by Sarah Pascarella
"Would you be interested in taking your grandmother's dining room table?" my father asks.
I pause, and switch the phone to my other ear. Many others must have already declined, as I am by no means the first in line for an acquisition such as this, and I quickly count at least six older relatives who could have claimed it before me. I realize, mid-count, that my father is still talking.
"It wouldn't be just the table; it also comes with a lovely hutch. I think whoever takes it will have to take the both of them, as a set."
I try to picture the table. It is rectangular, I can recall that much. Long—dominating my grandmother's (admittedly small) dining room. Most likely designed to seat six to eight comfortably, although when we were there it often had ten to twelve people crammed elbow to elbow around its perimeter. So many side to side that if your seat was against the wall, opposite the door, you knew you were in for the night. My sisters and I, at younger ages, would take bathroom breaks or steal time outside by escaping under the table, crawling below, past denim and sneakers, pantyhose and heels, to make a run for it.
The visuals fail me. Instead, the sounds at the table come forward, large and loud. Not to verify a stereotype, but with ten-plus Irish-Italian New Yorkers and Jersey residents packed in a small space, the conversation quickly went up in volume, and down in decorum. One year, after my aunt recalled a childhood story that depicted Nana in a less-than-flattering light, Nana called her an asshole in front of the crowd – all in good fun, of course. Insulting (and politically incorrect) nicknames from my father's childhood inevitably would be used (often as a term of endearment) before the meal was through. And during the multiple simultaneous conversations, there was always the additional cacophony of silverware clinking on plates, new dishes to pass—family style—from the kitchen, more drinks to pour.
Memories of sound give way to recollections of taste. What stands out about Nana's table, despite the years, was what was always served on it. There were rules to the menu at Nana's, unchanging, regardless when we visited. Whether we made the trek to suburban New Jersey from Pennsylvania on the day after Christmas, or a random July afternoon during our summer vacation, we knew there would be some variation of the standards:
Roast pork with sauerkraut and "new" white potatoes (extra salty from a can), coated with so many drippings from the meat that their undersides turned dark.
Spaghetti with meat sauce—the meatballs and sausage variety, not the ground beef/Bolognese style. Green salad was served after the main course, as a palate cleanser, and always with crusty Italian bread to dip.
A side dish of pickled beets with pickled onions – regardless of entrée. For many years, I would try to get to the dish before my sisters, so I could devour all of the beets myself, only realizing in my later childhood years that Nana and I were the only ones who would partake.
Red jello, strawberry or cherry, served in parfait cups or with individual servings scooped out of a casserole dish.
Chocolate sheet cake with white icing. Each square slice was then to be cut in half and inverted so the icing would be on the inside, like a filling. This would then be eaten with one's hands.
And, for most of my childhood, a thick fog of cigarette smoke hung over the table, curlicueing up from several ashtrays placed strategically around the spread, seeping into our clothes and hair, so that our pillow cases, the morning after our visit, would smell of smoke. Gradually, over the years, the number of smokers dwindled, until my step-grandfather was the only one – and even then, he would often go outside to light up.
It had been years, though, since I last had a meal at my grandmother's house. In fact, the final time I had sat at the table, there hadn't been anything from the standard menu at all.
It had been about a decade ago, on a trip to New Jersey with Andy, my then-boyfriend, now husband, for the sole purpose of introducing him to my paternal side of the family. It was a rare visit without my parents or my sisters. And I had called my nana a few weeks in advance, told her we would be in the area, and asked if we could have a meal with her.
"No," was the unexpected answer. "I'm just not up for it."
We hadn't known it at the time, but the initial signs of Alzheimer's were starting to show. She knew it. Her husband knew it. But she didn't want us to know it. And if she were expected to cook a big meal, everyone else would discover what was, at that time, her own private realization.
So instead we went to her home for a low-key visit, buffered by my cousin and his wife, presenting a dozen doughnuts and a carafe of coffee we picked up on the way over. The six of us sat at the dining room table. It seemed excessively roomy, with plenty of elbow room and more than enough space to stretch out. No one smoked. The room I associated with noise and crowding was oddly quiet and spacious, and I found this otherwise-normal setting bewildering.
