How we remember them: My grandmother’s dining room set
The set remains in our dining room, a shrine to the people who helped raise me … a perfect marriage of memories from my past and those I continue to create.
In the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been part of the lives of millions. In “How we remember them”, we reflect on how we process loss and the things – tangible and intangible – that remind us of those we have lost.
When the grandmother who raised me died, we inherited her dining room table, chairs, hutch and tea cart. After driving across three states in a rented U-haul, we picked them up from the apartment she shared with my recently deceased grandfather – who died three months prior, down to the exact hour and minute – and brought them back to the home we had made with our own kids.
I don’t remember where we put the massive hutch in the house that I grew up in. When I try to, it seems that it doesn’t fit anywhere in the tiled and wallpapered dining room in the centre of the house. I remember the exact location of the tea cart and table though. It’s funny what we forget – what we lose through the years – and what we remember.
I recall coming home from a trip to downtown Boston with a friend and her parents. Her father was the head electrician in a large department store. We went to see the holiday window displays. Each display had a wondrous Christmas theme. The dining room set was delivered in the evening. I was 12 or 13 years old then. Or was I 15? I cannot seem to recall, but I know I am wrong.
My family moved into the first house my grandparents owned when I was nine. Back then, there was only a kitchen with a wooden table in the apartment where we had previously lived. Our new house had a formal dining room and would have required a dining room set. I am sure my grandmother ordered one right away. I have no one to ask to confirm the exact year and time when the dining set arrived; my grandparents are dead. I suppose I could call my brother. We don’t talk much though, and we have not seen each other in over three years.
My grandparents have lavish dinners at the dining room table. We are only allowed to eat there on Sundays and when company comes.
My brother lets his friends play Risk, a strategy board game that pits the USSR and its allies against the US and the rest of the world. Or maybe the game was called Axis and Allies. He is 15 or 16 years old. I am three years younger and a tattletale. Of course, there are girls there, so I feel justified in ratting him out. My grandparents are angry when they find out. No one sits at the dining room table. Sure, they are company, but not the right kind.
The chandelier is impossible to clean. It is divided into four tiers. Each glass piece must be cleaned separately, lifted off with care my grandmother feels only she possesses. A glass cleaner, newspaper and careful hands wash the chandelier several times each year.
The hutch is equally as complex with its glass-plated windows and shelves. It holds expensive crystal wine glasses and chinaware, a whole set stamped with the date 1968 and the brand, Noritake. I will also inherit the white set with petite flowers in yellows and blues. I use it twice a year on Easter and Thanksgiving. I hold my breath while we eat. Each meal is an anxiety-inducing event where I pray a child or relative will not drop a plate or teacup, breaking up the set held together since 1968. I do not remember my grandmother ever using the china. This may be why.
The chandelier is too much work. I do not know who inherited it.
The dining room set is not my style. It is a light wood, oak I would say, if I had to guess, and the chairs are cream coloured. I have four children and three pets. We do not do cream. The chairs have been reupholstered once by the time the set finds its way to my house. My grandmother used to make the kids cover the chairs with towels before sitting on them whenever we ventured there for a visit.
My kids spill on the chairs. I refuse to use towels to cover them, and I imagine my grandmother scolding me from wherever she wound up. I cannot remember when I stopped caring about the stains, maybe after the first stain though I cannot recall when that was. I do know that I want my kids’ childhoods to be messier than mine, freer.
Sometimes when I sit at the table, I imagine my grandparents are there drinking their morning coffee and eating breakfast, toast with peanut butter. The newspaper is bartered by section. He likes sports and national news. Gram gets living and the obituaries. She is in charge of combing over them in their retirement. A Hawkeye, Gram does not want to miss the death of a friend, which has morphed into as important an event as dinner parties once were. To miss a funeral would be a geriatric faux pas almost beyond repair.
“Your grandfather reads the paper cover to cover each day,” I imagine my grandmother saying as she so often did when she was alive. Gramps passes her the circulars. Gram enjoys shopping as long as she gets a bargain.
When my grandparents sell my childhood home, after I go to college, and move to an apartment, they have a galley kitchen with no room for a table. They ditch our dark wooden kitchen table and bring only the dining room set. The apartment has a living room/dining room combination. The table and the hutch are always the first things we see when they greet us on our return trips home.
The dining table is the place where we share food from my favourite restaurant with my kids, a Chinese eatery located next to a convenience store where I bought packs of cigarettes well before I could legally smoke them. With the sharing of our favourite dinner, we are passing habits and history along to the next generation.
It is also where Gram sits decked out in a Star Wars stormtrooper mask that my son got for Christmas. A white scarf covers her bald head. She lost her thick dark hair after the chemotherapy. “Cancer is a b***h,” she says, her voice altered by the voice changer in the mask.
The note she wrote about my grandfather’s wishes for after his death were penned at the table as well. They composed it together, and then she typed it for him, calling upon her years as a secretary who set record speeds for the words she could type per minute. It is dated May 4, 2013, just two months before Gramps’s death.
“Dear Jamie and Nicole,” it reads.
“I am typing this for Gramps, but these are his wishes.
“He would like a traditional wake – open casket. Don’t know if this can be done, but Gramps would like bagpipes during the wake.”
We had them along with men in kilts to reflect his Irish heritage.
“Funeral home will also be at Ward’s on Broadway in Everett with Mass at the Immaculate Conception Church. Gramps will be cremated also and placed at the foot of Grandma Russo’s grave.
In his previous experiences, Gramps said he came through (avoiding death after several heart attacks and a surgical operation) because there was no “slip” available at the “Great Marina” in the sky. Well, a “slip” has become available, and he is at peace and will be happy to see his mother and father and Auntie Frances (his younger sister), and our family also.
When I wrote about you and your families, I typed “we” because it applies to both of us. And it goes without saying that we will one day see each other and our Lord in Paradise. But, hopefully, not for a very, very long time.
Gramps is at a great place and happy, so let the party begin!!
I cannot imagine what it was like to write this letter, but I can imagine them under the glow of the four-tiered chandelier that was a bit dim because Gram was too sick to clean it.
Gram will sit at the table again a few months later. Her husband of many decades is gone. He died at the hospital without her. A will sits in front of her. It will divide what she and my grandfather spent a lifetime acquiring and what they will leave behind to my brother and me. In a voice worn away by the cancer that consumes her, she asks, “Do I sign here?” before sighing and saying, “This is all so confusing.” My brother shows her the signature line, and she scratches out her name in black ink.
In a few weeks, she will die in the back bedroom she shared with my grandfather. I will miss her final moments as I drive frantically from Maine, where I live with my husband and children, to her apartment in Massachusetts.
The dining room table, hutch, chairs, and tea cart remain in our dining room, a shrine to the people who helped raise me. Somehow though, the dining room set has become my own, my family’s. It is a perfect marriage of memories from my past and those I continue to create. I contemplate reupholstering the chairs, knowing that Gram would be shocked by their condition, but the table wobbles no matter how many times I climb under it with a screwdriver and attempt to tighten the screws.
The set is decades old.
Maybe it is time to shop for a new set, something more my style, something that is just mine. I think of this when I pass through the dining room on my way to the kitchen as the hutch light illuminates the treasures my grandmother collected inside, including wine glasses and china, and I understand that I am just not ready. Not yet anyway. Maybe not ever.