“So, you were right, Kevin, the nest is empty,” Judy declares, placing a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon in front of me, then pours my coffee, apparently, from her tone and expression, expecting a response.
I don’t know what to say. Her mood seems strange. I can’t tell if she’s relieved after watching the last of our kids move out, or afraid to be left with only me in the house. I wait for her to sit down, then start eating. The first etiquette lesson I learned from her more than thirty years ago was not to talk with my mouth full. My mother took off when I was five, and table manners were never on my father’s list of things to teach me. The only thing he actually taught me was how to dig clams for a living. I lived by myself for three years after he died before I met Judy. She must have thought I was a slob.
The seating arrangement is new. For years I sat at the living room end of the table, with Judy at the kitchen end. The boys sat on one side, the girls on the other. This morning, Judy set our places opposite each other at her end. Maybe being close is what’s making her nervous. It’s like when we were first married. Big Mac sat at the head of the table, with Judy on his left and me on his right. When Neil was a baby, Judy put his infant seat on the chair to her left. After Patrick came, he got the privileged position and Neil moved to a highchair next to me. When Michael was born, she added a leaf to the table and moved Neil back on her side so he could help her, while Patrick moved over to the high chair next to me. Big Mac used to tease Judy about playing musical chairs every time she had a baby, but it made sense. Judy had a system for everything-still does. The baby had to be closest to its mother, and I was responsible for the second youngest. As the kids grew older they moved farther away. They had to change chairs again for Meghan, then for Sheila-which meant a second leaf in the table-and for Noreen. Then we all changed for good after the old man died, so I’ve been sitting twelve feet away from Judy for sixteen years. I hope she knows what she’s doing.
When she still hasn’t spoken by the time I swallow what was in my mouth, I say, tentatively, “It’s a pretty big nest for the two of us, don’t you think?”
Now it’s her turn to chew slowly and compose a response. I first broached the subject when Neil got married five years ago. I remember pointing out that they’d all eventually leave and we wouldn’t need eight bedrooms and four bathrooms, but she didn’t want to discuss it. “I want them to know they’ll always have a home with us,” she eventually says, making me wonder what she could possibly be thinking of. Reading my mind, as she does so well, she adds, “With the economy today, things change fast. Any of our children or their wives or husbands could be out of work tomorrow. You know Michael was laid off from an excellent job when his bank merged. It could happen to the others. They don’t have the security we had.”
She’s right about that. Her father had inherited MacDuffey’s Tire Shop from his father back in 1930 and turned it into a successful full-service auto repair center by the time the War was over and gasoline was no longer rationed and everybody was buying new cars again. He hired me as service manager the day after I got out of the Army in 1976, and left the business-and this house-to us in his will. Sure, I’d help the kids out if they need it, but it’s pretty unlikely they’d all be out of work at the same time and move back home. If that happened we’d need an even bigger house. Six grown kids with their spouses and four grandkids so far with three more in the ovens and who knows how many eventually. I take a fork’s worth of eggs and decide not to push. She’s not ready yet. Maybe if she keeps cleaning all those empty rooms for a year or two, she’ll come around. “You know,” I say after swallowing, “it does seem strange to be sitting here with just you at the table. I mean, it’s not the first time, but the strange thing is knowing we’ll have dinner by ourselves tonight, and then tomorrow and most days after that.”
I was going to suggest taking the leaves out of the table but was afraid she’d think I didn’t want the kids to come for dinner on Sundays. It’s a big mahogany double-pedestal table bought by Judy’s father when he got married in 1938. He had been an only child and wanted a large family. He had grown up here in what was then a summer bungalow with an outhouse. After his father died, he installed a full bathroom, and began adding on to the house, one room at a time, starting with a huge dining room. Every Christmas he gave Judy’s mother a place setting of fancy china and silverware. He added a full second floor and attic and built bedrooms and bathrooms whenever they could afford to. But the extra rooms remained empty and all but two sets of the china and silver unused until Judy’s mother died giving birth to her in 1957.
Judy was sixteen when I met her, nineteen when we got married. Then the babies started coming fast, six in six years-“gifts from God” she called them, and her father agreed. His house was full at last. He slept in the original first floor bedroom. Judy and I shared the master bedroom upstairs. And the kids each had their own rooms. I guess I was proud, too, though I couldn’t help notice how exhausted she was and wonder how many more gifts we could afford-or have room for. I suppose we could have started doubling up with bunk beds, but the rooms were pretty small. After the sixth consecutive June Baptism, her doctor and our pastor convinced her to practice what they called “natural” birth control-no sex during probable ovulation days. I never told her, but I’m sure-as-hell glad it worked.
