The Sadness that Comes of Empty Tables

Every single morning of the world for as long as she had her space in it, and was able to stand on her own two dainty feet, she rose, knelt for prayers and went quietly to the kitchen.

Her long hair was deftly pinned up, secured in a bun. She dressed quickly and smoothed on her apron. Always she wore an apron, except at church; mostly stitched from her stack of feed-sacks that she kept neatly washed and pressed in a chest in her bedroom. Granddaddy called her Margaret, or Meggie, or some sort of endearment, to us she was Grandma.

She moved swiftly through the years, even when age and widowhood laid a heavy hand on her; and the first chore she did every morning made the coffee. Probably Luzianne, probably chicory. Black as purgatory and strong enough to make you sit up and take deep breaths.

While the coffee was settling nicely on the huge old wood stove, she took her shallow wooden bowl lined with years of soft splinters and filled it from the endless stream of flour in the pie safe. No doubt it was still dark as Egypt outside. She kept a Pharaoh’s supply of fresh buttermilk and pure lard to balance up the right side of the kitchen; gently pressing each biscuit until they shone like mounds of white clouds; then “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in. Psalms 121.” Into the oven, they went!

But of course nothing is forever, and one Sunday morning, Grandma with her tucked-in smile, and soft Bible verses were too tired for biscuits, Luzianne coffee, and earth. Her spirit was no longer earthbound, and she left us for that “city paved with gold” she’d sung about so often in her wobbly sweet voice.

The woods were dotted white as snow with dogwoods that year, and the peach orchards surrounded her like old friends when she died that day. But already it seemed the flavor of things, the look of things, was different. There was sadness even greater than homesickness; it was the sadness of an empty house after the echoes of loved ones’ voices have drifted away on the wind. There was a sadness that comes of empty chairs and old oak tables in darkened rooms; the silent longings that wash over you when you close your eyes and remembered her touch, deep enough to drown in.

Mama and I came back time and time again over the years. We didn’t say much, just stood, heads together, like two lost souls, looking out over the Chinaberry trees beyond the clear Southern sky and thinking of Grandma: and all the years that were. “There’s a better time awaiting, in the sweet Lord, by and by.”

Houses die too.

We remembered porches with rocking chairs and tables, grownups piecing together long memories on peaceful summer evenings, weaving their colorful stitches of family history, in the those long hours of darkness; quilts of life, to warm us forever.

I remembered that here at Grandma’s there was an endless amount of time. Time just sat down and stayed. There was time for visiting and playing games; a time for dreams. There were uncles who played tricks on everybody, dressing up in sheets thinking they were scary’ they only made us smile.

So it was tucked-in feeling, surrounded by whispers and murmurs of love and scolding and hugs. It was dirt paths that scooted out to grapevines and guided you to the barn. It was a world the size a child can grasp easily in her mind. You knew everybody by their name and they knew yours. It was the kind of place that kept you safe, a place that lived inside you long after the visiting was over and made you start counting the days ‘til you could come again.

I remember all these things, but most of all I remember the sweetness of Grandma.