My family owns an old wooden table that once belonged to my great-Grandparents, and has been carefully passed down over the generations. Through the ingenious magic of extra leaves, it expands and contracts like an accordion, making room for up to fifteen smiling faces to gather around it. Twenty, if you don’t mind your elbows bumping.
Years ago, the old wooden table followed my family across an ocean to Kiev, Ukraine, into our first tiny apartment where my Mama could stand in the middle of the doll-sized kitchen and touch all four walls with her hands. I remember the very first dinner that we ate sitting around our table in that apartment—I was six years old, and Stephen and I were famished after refusing to eat anything but white dinner rolls on our trans-Atlantic flight. Armed with fifteen basic Russian phrases and an iron will, our Mother had hitch-hiked to the local market. She wandered wide-eyed amongst stalls where animal carcasses hung dripping above dirty meat counters, looking for all the world as though someone had mercilessly slaughtered half of Noah’s ark. The hard-won meal that she presented on the table that night was beef in some sort of unidentifiable gray sauce, and sleepy, hungry faces beamed and gushed how wonderful each bite tasted. Years later, Mom told us that was the moment she decided that she could live in Ukraine.
Our table has seen three different countries and more different houses, but wherever it was, we were home. It’s seen Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, Cookie Monster birthday cakes and two grinning little boys with curly blonde hair and spaghetti sauce all over their faces. It’s where we learned to pass food to the right, and to wait until Mama started eating to pick up our forks. It’s the table around which eyes scrunched tightly shut as we thanked Jesus for [most of] our food, and where we tattled on the other kids for opening their eyes during prayer. It’s where Ian gleefully discovered that he could burp the ABC’s, and while I’m sure my parents wanted to chastise him it was all so bizarrely impressive that they couldn’t help but egg him on. It’s the table that Kellan broke on the cool October night that he leaned across it to kiss me, and though Daddy laughed out loud and fixed it right up, Kellan never quite lived that down.
Our old wooden table is where we’ve told our stories, where we’ve learned who the people sitting beside and across from us are. It’s where we have celebrated wildly and loved fiercely, debated passionately and doubled over with belly-laughter. That table has been the heartbeat of our home for as long as I can remember, hosting grand Thanksgiving dinner parties and quiet peanut butter and jelly afternoons. My most savored memories are the ones we spent relaxing around empty plates for long, unhurried hours after the meal had ended, red wine still swirling in long-stemmed glasses and contented conversation echoing off the walls.
Part of the raw ache of grief is that you can never go back. There could be nothing more precious to me in the world than just one more night spent laughing around the old wooden table with my whole family, but Ian is gone. And nowhere do we miss him more than when we sit down to dinner and realize that we’ve forgotten again, and set six places instead of five.
The ache of missing Ian has created in me a homesick longing for soul-exhale of heaven. And somehow, I suspect that heaven will look just a little bit like what has happened around our old table for so many years.
Happy 23rd birthday tomorrow, baby brother. We miss you every single day.
While in college, Ian was interviewed about the a cappella group that he sang in. It’s unnerving just how often over the course of two minutes, he was distracted by a girl walking by…