As we approached the table to sit down, I saw the extra plate. I quickly whisked it away, returning all the accompanying pieces to their proper place in the kitchen cabinet.
I tried to brush it off as a silly mistake, a “Ditzy Mary!” moment. But, with my face in the cabinet, I brushed the tears off my cheek and took a deep breath.
When I had done the mental tally of plates to set out, I started with five. The same five that I had started with whenever I set the table throughout my childhood: my mom & dad, me, my brother and sister. Then, I added a plate for everyone else who was with us for that meal. Last year, in an unthinking moment, I had included a place setting for my brother. But, my brother no longer had a physical place at the dinner table. Five years ago, he was killed in tragic bicycle accident on a windy California road.
In that flash of realization, with the red plate in my hand, I ached with the memories of our last Christmas with him, the last time that I had seen him alive. Like all of his adult years, several history books had been wrapped under the tree with his name on them. He had been in active flirt mode with a pretty girl, texting her and grinning as he glanced down at his phone. One evening, we sat outside in the brisk winter air and he offered me the sage dating advice: “Get a little more sizzle.” It was the last Christmas of my childhood five.
After a moment of regrouping in the cabinet, I re-joined the table and everyone settled into their seats. Everyone was aware of his absence, having learned to hold their grief in their personal ways. I didn’t need to draw attention to the error I had made. Perhaps everyone knew and was pretending; perhaps the moment passed unaware.
This year setting the table, my reflexive mental tally was different. Mom and Dad. Me. Sister, brother-in-law, their twins girls. A fundamental shift had taken place. My sister and her family have become a unit of tally in my head, a number that expands as their family grows. The place of my brother-in-law and those precious girls who call me “Aunt Mary” has become a fixture in my sense of family.
I never knew my brother-in-law and nieces were missing from the family. But, now that they are here, it is plain to see that the family tree has long had the perfect spot for their branches to grow. They have filled a gap we didn’t know existed until they arrived; they have generated love we didn’t know was missing until it was exchanged. Perhaps additional branches are still hiding in the roots of our family tree–my own husband and children? more children for my sister? other branches that will get grafted on in a mysterious way? Only with the passage of time, with the insight of setting the Christmas table for years to come, will those answers make themselves known.
Until then, I am so grateful for those who have a place at the family table.