The Big Table
Joel Futch, Jr.
There was a magical time in the life of all the kids on the hill where I was raised. It was when you moved from the little table to the “Grown Up” Big Table. I used to look with envy at the older folks, casually and confidently serving up equal portions of food and conversation. I longed to join that club and sometimes couldn’t wait for someone to die to get the coveted seat. I would look over and see the drunken cousin from out of county who didn’t really belong at the Big Table. He was obnoxious and loud, and no one really liked him, not even the grown-ups. They tolerated him because good Southern manners dictated that they should. He even interrupted Granddaddy, and that was a cardinal sin because he was the family patriarch.
The little table was like a wading pool at the beach, a safe place to try out your youthful wisdom before venturing out into the deep. There was a pecking order, usually oldest to youngest, and we knew where we stood (or sat) every time there was a meal with the extended family. We knew the rules: what to talk about and how to react to them all in a proper way. We were big fish in a little pond, banded together in a fluid manner, sometimes according to who was the “coolest” that week. The list ran from my cousin Donnie, who as the oldest and coolest rated top billing, to my younger sister Jayne, too little to even have hope. Neither would ever get to make the move, Donnie leaving for college before an opening occurred and Jayne because the main reason for our coming together would leave forever. My big sister Layne would compete with Donnie’s brother Tommy for second billing. Tommy was really smart, and Layne had a quick wit and a sharp tongue when needed, so that position was always in contention between the two. Troy, the youngest of the three brothers, had to satisfy himself with knowing he could always beat me, whether at games or during the occasional brief physical confrontation. I was just pleased to be ahead of Jayne.
As I got older at the little table, I would move up closer to the place where the Big Table stood. Some of the distant cousins stopped coming to the suppers (with the notable exception of Obnoxious), apparently having started their own “thing” closer to home. When that would happen, some of the kids at the little table started to get promoted. I was twisting with envy. As the table refilled with smaller, less cool kids, I got all beside myself because I knew I was getting closer to the day of my promotion.
When the day finally came, I came hard up against the realization that the position comes with a price, and sometimes it is a bitter one to pay. I found out that when the next seat became available, it might not be the drunken cousin that made the space, but our beloved patriarch. The most important and irreplaceable person at the Big Table had vacated his seat for me.
The chair was left open for a time, and finally the invitation was made, “Why don’t you sit over here with the grown folks tonight?” That question had always caused a silence to loom over the little table, and tonight it was especially quiet. Everyone being left behind looked at each other, then over at the anointed one . . . me. After an embarrassed look around, I slid my chair back, took a deep breath, and said in a low voice, “See y’all” with none of the smart-aleck joy that usually accompanied this farewell. I moved over to the Big Table and took a seat. I was now a small fish in a big pond, unsure of the rules, in no way rushing to join the conversation, and not at all proud to be there.