Dislocating Dad From a Symbolic Seat
THERE were two kinds of chairs at the dining-room table in my parent's house, two large ones with arm rests and four small ones without. The larger ones stood at the ends of the table, the small ones on the sides. Mom and Dad always sat in the big chairs, except when my brother was gone; then Mom would sit in one of the smaller chairs at Dad's side and across from me. I always remained in one place, on the side of the table at my father's right. He always sat at the end, at the ``head'' of the table. I never imagined him elsewhere, at that table or at any other that he would ever share with me.
In the many years of school away and holiday homecomings, the arrangement at the table remained the same. Sitting where he did, Dad was framed by the leaded glass windows and the backdrop of the backyard, a carefully cultivated expanse of trees and grass. For Dad and for us it was not only a place for him at the table; it was a place in which he was situated against the yard and trees, the fences and barbecue, the bikes, cars, and birdbath. It was the green-then-snowy sanctuary that was his, and ours th rough him.
The events of my early life can be charted from events that occurred at that table. I recall one adolescent storm, a mid-'60s style confrontation with my dad over the question of interracial marriage. I argued the pros of the case with the haughtiness of a youth who just happened to be right. Dad grasped for the clich'es of a worn out and passing set of social assumptions. At one very intense moment he said some things that sent me running from the table and onto the sidewalk, where I emptied pockets of his money onto the dirt and cement. It hurt to hear these clich'es from him, whether bruising my budding social conscience more than my idealized picture of him, I don't know.
I remember years later returning home in my mid-20s during a period of emotional and vocational drift. Dad called it my ``sabbatical year.'' (How kind, even healing, that label seems to me now, a gentle permission slip to be easy on myself in a hard time). It was a holiday season, and we were sitting at the table for a meal. Mom and Dad and I were at our places. After dinner, Dad and I lingered at the table. I don't recall our words but I do recall taking off my shoes and putting my feet up on the table' s edge, leaning back against the chair and pouring from a cut-glass pitcher that refracted the candlelight into broken patches of red and white on the linen tablecloth. The little bits of color moved around and yet were held together by some magic of light and glass. I recall my feeling at that moment: ``There is still a place for me at this table; things seem to hold together for me here even if the fragments of false starts in work and love remain to be collected and understood. I'm glad I can come home t o this table.''
EACH place that was home to me during my pre-marriage 20s and early 30s became a place for the duplication of the family table scene. Dad sat at the head of the table, even when the table was no longer his but mine. I never heard an inner voice challenging the pattern; it was a ``given.'' It was only with my marriage that a new voice entered the scene to question the arrangement.
Barbara observed the seating ritual through several meals in our home. When Dad came, he sat in the place at the head of the table that was, otherwise, mine. Barbara gently but firmly suggested to me that the place at the head of the table in our home was mine, not my father's. While I knew she was right, I also had a foreboding of a change that I did not want to initiate, a symbolic change as well as a physical movement, a shift in point of view for me as well as for Dad. I had no idea how it would fee l to sit in that ``head'' place in my dad's presence. And I had no idea how he would handle it.
On the day of the luncheon, Mom and Dad arrived early. We sat in the living room playing with the baby until lunch was prepared and the table was set. Then we went into the dining room. Dad headed for the end of the table in front of the window that opened to the backyard. Before he could get around the side of the table I got up my nerve and said, ``Dad, this is going to be your place, next to Mom on the side.'' He stopped and looked at me. Then he sat where I had suggested. I felt awkward, sad, and a ngry (though I knew it was dumb) at Barbara for prodding me. I was tempted to say, ``My mistake, Dad. Sit where you always sit.'' But I didn't.
When he and Mom were seated, Barbara and I took our places. The children found their seats. I don't know how Dad felt. But I do know that, dislocated from his usual place, he continued to share his best self, telling stories of his childhood and youth to the delight of three step-grandchildren instantly acquired by my marriage. As I served the food against the backdrop of my window and yard, and as Dad told some of his best tales of life in Des Moines, Chicago, Hawaii, and other points along his path, something shifted in our lives which continues to be lived.
Is it easy? Not always. I've inherited his take-charge attitude, and sometimes it emerges when I am at the table's head or gets tangled with Dad's when we are together. But I sense that something good (if also difficult in a grown-up way) is happening within myself and between Dad and me. I am beginning to learn that ``honoring one's father'' has much to do with accepting different places at different tables in houses that can no longer just be called ``home.'' ``Home'' has changed. It means listening a nd helping the children to listen, from whatever position and perspective, to the stories that Dad yearns to tell, even forgetting, in those magnetic interludes, about whose chair is whose.