In Defense Of White Tablecloths

My Nana’s kitchen had wallpaper on the ceiling. You would look up and see this crisp delft blue pattern, not unlike a plate or mug she might have owned. There were two tables, one for the family behind the open shelf, and the other for her and my grandfather. It is this table that I miss most. It always had a fresh white lace tablecloth and two chairs, also in delft blue. My grandfather sat facing the radio, Nana sat right in front of the refrigerator, guarding the way its contents would be invariably misused by the uninitiated. The refrigerator contained a single magnet: “I am always looking at my middle aged children for signs of improvement.” I had so many meals in that kitchen, noodle kugel with corn flakes, cabbage soup with flanken, eggs with mashed potatoes and sour cream. I don’t really remember the taste of the food as much as the anxiety around serving it.

My Nana was a woman with standards. There was always a right way to serve a meal and an abominable way to serve a meal. Tables, required tablecloths. They also required two sets of forks, spoons, knives, napkins, napkin rings, and multiple sets of glasses (which had to actually be glass). My Nana would be horrified by my current dining situation. I don’t own a tablecloth and I sometimes, more often than I care to publicly admit, use paper towels instead of napkins. I also have mismatched utensils, plastic kiddie cups, and no serving utensils. As a teenager, I would have called this liberated. But I have come to see my aesthetic slippage as part of a cultural adjustment that replaced rules with convenience.

The visual conventions of my grandmother’s table set the stage for a certain kind of conversation. We debated politics, we even debated politics loudly, but we did so in an environment built to last. We did so at a table where everyone had a seat, where everyone had a utensil of correct stature, and where everyone understood that they were participating in a meal the way our family has been, and will be, eating for centuries.

Nana was a woman schooled in survival and educated in the details of retaining pride without position. She lived an unstable life, as an immigrant and a war bride, who moved from Poland to Brooklyn, to North Carolina, to Georgia, to Queens, and then to Long Island. In each place, she remained acutely aware of what strangers noticed about her. She knew what it felt like to be foreign, ashamed, and poor, and she spoke about it often. She also spoke about her accomplishments, her capacity to learn languages, and, of course, her many homes, each with a detail to inspire awe—her step down living-room, the mirror she painted, and the cloudy glass birds she collected.

On Pesach, my Nana cleared the living room, the kitchen, the hallways, and the cupboards, and got to work. She invited everyone in, first cousins, second cousins, neighbors, and strangers for a blissfully endless Seder run by her beloved son Ira. My Nana believed in hiddur mitzvah, the act of beautifying and making sensual our commandments. Every detail mattered: The food, the table, the centerpiece now designed by my mother, where my grandfather sat, that he opened the evening with tears, and that we all believed, because she made us, that this was the most important day of the year; that nothing mattered more than what was happening in her living room, be it Poland, Georgia, Queens, or Long Island.

This Passover, like every passover of my life, I will spend the first night of Seder with my family, now, in my Nana’s beloved son’s Ira’s home. There, he will continue to lead us in a blissfully endless seder and his devoted family will prepare an adorned table filled with food. My Nana died 8 years ago. But the urgency she created, the intensity she demanded, will all be present as we enter Seder, as we sit down, with pride, at a table covered in white.

This story "In Defense Of White Tablecloths" was written by Tamara Mann Tweel.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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