.

And on the rare occasion when the gathering is just adults, the covering comes off. As Shabbat drew to a close I set out shimmering gold placemats on the polished wood, joined by dark plates and sleek glassware. Grandma smiled in my memory as I aligned the edges just so, and set out cloth napkins. I anticipated my guests with pleasure on a summer-like day. All was perfect and in my control at that table.

Until my phone rang. Two calls, so I picked it up. Impossible! Unthinkable news shatters the perfection of so much. Disbelief that the friend who always had my back is no longer in the sky, or on the earth. Friends arrive as I parse this new reality long distance. Even the tears are stuck in shock. My guests put out the food, and provide hugs and wine. They wait a bit expectantly as I put down the phone and enter the kitchen. I move the conversation to my table. We turn to the meal, pull out our chairs and eat. I’m grateful to not be alone, to be distracted, sort of, as if I could be. Looking back is surreal – but I do remember serving the pound cake I’d baked.

The next day one of those friends remarks with surprise at my composure the night before. Really? I was sure I radiated devastation, seeing a plane on the ground amidst trees, a million images of life and words of conversation swarming against that backdrop. I was stunned — there was no sense to be made. I would soon hit mourning hard in the face. But at that moment, the only thing I knew to do was take comfort from my glistening table and its guests.