1. The Dining Room
My home had always been broken, though at the time it wasn’t something I could acknowledge. It was made almost explicitly of wood and brick and required a mother-daughter DIY fix each day. The deck was falling off the side of the mountain, and the never-used wooden hot tub had been a pit in the ground breeding place for rodents and reptiles since the day my parents bought the house twenty years before. A hole in the roof encouraged the bluebirds to nest and sing in our attic, while we prepared graves outside for the hatchlings who didn’t make it. It was a beautiful mess, a memory drenched shell of a house. It was a home. There was, however, one room which concealed any judgment brought on by the rest of the house, the dining room.
The dining room was a decadent step out from the daddy-long-leg infiltrated kitchen; a deep red walled space with high cracked ceilings and leaking windows which looked out to the yard. It functioned partly as my father’s workspace, and partly as my mother’s museum. She adorned it with items she would hold up to her chest if they weren’t so perfectly exhibited in the red walls of that room. The dinner table, handcrafted for her by her father, her Bubbe’s grandfather clock that ticked all but one time, the record player cabinet her family had clung to since the 1930s, the silk drapes that so perfectly matched the painting of the naked woman placed on the wall beside them. The dining room was more than a historical exhibition, though. It was where we spent the most time all together, as a family. It too was deteriorating. The dinner table that was to be worn with each knock and scratch of my dad’s wristwatch despite my mom’s scolding, the grandfather clock that lost its tick despite her countless hours spent reading manuals to bring it back to life, the record player I saw crushed on the road a few years later as if it meant nothing to no one, and the drapes that would eventually be torn to shreds by the cat that no one wanted, thrown away like most of the house’s possessions.
2. Around the Table
My oldest memory linked to the dining room is exceptionally vivid. A memory that is so distant from myself now, it might as well have not been me at all, but one that I can remember with more emotion and clarity than anything I have done within the past few months, days, hours of living. It was my fourth birthday party, and we were in that room. I was crouched on my father’s creaky chair –one of the few times I was ever allowed to be on there– and I saw his deep tan arms open up the cardboard box to my cake. A white sheet cake airbrushed with a beach scene, a critical element of the 2007 children’s birthday party (the design on the cake was actually a graveyard, given that it was a Halloween themed party, but I’ve always remembered it as a beach with a rainbow sunset). I was smiling so hard I could see my cheeks in my vision, my dad standing beside me as my mom snapped a photo. The reliable five p.m. sunlight streamed through the windows, illuminating the room as it always had.
That same hour of sunlight descended upon the dining room around the time my dad arrived home from work each night. He’d walk through the door, I’d give him a hug, he’d tell me to go to my room until dinner. Ritual. Once he called me for dinner I’d stand on my squeaky leather seat and begin unwrapping the utmost desired feast- Taco Bell. Three crunchy tacos, one crunch wrap supreme, and two hours worth of fast-food induced bickering between my parents encompassed each Taco Bell dinner. I looked forward to every second of it.
We sat at the dinner table each Christmas Eve indulging ourselves with Chinese food, reading aloud fortunes that we never again thought of. We sat at the dinner table and argued about who got which placemat, about who got to light the menorah candles. We sat at the dinner table and reviewed tax forms and studied Earth science and read the newspaper and fed the dogs little bits of food. So it continued, we would dine, the light would shine, the chairs would squeak, and the red walls upheld the magnificent love and drama of it all.
But as time drew on, and the once perfect drapes faced abuse by the cat, and the dinner table’s wood was eroded by my father’s wristwatch, and the rich red paint became discolored by the afternoon sun, so too did my mother’s love towards the house fall to resentment. She said she’d never lived in one place for so long. She said she felt stuck. I can’t blame her for that.
Eventually, my parents chose to demolish the house in hopes of building a new, better functioning one that they could then sell. My mom said a change would do us well. My dad agreed because he wanted my mom to be happy.
4. Change in Scenery
We quite suddenly moved into a cramped rental house in the midst of my developing teenage years. This house had a dining room with a lazy susan centered on the table. I was so looking forward to using that lazy susan, to sitting in the familiar five p.m. light produced by the window. But this room ended up a center for storage and decaying mementos. The table was quickly piled high with boxes and magazines before we could even give it a chance. That room was a waste of the window.
Dinner was now eaten on the stools in the kitchen. Two could sit in there, while one member was kicked onto the couch in the next room. Eventually the concept of dinner ceased to exist in that house. It was to serve yourself whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. My family did not eat a single meal together in that home throughout the entire two years we lived there. Without dinner, we lived separate lives. Three strangers forced into a small space together, there was little room to grow with sincerity fading and resentment building. And none of us seemed to care enough to do anything about it. It was easier to blame each other. It was easier to pretend we didn’t need each other.
We got exactly what we wished for. In pretending we didn’t need each other, we didn’t have each other. Not when my mom was losing her sense of purpose in this world. Not when my dad was tearing his mind apart at work trying to fix a deal that had gone sour. Not when I was living in what I thought to be the time of my life, disillusioned with lack of sleep, with my grades steadily dropping and my mental health diminishing.
I can recall the first time in a long time in which we all talked as a family since we stopped eating dinner together. I convinced myself the kitchen was rigged with wires and cameras reporting information back to my parents, and that I had seen people watching me outside of my windows. My brain was eating itself from the inside out. My parents noticed and called an intervention at the kitchen counter. I saw the anger and confusion on my mother’s face as she asked me why I was doing this to them, and the defeat on my father’s as he told me the same thing had happened to my sister when she was my age. I spun their worries back at them, doing anything to divert the blame from myself. It worked. We never talked about it again, and eventually the madness went away, just as all ignored things do. It was my fault just as much as it was theirs. But how could they have known? How could they have known how to help me, when their brains were doing the exact same thing to them?
5. A Fresh Start
By the time I realized where we had gone wrong, we’d moved back into the re-done house; a house that was no longer our home. We were expected to sell it, “so why get attached?” my mother kept reminding me. The kitchen was beautiful, sterile. There were no daddy-long-legs or rats to keep us company, there were no holes for the birds to welcome themselves in through, or graves to be dug for those who were pushed out of their nests. The great big oaks were no longer standing guard around the house, cut down by forces beyond their control. There were no longer windows absorbing the iridescent, five p.m. stream of light into the kitchen. There was a dinner table, but for the sake of space it had no chairs surrounding it. And because there were no chairs, there was no longer a trio of people brought together at the end of each day.
Where does the blame go? Does it go where the birds were buried? Or does it get torn to shreds and forgotten like the curtains? Does it lie within each of us, festering until I can do it all over with my own children? What happens to my parents? Do they die with the guilt of knowing where they went wrong? Or the still holding onto the resentment of each other and myself? I must not ask such questions because, in truth, the same thing would have happened even if we stayed bathing in the five p.m. light of that dining room. The cat would have ruined the curtains, and the table would have been grotesquely scuffed, and the red would have faded to transparency on its own eventually. Just as all things erode with time.
I would like to thank my peer reviewers, Bella Beard, Lulu Dalzell, and Alex Flizsar for reading and providing notes and constructive criticism throughout the process of my memoir. I would also like to greatly thank my professor Mary Kovaleski Byrnes for her guidance throughout this process, as well as for her extensive feedback on my rough draft which helped immensely in my final revisions. I am also very appreciative of the works of so many authors whom we were able to learn from, particularly Sarah Sweeney, and her insight and advice on our memoirs. Lastly, I would like to acknowledge my mother and father and various residencies for bringing me where I am now.