Of course I never asked her, but I think she was glad, too. The table was designed for fourteen when fully opened, which we need when the whole gang shows up. The grandkids eat in the kitchen, though I know that’ll bother Judy when they’re older. She’s always been a stickler for family meals. Jeez, if they each have 2.3 kids, we will need another table.
She knows what I’m thinking again because her next question is, “Do you think we could extend the dining room out back far enough to fit a second table?”
“The nest is empty, not filling up.”
“But we’ll eventually need the space on Sundays and holidays.”
“No, I think our kids will want to start having their own Sunday dinners pretty soon. And someday they might want to start having us to their places on holidays.”
“Maybe Thanksgiving and Easter, but I always want Christmas to be here.”
“But there are six other families involved. They’ve all been rotating Christmas between us and their in-laws.”
“Not Michael. He’s been here all three Christmases since he’s been married.”
“And he told me a few weeks ago that Jesse’s parents want them to fly to California next Christmas. Look, when the grandkids are old enough, I can set up card tables.”
“That’s fine for now but Meghan and Sheila are both pregnant.”
So is Noreen, I tell myself, trying not to smile. Apparently, she hasn’t yet found the nerve to tell her mother she was two months pregnant at her wedding yesterday. Instead, I try to change the subject. “You know, Judy, sometimes you pay more attention to your idea of reality than to reality itself. You need to let go of the idea that all the kids and their families will spend every Sunday and every Christmas with us. Or else you’re gonna be very disappointed.”
Now Judy looks angry and I realize I’ve gone too far. She needs to defend herself and I’ll have to back down.
“I resent that, Kevin. I’m a very realistic person.” Her voice continues to rise as she re-caps the obvious: “I raised six kids, was PTA president for eleven years, planned my schedule around their band practices and basketball games and track meets, and I’ve done the bookkeeping at the garage since I was a kid. My idea of reality is reality! And don’t you forget it.”
I can feel the blood rushing to my face and neck, so I know I’m looking like I’m ashamed of myself. I’m not, but I hope she thinks I am. I’m really sorry for pissing her off, but I’m still right about her. “Judy,” I say, “you know I can’t always find the right words. Believe me, I brag about you all the time at the shop and the firehouse, that’s how much I think of you. I know you did all those things, and I know I couldn’t handle the garage without you. I’m a crack mechanic but you’re the brains behind the business. You do a lot more than keep the books. You run the place and I’m grateful.”
She looks relieved, no longer mad, maybe pleased with my recognition of her worth, so I add, “Let me give an example of what I meant. Do you remember Joshua I-forget-his-last-name?”
Now she smiles, then chuckles a little, finally laughs out loud and says, “Joshua Hardee, the boy from Massachusetts who almost starved. I’m afraid to ask where you’re going with Joshua. He only spent two days with us for a joint band concert.”
“Well, that’s my point. He sat here at this table right between Neil and Patrick and didn’t know how to fill his own plate. Remember how he kept passing the spaghetti, the meatballs, the sauce, the cheese and the bread and butter back and forth-and you didn’t know till we were halfway through dinner that his plate was empty?”
“How could I ever forget? But you didn’t know, either. It was Noreen who finally asked him if he was feeling okay.”
“Your idea of reality was that all kids serve themselves, not just you and me when we were little plus kids in big families. But Joshua’s mother had always served him dinner-at his desk in his bedroom! She was in her sixties, as I recall, and his father was older. Joshua had a forty-year-older half-brother, so, for all practical purposes he was raised as an only child by a doting mother. The kid never learned to take care of himself the way our kids had to.”
Judy is still smiling and I can tell that she still feels a little embarrassed over the incident. At breakfast the next morning, she prepared individual plates of bacon and pancakes for all nine of us rather than put everything on a big platter like she usually did. “So what’s the connection?” she finally asks?
“Simply this: Right now, you have this idea in your head of doubling the size of the dining room so we can get another table for fourteen and all have Christmas dinner together. But, in reality, that might never happen-okay, maybe once when you tell them we spent $40,000 on an addition-because the kids will want to spend Christmas either with their in-laws or, more likely, in their own homes.”
“But Neil and Sarah don’t even have a dining room table.”
“Then let’s get them one for Christmas!”
Since 1988, ninety-nine of Ken Sieben’s stories have appeared in a variety of literary magazines, including Pig Iron, Words of Wisdom, Sensations Magazine, Skylark, and Writing Raw. One story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 1997. Ken’s first novel, Joanie M, was published in 2007. Ken served as fiction editor of Northwoods Journal from 1993 to 2002.