Memories, like the ocean, surge and ebb. Miami was a small, sleepy town in the 50’s. Ike was President. Women wore hose and shirtwaist dresses. Men wore big-shouldered suits.
Our house was a concrete box with jalousie windows which stood in a row with other concrete homes. Chaos ensued until dinnertime. Then at six o’clock sharp, Dad would hold court. A mahogany table gleamed like a bowling alley. Fork in hand, my father would point to the sky and pontificate. Politics. Sports. The State of The Union. The state of our union. And sandwiched in between were staunch opinions neatly disguised as advice. He talked as he chewed, the words spraying, the food tossing in his mouth like laundry in a washing machine.
Being the youngest, I was placed next to my mother at the other end of the table. Instead of participating, I’d keep my head down and shovel in the meal. I’d sit. I’d eat. I’d listen. Words flew like knives. But every so often the din would calm, the storm settle. Then I’d work up my courage, lift up my chin, and peek.
Flanking my father were my brother and sister. They were seven and five years older and often joined in the discussion. Yelling. Spraying. Pointing. Like me, my mother stayed quiet. Since she was busy cooking and serving, her seat was usually empty, her napkin scrunched, a chair leg half in half out.
Years later, when my brother and sister married, a new leaf was added to the table. My mother dug out folding chairs from the garage that were several inches shorter than normal ones. Once again, I was seated in the hinterlands. Since I’m just over five feet, my chin hovered inches from the matzah ball soup. It was hard to participate in a conversation I could barely hear. I simply was too far away to join.
When grandchildren came, the Samsonite chairs were paired with a matching card table. Instead of lace linens, I stared at a paper tablecloth and napkins. Gone were the Lenox china and crystal wine glasses. Along with my nieces and nephews, I nibbled off cardboard plates with little blue stars and smiling potato pancakes. By now I was married, and my six-foot husband often joined me. The brisket nearly sat in his lap.
As the years passed, the trend persisted. And the older I grew, the more sensitive I became. Every invitation was anticipated with dread. At weddings or bar mitzvahs, I’d analyze my allotted location from every angle. Too near the kitchen? Close enough to the music speakers so my teeth rattled? The pleasure of my company may have been welcomed but it was rarely prioritized.
You know it’s a bad sign when the host pulls you over and talks up your seating assignment. Then you find yourself elbow-to-elbow with a third cousin whose suit smells like mothballs. Or an elderly aunt who’s packing up doggie bags before the meal even starts.
When I was finally able to entertain in my own home, things changed. I became an equal opportunity hostess. There were no place cards. No pretense or protocol. My guests grabbed their food and sat wherever they liked. The TV blared. The kids ran wild. A sumptuous buffet was always replenished.
But like an infant’s cradle or your grandma’s rocking chair, life rolls back to where it starts. My children, it turns out, are formal entertainers. We’ve returned to mahogany tables and embroidered tablecloths. Their friends are bright, erudite, witty–the products of fine educations and blessings too numerous to count.
I sit. I eat. I listen. Meanwhile the conversation bandies like a tennis match. Up and down. Back and forth. Left and right. The end result is both confounding and more than a little humiliating. Are they speaking quickly or am I thinking slowly? It’s hard to tell. All I know is this: at the age of seventy, I find myself sitting at the kiddie table once more.
The usual accoutrements keep me company. A bottle of grape juice. A bowl of crackers. That ubiquitous plate of raw carrots that people reluctantly munch. But the spotlight is shining in another direction. My opinions are seldom asked for. My contributions are considered quaint. I’m there but not there. I’m wallpaper on the room where it happens. I’m a shadow in search of a sun.
So what to do? I’m working on a strategy, perhaps a graceful exit plan. I nod my head. I fold my paper napkin. I daintily sip water from my plastic Solo cup. If only I could predict the future! For only God knows where I’ll be seated next.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and World Literature Today. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.
2 thoughts on “Positional Vertigo”
A great story to precede Passover Seders as well as a must read manual for party planners charged with guest seating
Wonderfully smart and touching
Fine writing. Great story.