Or, truthfully, perhaps I worried because of her initial rejection, wondering whether I had offended her and her husband, if somehow, by coming with a partner and not my parents, if I had upset the natural order of things.
We snacked off paper plates, no silverware needed. Bob, Nana's husband, showed Andy his latest woodworking creations, several of which were displayed on the neighboring hutch. Nana told Andy a few stories about me as a toddler – stories I had never heard before. And after about an hour, we left.
The phone line is quiet as my father waits for my response.
"I don't know," I say. "Let me think about it."
From what I understand, Alzheimer's tends to present itself in one of two ways: ultimate docility, where the individual becomes mute and childlike, with a near return to infancy in disposition, comprehension, and temperament. Language is often completely lost, yet the person maintains a sense of calm stasis.
The other, which is the type my grandmother experienced, was a frightening state of constant confusion, hostility, and volatile disposition. There were violent outbursts, with punching, kicking, and biting. Insults both creative and vulgar. Outright screams. Once her descent into Alzheimer's had begun, my father and aunt did all they could to shield my sisters, cousins, and me from bearing witness to this new person, ravaged by disease, who on the surface looked very much like our grandmother.
"It's very bad," my aunt would say.
"You never know who you're going to get," my father would concur. "Best to let us handle it."
And so, after that quiet afternoon with coffee and doughnuts, the visits all but stopped – among the Pennsylvania grandkids (my sisters and me), that is.
"It would be one thing if she knew who you were, and you could actually have a visit with a conversation," my father would say. "But you don't know what you will be getting into, and it could be really upsetting, to you and to her. Unless you really want to see that, I don't think you should make the trip."
So, we didn't go. On some level, it was a decision out of respect for my father and his wishes, and in knowing our place. My father wanted to handle it, with his siblings, in his way. If we were there, it would be another set of people for him to look out for, another set of people who would need debriefings, explanations. Another set of stressors for my grandmother, and by extension, for him and my aunt. Without us, he could just be a son, a brother, a spouse. He could take whatever vitriol came his way. I don't think he wanted to deflect—or clean up—any that would have been directed toward us.
And, in our absence, he could steer the longer narrative, with an effective closing line. "Keep the good memories you have," he would say. "I don't want something ugly to be your final interaction with her."
It was easier to acquiesce to this request, simpler to stay put and get the updates over the phone. I didn't press the issue, didn't try to insert myself into the situation. I still don't know if I did the right thing, whether I should have just shown up, regardless of the ugliness, the difficult, the hostility. My grandmother was the one with the regressive illness, and yet it was second nature for the rest of us to fit right back into our family roles—for me, as a grandchild, two steps removed—never leaving our designated place or pushing back too hard against our respective authority figures.
Did I deserve her table? I didn't think so. In the end, I didn't go. At the end, I wasn't involved. How could I, then, make a claim on her table?
"Don't you want it?" I ask my father the next time we're on the phone.
"No," he says, without hesitation. "We already have a nice dining room table."
I look at my own dining room, in my apartment in a suburb of Boston. If I take the table, it will primarily be out of guilt for missing out on those final years. Guilt for not helping out my father and aunt—even if they didn't want my help. Guilt because if no one else in the family takes it, it may be sold to strangers. Guilt that I don't think I have any other heirlooms from her, that this one offering will be refused.
The guilt is not enough for me to say yes, though, or feel any more deserving. I size up the room again, and logistics and practicality trump my emotions. And so I politely decline.
"Okay," my dad says, and if he is disappointed, his voice doesn't show it. "I'll let your aunt know."
That afternoon, a few hours after getting off the phone, I make a grocery list. Pork chops. Stewed tomatoes. New potatoes in a can. Pickled beets. And boxed chocolate cake mix. I take the sheet pan out of the cupboard.
In her later years, my nana might not have remembered these dishes, but I still do. This is what I choose to keep; this is what I choose to remember. And tonight, my own table will become, in a way, hers.
Sarah Pascarella is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Quotable, Gravel, Travelers’ Tales, The Boston Globe, and USA Today, among other publications. She has a Master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her novel, The Virgin Mary Hotline, is available via Kindle and Nook. She is currently at work on her second novel.