That was one of Mama’s most oft-repeated quotes, though she rather deplored its sentiment. It’s why, I think, she was always trying to acknowledge—if not preserve—the best moments in the life of our family, the moments in which we were most truly ourselves and most truly together. How we teased and rolled our eyes every time she pulled out her point-and-shoot camera, and then, later, her cell phone, to snap yet another picture of us all sitting around the table simply enjoying a meal together.
“We’re going to have the most boring photo albums on earth,” one of us would quip.
Who wants to look at a bunch of people eating?
But that was it for her, the very embodiment of nurture and belonging and all that actually endures, all appearances to the contrary. Looking back, my mother’s table represents to me everything that was best about the home I grew up in. Our mealtimes were lively and spirited; the conversation never lagged as steaming platters and bowls whizzed up and down and second and third helpings were secured in transit to Daddy’s end of the table where a conglomeration of nearly empty serving dishes presented their remnants like the gleanings of a great harvest. Opinions were aired; stories were told; Scripture was read and prayers were said. Indeed, I like to think that even our laughter was a kind of prayer, a glad shout of thankfulness to God for giving us to one and another and to this house.
The first time that Mama set foot in what was to be our family home for the next 44 years, she recognized it at once.
“This is my house,” she told Daddy, who probably felt he’d lost his bargaining power with the seller in an instant.
But she was right, with that uncanny instinct of hers I can only hope the rest of us half appreciated. (She had a similar experience the first time she saw my father across the university chapel one Sunday night. “That’s the man I’m going to marry,” she thought, rather dazedly, though it took Daddy almost a year to muster the courage to ask her out, and that on a blind date!) And for the next 44 years, that house was as true a home as can be had on this earth, not only for our family, but to the scores of friends and loved ones who experienced home there—for an evening or an extended visit or a whole “back-door-guest” season of life. I can honestly say that I have friends who are as sentimental about my parents’ house as they are over their own childhood homes. Since Mama’s death back in April, I’ve lost count of how many people have tried to tell me what that house has meant to them, how utterly at home they felt every time they walked in the door. I say ‘tried’ because the essence of it is truly ineffable: warm and comforting, yes, but far too numinous to pin down in words.
One friend came about as close as you can:
“I never noticed the imperfections,” she said. “I only saw the people.”
Mama’s last wish in the decline of the illness which ultimately took her life was that she would not have to leave her house—that, in the mercy of God, she would be able to pass from this beloved home into her heavenly one. I promised her that I would do everything I could to make that happen, knowing full well it was a promise I might not have the resources or the ability to keep. But God, who, as we know, is ‘rich in mercy’, is also rich in resources, and I am still rather awed to be able to say that he honored that request beyond what I could have asked for or imagined.
Of my mother’s final days and hours I’m not yet able to write; some grief demands immediate expression, while others—those which strike, perhaps, at the very root of our formation and first understanding of love—require the flowering and fruit of a long, slow acceptance. I need, I think, to see what each season of the year looks like without her, how the land lies in the light of her absence, before I can begin to connect words to the experience. I will only say that her death moved through me like an earthquake, leaving only the unshakable unmoved, and that the Spirit of Christ was tangibly, palpably present in our midst. I will never be the same.
A couple of days before Thanksgiving I went over to Mama’s house and as soon as I opened the back door my eyes filled with tears. There was the pool table, around which so many friends had gathered over the years; the velvet sofa, it’s down pillow backs permanently dented by Mama’s black lab, Portia; the wild boar’s head hanging on the brick wall which my Daddy shot with a bow and arrow and which we ate on for months from small, white-wrapped parcels in the freezer. Every house has a scent—one of Elizabeth Goudge’s homes smelled most memorably, of “old wood, and lemon oil, and dog”; ours was always woodsmoke and cedar and candles and books—and this time the aroma greeted me as kindly as ever, if perhaps a bit mournfully.
