The idea was planted while sitting at an almost empty table. The story was watered with the conversation between two people at either end of the table, and blossomed with revisiting that very same place.
A Different Kind of Writing Retreat
My solitary writing retreat was very different this year. The Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson Arizona dining room was empty, the usually sumptuous cafeteria counters were covered with long white cloths, empty underneath.
The meals for the few of us who were there were “plated” — entree, veggies, salad, soups, utensils, little salt/pepper packs already dished out and covered, with a small name tag waiting to be picked up by the retreatants.
Different. No lines of people chatting like my autumn retreat had been as we shuffled along toward the mecca of multiple choices of steaming, delicious food.
The last day of this year’s retreat the refrigerator in the dining room that stored the meals conked out. No plated meals in sight. Bummer. But one of those bummers that became a serendipitous thing. I tapped tentatively on the door to the kitchen (employees only) to find my meal.
A Pleasant Reacquaintance
A dark-haired petite woman was standing at the huge stove, her back to me. When she turned around I felt a flash of recognition mixed with pleasure.
Several years earlier just around Mother’s Day I got to know her.
It was a similar retreat in that there were few people. Not during the pandemic. It was just a slow time. No groups had scheduled retreats and there were only two or three other solitary sojourners.
I had waited until near the end of dinner hour because I was into silence for that particular writing retreat.
One of the dining room staff was sipping coffee at the end of the long table. All the tables are long, wooden, and gleam with polish. I sat at the opposite end. It was like the formal dining set-ups I’ve seen in movies.
I broke my self-imposed silence and called a hello down the table to her. I don’t know how we started. Maybe it was “These tables are gorgeous and huge. My family could fit around one small end of it.”
A Conversation About Tables?
She got right into it. Her family was large. This could have been a conversation about tables. But it was really about family. “Will you be with your family on Mother’s Day? I hope you won’t be cooking here.”
“I will be with my family.”
“I will be home with my husband. Most of our family is back East and my older sister and her husband usually host holiday meals. They will put the leaf in the table expanding it to hold many more dishes than usual and give enough room for everyone to sit.“ A sense of yearning for family might have crept into my voice.
“I will go to my family’s.” Her childhood family sometimes had fifty people on special occasions! Her father always sat at the head of the table. “It’s different today-the kids are adults. They grow up and move away. They have their children. They can’t always come back home.” She sounded wistful about this. Her memories of her childhood table seemed sweet and deeply steeped in safety and love. I had a picture in my head as she talked.
They gathered around long tables, shared food, smells, tastes. I could imagine the sounds mixed in with my own childhood memories. The clinking of utensils, clattering of dishes, the glug, glug, glug of wine pouring into glasses, maybe the sound of a glass dropping and breaking.
Voices — the high-pitched babble of little kids, deeper male voices, female laughter that rose above it all in harmony. We both smiled at our memories.
Seeing her again after several years was more than a visual; it also brought back the nostalgia for tables that held that sometimes noisy love, safety, and abundance for me. As she took out my name-labeled plate and turned to give it to me, we both smiled. Actually I think I was grinning.
“I remember you.”
“I remember you too.”
“We had the family table talk.”
“I’m a writer and wanted to write about your table. May I?”
“I feel like know you and yet I never asked your name. It didn’t seem necessary then because … I felt I knew you. But now I want to write my story and send it to you.”
“Rita. Rita Nunier.”
This then, Rita Nunier, is for you. Thank you for meeting me at the table, sharing stories, and cooking at the Redemptorist Renewal Center. Note: My friend’s name has been changed.
Next up. Different Tables Hold More Than Food
Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a mic.