by Punam Vaja
We walked in and there was a leaf in our letterbox. "I wonder who it was" my mother pondered as she picked it up and placed it on the coffee table. This was before calling ahead was common and if guests wanted to visit us, they'd simply turn up. The leaf through the letterbox was a way to tell us: "We came by but no one was home". After a day or two, someone would call and let us know it was them who had attempted to visit.
When my grandma was still around, guests would come by any day of the week. And they usually wouldn’t leave without lunch. Or dinner. Or both, if you were lucky enough to be persuaded to stay by her. Grandma had a certain air of authority about her that meant no one could say no, so a simple drop-in visit would take our guests from the comfort of the sofa to the dining table. And this is where she shone, at the hub and heart of the home, the dining table.
In the book Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes, Shauna Niequist tells stories from around the table and sentiments of how the table becomes a space for connecting with our loved ones. Through stories and recipes, she addresses the role of the table and our shared experience as humans to come together for nourishment, a basic act that connects us to others. For Grandma, the act of welcoming people into our home meant they were now her responsibility. Usually, this began by dictating to the rest of us that we should make chai and prepare snacks, gradually announcing our visitors will be staying for lunch or dinner, and mostly against their knowledge or intentions to stay for that long. By extending this invitation and welcoming guests to the table for a meal, it meant she was saying, "I am accepting you as my family and you are under my care”. What stood out from my memories of those ad-hoc lunches and dinners at the table was how the conversations would go on even after the food was gone. It was as if the food had reignited a flame and everyone was ready to share a deep and meaningful story or experience with the others. We'd be clearing away around them, trying not to disturb, and gently offering them anything else they might like. It was in those moments I realised what my grandma had done. She knew that certain conversations can only be had with a full stomach and simply serving our guests tea and snacks on the sofa wasn't going to let that happen. They needed to be seen, eye to eye and sat shoulder to shoulder at the table to really unravel what they wanted to share. She had to allow them to feel safe to open up and talk about a deeper issue, or share a heartwarming story. This was only possible when she showed them that safety by sharing a meal and opening her own heart. These early memories made me realise that the table, where all come together, is so special, beyond simply the food we serve on it.
This takes me to my own story about how I realised the power of the dining table beyond simply the one we had at home. I was in my early 20s and needed to share something with a sibling, but was quite afraid to do so at home and so I decided: let's go out to eat, just us two. At first I thought, “This is a terrible idea. I'm way too nervous.” But moments after we finished eating, full of delicious Mexican food, my body sort of naturally shifted gears and I blurted out the things I was afraid to say. I had found comfort and safety at the table during this shared experience and simple moment of enjoying a meal together, sat shoulder to shoulder. The moment brought me comfort and strength I did not realise I had. It seems, just like the dining table at home, this dinner table I was sitting at had become my safe space. It became a place to share fears and inhibitions, a place for grieving and laughs and, above all, a place of connection. Just like those guests who sat around our table at home, pouring their hearts out to my grandma, I too was able to feel a surge of power to communicate whatever was in my mind. It would seem that whichever table you're sat at, wherever you might be, it is holy and holds a special power.
ILLUSTRATION BY RIMA STUDIO