My grandmother Merdie had a large table that sat squarely against the long window in her kitchen. She kept it covered with a yellow and orange vinyl tablecloth that had little tears along the edges. The inner lining poked out in little white tufts and I pulled them out like little puffs of cotton candy.
In the middle of the table, there was a lazy susan, so laden with condiments, napkins and other assorted junk that it no longer spun around but instead strained under the ever-growing mass of collected odds and ends that spilled out across the table. There were preserves and jellies, prescription bottles, various eyeglasses, boxes of Whitman’s sampler chocolates (most of which my grandmother had pinched and put back if the flavor was not to her liking), notepads, pencils, and pocket-knives. There was just enough room left on that table for a few plates and utensils.
I spent many hours of my life seated at my grandmother’s table, looking out the window to the front porch where dozens of wind-chimes swayed in the breeze and ruby-throated hummingbirds darted in and out of the shadowy rafters. That kitchen table was the root of my upbringing.
Merdie was the best kind of grandmother—a funny storyteller with a wild imagination and more of a child than I was. Sitting with her early in the morning, during the midday heat when we sought refuge from the sun, in the twilight after the supper dishes had been cleared and late into the night over bowls of popcorn, we sat and talked at that kitchen table. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning lessons I’d carry with me for the rest of my life.
Lesson #1: Watch the birds.
Merdie taught me to watch for colors and shapes and to listen to sounds and songs and encouraged me to name as many birds as I could. Sometimes we took out the bird books and searched for pictures similar to the bird outside the window. Other times we just watched as we ate our breakfast. I would fold pieces of notebook paper and staple them together to fashion a field journal and list all the birds I saw. We sang along, imitating their notes and imagining what they were saying. Her favorite was a little bird that sounded as if it were shouting, “Wait, Merdie! Wait, Merdie!”
I still enjoy the birds. All I need is a blooming bush, a feeder (sometimes seed scattered on the edge of the porch or an outside picnic table will do), a glass hummingbird feeder with bright red nectar, and a mindful eye. It’s a gift she gave me.
Lesson #2: Grow wild things.
Beyond the kitchen window, Merdie’s yard was a jungle of flowers and shrubbery and fruit trees trimmed with birdbaths, sun-catchers and windmills. It was a fairy garden on an adult scale. It was not the manicured, well-planned landscape featured in most home and garden magazines. It was a rebel among quaint and well-behaved gardens. But there was also much care.
Though her yard had a wild, fantastic look to it, she carefully removed the weeds, gently replanted little flowers struggling in areas grown too shady and tended the whole yard with an ease that made it more like prayer than work.
In the same way, she played with me more than she worked on me. She tended to me and I grew into my own wild garden, not always so neatly planned but always interesting. As my children run barefoot through stands of black-eyed susans and mountain mint that have crept beyond their borders, I am reminded to care for these wild things and let them go where they will.
Lesson #3: Collect free things.
Merdie kept a lot of junk. Some were rare old antiques, made valuable only through the passing of years. Most were things she’d picked up along a creek bank or at the edge of a meadow. She had rocks and sticks and pinecones and sweet-gum balls stashed here and there and everywhere. She painted some of them and set them in windowsills. She made wreaths out of them. She put them on the mantle piece.
When she died, there were no valuable heirlooms to be divided or fought over. We each took a pinecone wreath or a watering can or a set of kitchen towels. It was not the objects that mattered but the memories that came with them.
Lesson # 4: Work and play beside one another.
I remember Merdie playing with me, but when I really think about it, most of our time together, she was working– always working. She hoed the garden, shelled the peas, canned the fruit, and made the pinecone wreaths. Aside from her early morning cup of coffee at the kitchen table, I can’t really remember a time when she was just sitting. Yet she played with me. All the time she was working, she was either making up stories or playing a word game or pretending to be a character in one of my made-up dramas. Her hands were working, and sometimes mine were too—pulling weeds or shucking corn–, but we were also caught up in a beautiful, imaginary world where we could do, say or be anything we wanted.
Lesson #5: Tell stories.
Whether we were working on crafts or food preparation or just sitting together as the sun set, we told stories around that table that both entertained and educated me about people and places that came long before me. They delighted me, and they still do.
When my children ask me to tell them a story about when I was little, I don’t hesitate. I remember having the stories told to me. I want to give my children the same gift.
Merdie’s kitchen table is in storage now, stacked with boxes and trunks full of stuff in an old shed. I would like to have it for my own, but it’s not mine to take. If I could, I would set it in front of my kitchen window where I could watch the birds and listen to the sound of wind-chimes in the morning. But just because the table has been lost, it doesn’t mean the lessons no longer have any effect. On the contrary, the lessons that mean the most are the ones we carry with us inside our hearts long after the table where we sat is gone.