I feasted on comfort food and the comfort of belonging at my Mom’s company table.
The night before, we’d pull the dining room table apart, put the boards in, cover the table with cloths, wash the glassware, and set out the good china and silverware. Then I’d dust the extra chairs Dad and I brought down from the attic. All the while, Mom baked and cooked. Thus we prepared to host company dinners, usually for members of Mom’s Derstine or Dad’s Clemmer family.
Thanksgiving with the Derstines featured turkey with both oyster pudding and bread stuffing. We all knew that the small plate of ham was meant only for my brother Jim and Aunt Mildred, who didn’t eat poultry.
Along with the meat, my Mom served mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, baked lima beans, a jellied salad, her own frozen corn, string beans with mushroom soup, dinner rolls, and of course a dish of black olives.
For dessert, she often baked her famous walnut cake with caramel icing or a rich dark chocolate cake with chocolate icing, then waited for the rave reviews. Sometimes she served pie instead, usually a choice of cherry or blueberry with vanilla ice cream. For the diet-conscious, she offered fruit salad and strawberry Jello with DreamWhip.
I still savour the tastes and aromas from that table laden with basic Pennsylvania Dutch food. I understand why that sort of carb-and-sugar-laden dinner put the men to sleep, as they purported to watch the football game on TV. I guess washing the dishes kept the women awake!
At those dinners, much more than the feast on the table sustained me. For here I experienced the warmth and comfort of my extended families. Here I most basically belonged.
At that same table of belonging I took in the wider world. Here on ordinary weekdays my mother and I read the mail from family missionaries – letters from my cousin Betty King in Cuba before the Revolution, from Mom’s cousin Miriam Leatherman at the London (England) Mennonite Centre, and from Mom’s cousin Esther Detweiler in Cuba and then Mexico. Here the church-planting efforts of Aunt Mildred and Uncle Curt Godshall in Centereach, Long Island, New York took weekly shape, like a magazine serial.
Here my calling to care for the world through the church was birthed, as the six pastors, their wives, and three foreign missionaries from both sides of the family all eventually came to dinner. Their energy rubbed off on me; I rated them livelier and much more exotic than the other adults in my small world. Not all of them ministered far away; during my growing up years and far into my adulthood, at least one of our Moyer/Clemmer kin served on Souderton Mennonite’s pastoral team at all times.
So in our family, pastors and missionaries were not remote folks. I saw them with their guard down in letters and at the family dinner table. Around my mother’s table I caught what Jack Suderman, formerly of Mennonite Church Canada, calls an “ecclesial vision.” My place of belonging easily expanded from my extended family to the church. I came to see my vocation of offering soul food as an extension of my Mom’s table hospitality.
Questions for Reflection:
What memories do you have of your family of origin’s “company table”? Of the lost art of letter writing? What has replaced these ways of connecting in your life today?
Where as a child did you feel you “most belonged”?
What childhood experiences – if any – made pastors seem less remote to you?
Next Week: Mom’s Other Company Table