The truth was, I hadn’t been over there in weeks. After nearly five months of endless work, we’d listed it on the market back in October, and I had vowed within my heart not to so much as lay eyes on the For Sale sign in the yard until I absolutely had to. Cleaning out my parents’ house was the hardest thing I have ever done. And yet, it was among the most precious and meaningful experiences of my life: I felt like an archeologist, excavating a happy past which present sufferings had temporarily obscured. Time and again I sat in those silent rooms, weeping over some unknown or unremembered evidence of our parents’ love for us and for each other—cards and letters, prayer journals and Bible notes, book inscriptions and baby spoons and bits of broken china carefully glued back together. In a stash of gifts on the floor of my mother’s closet, I found a plaque which I knew she had intended as a Christmas present for me: Courage, Dear Heart. After mopping my eyes, I hung it on a nail on the now-empty wall in the den beside the pool table. It had been the last thing I took out of the house with me when the realtor showed up with the lockbox and that odious sign.
Today, however, I had braved the silence and strange emptiness for two items: Mama’s woven cornucopia which I’d spotted months back up in the storage shed and Great-Aunt Tiny’s stylized painting of lantern flowers which we’d left hanging over the fireplace in the living room. The former was requisite for my Thanksgiving table; the latter, I’d realized, would look lovely in my front hall.
Up in the storage house I secured my prize, and back in the living room I gently lifted Aunt Tiny’s painting from over the mantel. Then I wandered through the quiet rooms, closing closet doors realtors had left open, turning on certain lamps and turning off others. In the laundry room I remembered the shock of sudden tears over cleaning out the utility closet, for, in a real home, of course, there is no such thing as the purely utilitarian. It’s all holy, down to the corncob holders and picnic napkins, the dryer sheets and the brooms. The only things left in the kitchen were the teapot and three cups which our agent had asked me to leave for staging, and Mama’s kettle on the stove, which looked so natural there it had naturally been overlooked. I smiled, and left it.
Coming through into the dining room, however, I nearly choked over the sob which rose in my throat. There was Mama’s table, desolate and empty. It was one of the few pieces of furniture remaining in the house, and though I had no immediate use for it, it was one thing I simply could not bear to part with. Philip had already made room for it in our barn loft, and we had plans in mind for a specific purpose. But it looked so forsaken against the backdrop of such a grey day.
I thought of all the jolly meals we had shared there together; the first time Philip had come for dinner; the holidays and festal occasions; the homeschool mornings littered with books and binders and mugs of cinnamon-laced coffee. I thought, more recently, of little teatimes with Mama, or lunches of our favorite Chinese takeout. I thought of her ubiquitous camera.
Even when Mama’s illness had robbed her of the articulate conversation she was known for, it was still important for her to acknowledge the sacredness of this space, this domestic altar, as it were.
“Here,” she would say, clutching the corners of the table with both hands and smiling at me with soft eyes. “Right here.”
“I know, Mama. I know.”
Packing up the photo albums a few weeks earlier, I had flipped through hundreds—if not thousands—of pictures of us sitting around that table together, and it was not boring. It was absolutely beautiful. One of the loveliest sights on earth, in fact, though I completely took it for granted at the time. In spite of the unreason of it all, I thought that we would always be going over there for dinners and everyday festivities, Christmas morning breakfast and just-because tea parties (have I told you that my mother liked to throw birthday parties for William Shakespeare?) I imagined that the big freezer in the laundry room would always be stuffed with dove and quail, rainbow trout and sweet white perch from Daddy’s hunting and fishing expeditions. I assumed that nothing would ever change.
A few days later, Philip and I carried that table out under a sodden sky.
“Of course it’s raining,” he said.
“I don’t mean to sound irreverent,” I replied, as we squished across the backyard, “but this feels like the stripping of the altar.”
I confess, I had a hard time settling into Advent this year. I was seized with a weariness which seemed to seep from the recesses of my soul out into the very limbs of my body. Even with the delightful prospect of a houseful of dear ones for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I found myself paring back lists and tasks which would have been easy to manage in a less demanding year. (Would you believe it if I told you I never finished my Christmas shopping?) I had the beautiful liturgies and traditions of my church to carry me, and the company of faithful friends both new and old with whom to make this sacred pilgrimage. I had my hymns and carols, my poetry books and my prayer book, a few cherished decorations sacred to Philip’s and my story and a few newly assimilated treasures sacred to the story of the family I grew up in. My heart is usually brimming with expectation this time of year. But as I sat in the glittering dark beside my Christmas tree in the mornings, I felt…hollow.
