The Big Table
AlamyMy brother made it to The Big Table before I did.
Coming from a very large family, the holiday season was not some random event. Every year we would get together in the confines of my grandmother's two-story duplex: It was not "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house" for me. It was more like, "Get out of bed and down the stairs to Grandmom's apartment we go."
I'm not talking just Thanksgiving and Christmas. We are talking any major holiday. New Year's and the "Black Eyed Peas for Luck." Easter where we stayed up late painting eggs, finding said eggs and eating around the yoke that had turned a grayish color. Fourth of July with my uncle Ron cooking the most incredible grilled fare (so good, he made it into the African American cookbook Real Men Can Cook on how not to mangle ribs).
At Thanksgiving, for some odd reason there was always a pot of spaghetti and chitlins on the stove, along with the classic fare. I get awkward stares when I tell my friends about this tradition (and squinty faces when I explain what chitlins are).
Then of course, Christmas. After coming down the stairs to my grandma's place way too early to tear open presents under the classic 70's plastic Christmas tree in the hopes of a Flip Wilson/Geraldine doll or possibly the Star Wars Disco Album, we always knew dinner was ready just about the time we started smelling the rolls.
Then we would all gather at "The Tables": The Big Table for the adults; The Little Table in the kitchen (or refurbished basement) for the kids.
My goal ever since I could remember was making it to The Big Table in the dining room. It always seemed they were talking in secret code and laughing outrageously. It seemed all the food was on those "good plates" I had seen displayed in the glass case (that was locked). Seemed to me that the food must taste so much better on those good plates.
I waited for my time as I saw my sisters make the passage from The Little Table to The Big Table. By the time they were in on the encoded conversations and delicious food served on magic plates, I was about 14. Still at The Little Table. With my 12-year-old brother and other assorted younger extended family members taking the cloves out of the ham and putting it in the orange soda. Them throwing bits of ham all over the walls from plastic plates.
This is where I started learning how to keep The Little Table under control with a keen sense of humor to avoid having a hot holy mess at that table. Little did I know I was screwing myself. I got so good at it, my little brother got to The Big Table before I did. How did this happen??
By the time I was 18 (moved away from my Grandmom's and Mother's home to the North Side), I went to my Grandmom's house. I heard my aunts say, "Do you think Shaun would like to sit at The Little Table"?
It hit me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. My family had designated me as "The Babysitter of The Little Table." I can see this being a great honor as they considered me a responsible caring person to take on the burden of kids slapping ham onto a wall off of them.
I was having none of it. I believe I'm the only one of my generation who had to ask to sit at The Big Table.
The look on their faces when I asked was one of embarrassment. It took all the courage in the world to ask, and they knew that at 18 it was far past the time for me to sit in a real chair the height of my body and eat from the magical "good plates."
The first five minutes at The Big Table was a touch awkward but I learned from The Little Table that civil discourse is the way to go to make things fun. I sat at the table and said. "So, I got to tell you all that I'm going to California to work at San Quentin . . ."
The harmonized "ooooo, girrl!" that came out of my aunts! I was in! I was in on the encoded conversations!
After about 30 minutes I got up to see what was going on at The Little Table. Kids singing songs that I could not relate to. The oldest at the front of the table helping another kid cut his piece of ham. She looked at me wearily and smiled.
I said, "Your turn will come soon enough" and went back to The Big Table.
I never looked back from The Little Table because I must admit: Food does taste better from the good plates.
Actress and improv artist Shaun D. Landry is the co-founder and artistic director of the critically acclaimed African American Touring Sketch Comedy and Improvisational Theatre Company Oui Be Negroes. She is a contributor to Whose Improv Is It Anyway . . . Beyond the Second City. Read her blog on Red Room.