Being the youngest girl in a family of seven children, I experienced what it was like to just get by more times than not. So many people under one roof presented challenges to finances, sanity, and space. In my home, there was always movement accompanied by noise. Quiet only visited late at night. Mornings brought sunlight and chaos.
But dinner time brought it all together for an hour. Dinner was mandatory in our house. You had to show up and you had to eat what Mom cooked.
At first, our family ate dinner in two rooms, separated by a wall, the smaller of us exiled to eating in the kitchen. I shared the kitchen table with Judy, my elder by two years, and John, my younger brother.
Early on we had been nicknamed The Little Ones by my parents, a term that separated us for life from my four oldest siblings. In the formal dining room, Kenny and Billy sat on one side of the table, with Cathy and Jeannie on the other. The Little Ones sat in the kitchen, away from the adult conversation.
Judy, John, and I were allies. If the meal was particularly displeasing and a Brussels sprout or piece of broccoli found its way into the kitchen table drawer or hidden in an unfinished glass of milk, mum was the word. Sometimes food would make its way to the dog's bowl and our family pet, Ace, would make it disappear faster than a garbage disposal.
When I was 5, though, everything changed. Maybe because my mother was tired of the fact that we could never sit down to meals together as one family. Maybe she missed not eating dinner with her little ones. In any case, one day my father changed our eating arrangement forever.
One Saturday morning, Dad got up early and left the house. This was strange behavior for my father, a man famous for sleeping in as late as my mother would let him.
"Mom, where's Dad?" I asked. Mom was in the kitchen, flipping pancakes. Half a pound of bacon popped and splattered in the pan on the stove.
"He's starting another project," she answered.
That could have meant a lot of things. But most likely, it meant that my father had devised another harebrained scheme to invent something that would involve his power tools and a little creativity.
We had just sat down to breakfast when he pulled into the driveway, honking his horn. I ran to the window and stopped short, not sure of what I was seeing. There, strapped to the top of our station wagon was a seven-foot-long, unfinished door. My father got out of the car and stood beside it proudly, hands on hips. He wore an expression that I called the I've-just-beaten-the-system look.
That's because when my father took on a project, the family would have to hear for weeks about how he purchased that door for one-third of what a table would have cost brand new. Kenny and Billy rushed outside to help him get it down. Half an hour later, the door was in our basement, ready to be transformed. My father disappeared into the basement that day and we were told to stay upstairs.
Then on Sunday night, when the dust settled and the hum from the power tools ceased, my father reemerged. I remember my mother's shocked expression, followed by suppressed laughter. "And you think that thing is going to fit?" she said. I ran past her, amazed at what I saw: Our new dining room table stood before me. The door was sanded smooth, stained light brown, and standing on sturdy wooden legs. My father and brothers carried it into the dining room. The table engulfed the room, filling it with the scent of fresh lumber.
That evening we ate dinner together for the first time. I was very impressed with my father that day.
The door/table was a work of art -- a flawed masterpiece of ingenuity. Flawed because although it was beautiful, it was not perfect: My father, the great artist that he was, had forgotten to put drawers into the table. And we had no place to hide our unwanted vegetables.
Things changed after that. Although I remained a Little One, I began to understand what I had been missing. Great conversations took place at our dinner table and the age span between us stopped mattering. From my 16-year-old brother, Kenny, to my 3-year old brother, John, we talked about everything imaginable.
In all that time, I never realized my family wasn't wealthy. The years that followed the day of the door's homecoming found all nine of us sitting on broken chairs and eating on chipped plates that did not match and silverware that was bent. But each one of us had our place which, as the years went by, became a measure of passing time.
As the second youngest, I saw many spaces open, making the table seem longer. I set the table all of those years, counting the plates and making them fit: four on one side and three on the other, two more on the end. Then there were three on each side, and then two. Finally there were just two plates at the ends.
Our growing up was the inevitable conclusion to the table being set night after night.
Now the silverware has been replaced, the old plates discarded for new ones that match. The older I've become, the larger the world has grown. My own tiny existence often falls by the wayside and I lose myself until I remember that I am a piece of a bigger picture, a part of a family of many lives that over the years transformed before my very eyes.