Every Advent I have asked Jesus to visit me and those in my care in a unique and specific way, to meet us in those spaces of our hearts that most need tending. I will never forget the Christmas I realized that Christ’s Incarnation meant, among other things, a lifetime of smaller incarnations into our individual circumstances. I was 19 years old, sitting at the window in my bedroom where I always had my morning devotions, when the words of Luke 1:78 fairly sang themselves off the page, mirroring in verse the gilded blush of the morning outside:
Through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us…
That was what He was like—gentle and kind, merciful as a mother and beautiful as a newborn day. He wanted to be with us, I realized, wanted to make himself known, not only to the whole human race, but to a young woman kneeling in her nightgown, watching the day break with tears in her eyes. It was right and proper that the light should fall at such a tender angle this time of year for the very tenderness of God was leaning over the world “with warm breast, and with ah! bright wings.”
I was claimed by that sunrise on that long ago morning, and the light of it has colored every Christmas since for me; it is why, though I’m scarcely one to leap out of bed on a dark, winter morning, I simply cannot bear to miss a December dawn. I always keep a stack of devotionals and poetry books, along with my Bible, my prayer book, and a stouthearted little candle on the low table next to my favorite chair, and these early moments of confession, communion, and quiet are among the dearest rituals of the season for me. They tether my heart, grounding my enthusiasm in the reality which makes these hours so golden. This year, however, Advent felt more like Lent: a tenebraeic pall over the chambers of my heart. When I asked Jesus to come, to remember me with some healing image of His love in my mind or in my circumstances, all I could picture was a small, dark enclosure, like the cell of an anchoress buried in the walls of a church.
Then, one morning I thought of something else: my mother’s table.
I’d snapped a photo back on that November day, but even as I reached for my phone to pull it up, I understood what it meant. That table was me: empty, barren, skinned to the bone with sorrow. I was completely depleted. And even as I was preparing to spread all these tables in the coming days for people I loved, this was a table I could not set.
I would like to say that God laid that board until it groaned this Christmas, and, in a way, he did. It was one of the most mirthful Christmases we have known, not just in spite of, but in the very face of, grief. I began to understand what it means for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies, for what greater enemy is there than death? On Christmas night, my gaze traveled over the merry faces crowded around our table, young and old alight with a common joy and a shared hope, and I exulted over the kingship of Christ it all signified. We could laugh and be silly, groan over awful cracker jokes, tell funny stories and savor special food even when our hearts were breaking, because we knew where the story was going. Someday, when all things were restored, death itself would die, for good and all.
In another sense, the setting of that inner table is a long process, one with which I can cooperate, but not dictate. Mama always used to say that it takes us as many days to recover from a trip as those in which we’ve been away, and perhaps grief has a parallel. “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,” the Psalmist entreats, and I like to think that embedded in this request is the tacit acknowledgement that “glad-making” takes time. Grief is a capricious thing, and it has a heyday with archetypical loss: it’s hard for me to get my heart around the fact that I’m in my 40s and I will never see either of my parents again in this life. But God (two of the most consoling words ever stitched together right there) does not leave us orphaned. He comes to us, mothering and fathering us back to gladness, trading our mourning for the oil of joy.
“Jesus turns our sorrow to joy,” said 90 year-old Libba after church one morning, clutching my hands with a girlish light in her blue eyes. “That’s who he is and that’s what he does. And you just ask him to do it, every single day, until you wake up one morning and realize he’s already doing it.”
It’s a new season in my life. And while the old one was not without challenge (what season is?) I’ve never liked change. It’s not something I typically sign up for, and certainly not when it follows on the heels of a major loss. I remember once, in the growing pains of a young adult decision, Mama sat down beside me on my little twin bed in my blue and white bedroom. I was on the cusp of something new, caught between girlhood and womanhood, afraid to release the known for the passionate hope of the dreamt-of.
“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God,” she said quietly.
