Caroline pulled the second leg out on the folding card table, waiting for that gratifying sound of the button popping into place. Click. Then she moved onto the next one and the last, lifting the table into an upright position before gathering the folding chairs.
She took a special pleasure in assembling the kids’ table for Thanksgiving this year. Caroline was moving up to the big table, the adult table, where she imagined the grownups sat and leisurely discussed fall fashions, the weather and Christmas plans.
No more kids’ table for her. The oldest of all the grandchildren, she’d been relegated in years past to peacemaker, an impossible job; keeper of food on the table and not on the floor or each other, an equally impossible job; and chief entertainer with a mission of keeping all kids seated for the required one hour without approaching the adult table to bother the prospective parents, the most impossible job of all.
She would have felt a bit of compassion for her successor, had there been one. After the years of questions starting with “Why did you let”, “Why didn’t you stop”, and “Can you grab a towel to clean that up”, the kids’ table was now to be leaderless, like some sort of “Lord of the Flies” experiment.
On top of that, the newest kids’ table recruit was the baby, graduating from a highchair at the corner of the adult table to a booster seat on a folding chair. She didn’t question her aunt about how that would work. Caroline just hoped the anarchy that was bound to ensue would not prompt a call for her to pull her dining chair over to sit behind the kids’ table, like a Thanksgiving dinner lifeguard, dodging mashed potatoes and flying pickles.
Not that being at the kids’ table was all bad. There, she was the leader. There, she could count on the older cousins to laugh at her jokes, and they all laughed a lot. They placed black olives on their fingertips and asked each other if they liked seafood, opening their mouths wide, full of mashed potatoes, garbling, “See? Food!” and cracking up even on the 3rd or 4th round of silliness.
Caroline learned early on as the oldest of her sisters and 3 cousins that the best way to do her job as table head was to keep tummies full and troops entertained, in that order. She didn’t so much care if her charges ate their vegetables or stuffing covered in giblet gravy, which repulsed her as well.
Plus she herself wouldn’t be joining the clean plate club, and two to six year olds could see right through hypocrisy. Caroline could no longer bring herself to eat turkey or its parts, picturing the big birds out in the wild in the painting in her grandparents’ den, or the lucky birds on TV earlier in the week receiving a full pardon from the president of the United States.
She asked Grandpa what the turkeys had done to need a pardon. He told her they didn’t misbehave, that their only crime was being hatched turkeys. She felt the injustice of it all. It wasn’t their fault they were turkeys any more than it was hers she had been born female.
Caroline was the first grandchild, the first born, with a strong manly name ready to be bestowed, and then she had arrived a girl. She was glad she was too young to see the looks of disappointment on that day. She envisioned her crimes mounting as not only was her gender feminine, but also she loved all things girl – dance and dolls and tea parties on the grass in Grandma’s back yard, in a dress, of course.
She looked at her Grandpa as he talked about the turkeys and felt he had pardoned her. After all, she was the one who sat with him on the dock for hours while he fished, trying extra hard not to utter “ew” or dillydally when asked to hand him a slimy night crawler or smelly rag covered in fish blood.
The warm, herby smell of turkey in the oven was beginning to spread from the kitchen to the dining room, telling Caroline that dinner was not far off. She glanced at the long oval dining table, all leaves in place, chairs neatly circling. She tried not to think about the events that led to an open chair at the table, Dad leaving, Mom telling her that he wasn’t coming back and that she shouldn’t hate him or be angry. No words of consolation were offered that it wasn’t her fault or that he still loved her, leaving those thoughts for her to ponder.
Caroline was glad that at least she wasn’t going to be sitting in his chair. Instead, she was happily slated for a seat between Grandpa at the head of the table and Grandma on the side closest to the kitchen, the best location according to Grandma for a good hostess and her assistant, in the certain event that more warm gravy or cold drinks were requested.
With the kids’ table complete, Caroline began setting the big table. She knew her silverware placement and which forks to use for which courses. She placed the water glasses in just the right position above the knives. She was well schooled in proper etiquette by Grandma, who had grown up in her parents’ hotel. She didn’t cook, but she knew everything there was to know about serving and entertaining.
Grandma also had strong opinions about children’s behavior, and Caroline was up to the challenge of her first adult-table experience. She would only speak when spoken to and politely answer questions such as “How’s school?” and “Who are your friends?” and “What role will you dance in the upcoming Nutcracker ballet?”
“I can do this”, she reassured herself as her middle cousin and youngest sister went screaming by her, each stealing an olive from the relish tray on their way by the table, and pushing open the swinging door to the kitchen without losing a beat. Caroline heard Grandpa reprimand them to slow down and be more careful. “What if someone had been on the other side of that door?”, he asked rhetorically.
Smiling broadly, Caroline gave the two tables a last approving look, grabbed two black olives, popping one into her mouth and sliding the other onto her pointer finger as she joined Grandpa and the kids in the kitchen. “The tables are ready”, she proudly announced. She was done with the kids’ table, but not completely done with being a kid.