It Is Not Just A Table

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WENDY HODGE

By WENDY HODGE

Fifty years is a long time, and it sure does fly by. In 50 years, you can raise a family, work hard at a job, see your children become adults, become grandparents yourself, retire and then grow old. You can celebrate, and you can grieve; you can dream, and you can worry. And, if you’re lucky, you can love and be loved.

Sitting in my parents’ house today, it’s silent except for the rustling of newspaper as I wrap another fragile item to be taken to Goodwill. Fifty years of all the living and working and loving my family did in this home has been reduced to half a dozen rooms that need to be cleared out.

My parents built this house roughly 18,600 days ago. And it is now my job to pack it all up — to sell, to donate or to divide the furniture, the clothes, the pots and pans, the doo-dads and trinkets and the random trappings of all those days.

It’s harder than I thought it would be — unexpected, somehow. I’ve known this day was coming. Of course, I’ve known. But it’s shocked me anyway.

Death can do that. It comes into your life, ready or not, and takes a seat … an unwelcome guest who lingers like spoiled food or someone’s toxic aftershave. Death will churn your emotions, like a bony finger swirling whirlpools in icy water — one minute you’re fine, and the next you’re holding a photograph from the ’70s and sobbing like a child.

Even worse, you can be mid-conversation or knee-deep in a task at work, and death remembers to reach out and nudge you. In a moment, tears are sliding down your face. The person you’re speaking to will see them before you’re even aware it’s happening. They’ll look at you with kindness, pity even, and that will break you. Death has that power, too. Kindness can actually hurt. And you’ll wonder when your heart will return to an even plane.

Yesterday a man responded to an ad I placed to sell my parents’ kitchen table. I struggled with that ad. The task stumped me. What was supposed to be a 25-words-or-less basic description turned into a two-page essay on just how important kitchens and tables and parents truly are. In the end, I deleted it down to simply this: kitchen table and five chairs, wood, used. And a day later, a truck driver who moved to Alabama from Chicago brought cash to the house in exchange for the kitchen table my mother took such good care of.

When he arrived, Tim and I were sweaty from moving furniture and emptying closets. He pulled his truck to the door, and he and Tim began to load it up. I opened my mouth to speak. I wanted to tell him to use coasters because my mother loathed the thought of water rings on her table. I wanted to tell him that she cooked the best Sunday dinners, that she disliked fish and loved chocolate. She was afraid of thunderstorms but loved to read mystery stories. She was embarrassed by her size-nine feet but shyly proud of never having to dye her hair to cover any grays.

I wanted him to know that my dad, on the other hand, had white hair for 30 years or more, and that when dinner was done he would push back from that table and say, “That was delicious!” every single time. He loved to fish and to whistle. He sang often — “Dust in the Wind” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” alternating. I wanted to tell this stranger that my dad had nothing growing up — little food or clothing, dirt floors, no adult supervision. His closet full of shirts, and suits and shoes stands as a monument to how much he enjoyed filling that void as an adult. He loved neon colors; the more they clashed the better he liked it.

I wanted to show this man the magnet hanging on their refrigerator that reads “THANK YOU FOR YOUR DONATION TO THE FOOD BANK!” Because he’d been hungry for the first part of his life, my dad hated to see hunger in anyone else’s eyes. He was generous even when he had no extra money himself. Together, my parents gave food and money to so many people over the years. And they did it without wanting any recognition for it.

I wanted to tell this stocky man standing at the door all these things. But I held my tongue. He already thought I was slightly unhinged. When he’d said he was from Chicago, I asked “What brings you to these here parts?” in an accent I could have used to audition for “Hee Haw” while a single tear slid down my cheek. I have absolutely no idea why I did such a thing. He’d just stared at me until Tim cleared his throat and stepped in to smooth over the awkward pause.

And so, as the man who now owned my parents’ table handed me some crisp bills, all I’d said was “Thank you” and watched him drive away. The cash he gave me felt somehow dirty in my pocket.

I walked back into the kitchen and stood staring at the void where the table had been. I looked around at the old linoleum floor and the wood-paneled walls, and it all seemed so shabby and … pointless.

“It’s just a table,” I whispered to Tim.

And that’s death’s worst lie of all. “It is just a table,” death will murmur. “None of this matters, in the end. Nothing matters.”

But Tim’s voice was louder and truer. “No. No, it’s not just a table. It’s your family and your heart. This was the first chapter of your life, and it was a good one.”

He let me cry until I was done, at least for the moment, and then helped me continue boxing things up and cleaning things out. We went home and came back and did it all over again. And we’ll keep doing the job until it is done.

Fifty years is a long time, and it sure does fly by.

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