The words are from Psalm 55, and while the concept of “change” in that passage has been treated to a spectrum of translations—from a lack of repentance, to a reversal of fortunes, even used in contrast to the changelessness of God—in the dear old King James, the version I cut my teeth on and whose poetry I will always treasure, there’s a nod here to the compassionate uses of change: just as the goodness of God leads us to repentance, the uncertainties and upheavals of life can cause us to reverence him in ways we never would have otherwise. Our God is a consuming fire. But he is also a tender host, laying a feast for his loved ones in the hidden rooms of their own hearts.
That is the sense, at least, in which I’m endeavoring to view this change, allowing its loving pressure to nudge me forward into what Oswald Chambers calls an “irresistible future.” We sang of that future, in fact, this past Sunday during the Eucharist:
Be still my soul, when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Mama was right: change is one of the few sureties we have in this life. That and grief. And joy, of course. Everlastingly joy.
This spoke so deeply to my heart and resonates in beautiful ways. ❤️🙏❤️
A poignant essay and one which must have been emotionally challenging to compose even these months beyond your Mother’s death. Reading it I am reminded of the passing of my own mother and father two years and a day apart. We travelled across country for the memorial services–journeys which both times were fraught with difficulties.
I helped to clean the house and sort through accumulated belongings, but brought little away with me: an old cap and jacket of my Dad’s, some books and music which had belonged to my mother.
I sat and played her piano while friends and neighbors came by on the afternoon of that final service. The piano was slightly out of tune–it never would have been when my Mother was alive!
Ah, dear Lanier, I did not know of your mom’s passing until I read this blog. I understand your grief as I lost my dad in December 2021 and my mom in August 2022. It is so true that the Lord’s presence is comforting and tender. I’m glad you have such precious memories of both parents. Much love to you, dear friend.
Well … this was a three tissue read for me … I had to pause in the middle to wipe the tears and swallow that big lump in my throat. Just seeing the table reminded me of so many well meals around it … and especially one unforgettable caroling party night when your Daddy and I sat at the chairs closest to the wall and secretly nibbled seconds and thirds of homemade marshmallows … he sure loved those sweets and would ‘mmmm mmm mmm’ with every bite….
And I’m laughing remembering the Mitford parties … I know your neighbors thought we were crazy traipsing in with strange costumes and get ups! 😉
and oh yes, the lingering smell of woodsmoke and candles and books and everything lovely… that’s a treasure to us as well…
So so many sweet memories…
Your beautiful words are a gift to me today ❤️ Thank you dearest one …
I immediately thought of Jo going through Beth’s trunk in the attic…a bittersweet scene from the movie we all loved. Too much to share about that dear table, but I so grateful that I put my feet under it often. This blessed me beyond words…my devotional for the day.🙏🏻❤️
It’s so lovely to read through the comments here… others who attest to the warm welcome and the delightful home atmosphere that your mother fostered.
There’s no written response equal to the telling of these precious, hard, beautiful moments – past memories and present reflections, but anyone who has lost a dear one to the assault of death will feel their heart affirm some element of their powerful truths.
In reading between the lines of the holy place of presence with your mother at the last, about which you cannot yet write, I felt the kinship in loss. The months since my own mother’s death have often been marked by that awful hollowness of grief that you experienced during Advent, but in the holiness of the days and hours of her dying as a saint in the Lord, “The surety of everlasting joy…” subsumed all. That awful robber, death, was robbed of all its power. There was no fear there. Faith, hope and love remained… These only are unchangeable.
And so, until “change and tears are past… and we shall meet [them, again] at last” (incidentally one of my very favourite hymns)… ‘courage, dear heart.’
I needed every word of this tonight. Thank you.
Lanier I am so sorry for your loss! And how kind of God your Father to gift you in such a beautiful way to describe the depths and heights of it so poignantly. Thank you for sharing and hopefully, in this act, you have divided some of this grief between those of us who understand and receive it.
I am so sorry to hear you have lost your dear mother. “It was a halo bright, sent down from heaven’s light, the sweetest gift, a mother’s smile….” go the words to an old song. As Janice has already said, whether writing of joy, sorrow, or an intermingling of both, your musings are always beautiful and deeply moving.
Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful memories and meditations on Claudia’s table and your own. Thank you for sharing your struggles and your joys in this new season.
What lovely memories are conjured of your mamas table.