Follow Me Home
by Billy Thrasher
My dad told me they were not allowed to eat at the dining room table when he was a child. Grandma treated the dining room set like it was an exhibit in a museum. She preserved the shiny brown walnut table, its two extension leaves, and a two-piece hutch with a bottom cabinet. That cabinet featured double doors on the left side and two long drawers on the right. A tall unit with slender vertical pillars separating single glass panes sat atop the cabinet. The chairs seemed big enough to sleep in, and the table seemed large enough for King Arthur’s knights.
By the time grandkids came along, Grandma relaxed her standards. Instead of a museum exhibit, the dining room set came to life. Here was where we ate home-cooked meals fit for kings. After arriving down-home, Grandma’s hometown of Corning, Arkansas, we would go to the IGA and stock up for those meals. I always made sure I got Cap’n Crunch cereal.
The dining room table was also where everyone gathered like a band of wagon train settlers around a campfire to play games: Aggravation, pinochle, or spades, but mostly UNO because it caused the most laughter. There were so many people we needed two playing decks. A half-inch protective padding covered the top of the table. It felt six inches thick with layers like a meaty sandwich. We peeled it away before card games revealing a deep brown polished walnut surface. When dealt, the cards slid as if on ice. We had to slam our hands to keep them from flying off the edge of the table, a constant source of laughter. There was room for everyone, and when I was little, I was passed from lap to lap. Grandma sat in one chair to the right of the end with two phone books on the floor for her feet. If she got out of the chair, someone would shout not to kick the phone books out of place. Some of my relatives stood between the massive chairs, giving advice to those playing. Then, immediately after the card game, the protective padding was put back on top and the phone books put back at the foot of Grandma’s chair.
Throughout the day, my dad and his brothers sat at the table and laughed about childhood stories and argued about the facts of what happened. One story about my father, the runt of his family, was often repeated. My dad never outlived the tale of his poking a donkey in the rear with a stick and getting kicked in the forehead leaving him with a Y-shaped scar. The argument was whether the weapon used was a stick or a cornstalk.
My grandma was round, soft, and short. By the time most of my cousins reached sixth grade, they had surpassed her in height. Her eyes, framed with glasses, were penetrating yet kind, and she had light tan skin, something else from her mother, who was half Native American. Her hair was often a shade of purple, thanks to her hairdresser (so she said). Her round face had a firm, sweet expression that contained all the ingredients for the look, which was given at moments when the response was obvious. A favorite phrase of hers was, “Oh, my land,” infused with an Arkansas twang, making everyone laugh instead of alarmed at whatever was the cause of the exclamation.
Grandma’s features were the opposite of Grandpa’s lean, chiseled, and cracked complexion. Only one of the three sons resembled him; the daughter, who died in her twenties in a car accident, also looked like him. The dining room cabinet was off-limits to anyone except Grandma, but sometimes Grandpa was allowed to open the door to retrieve his box of dominoes, which he kept on the lower left side of the cabinet near a small stack of papers, decks of playing cards, and the box of UNO cards. Grandpa took the dominoes to town with him to play games with his friends at the community center. I don’t remember my grandpa eating at the walnut table. Instead, he ate in the living room, watching the local news on a TV dinner tray. When we were not eating, his lean frame was stretched out on the couch, snoring, sometimes loud enough to wake himself, causing those who sat near him to let loose a small burst of laughter.
As a child, I looked forward to playing with the dominoes myself. I couldn’t wait to get Grandma’s blessing to open the door to the cabinet and pull them out after enduring the four-hour drive from St. Louis. One time, they weren’t there, and I thought I had forgotten their place. But then Grandma told me she had moved them to the drawer in the partial island that bordered the kitchen and living room. I looked, and thankfully, they were there, in the very place she said. The top drawer in the partial island, on the left, under a few pieces of paper. She moved them because grandpa was no longer healthy enough to go into town and play dominoes with his friends. I played on the floor below the island’s overhang, making a ramp made of playing cards and jumping them with the Hot Wheel car I’d brought with me.
Opening the front door to their house released a scent, which can only be that of Grandma’s house. As an adult, I know it as the kept smell of air recycled repeatedly because the windows have been closed for years. As a child, it was the smell just beyond the tip of my nose leading me into the unknown world of older people: thick, a bit stale, dusty from heavy-flattened carpet that made up the fertile soil for love to flourish. After vacation was over, we would pack the scent with our clothing and bring it home.
My first vacation as an adult was a drive down-home to visit my grandma. Corning was a small disappearing town, fittingly located at the end of Highway 67. My grandpa had died in his sleep sometime around Christmas a few years before after some sixty years of marriage to my Grandma. She now was living by herself. Grandma never had a driver’s license, so her friends brought her meals and gave her rides to church every Sunday and Wednesday. My Grandma, influenced by her mother, was baptized as a teen. She rarely missed church, even at the end of her life when she was diagnosed with throat cancer and began chemotherapy. By this time, she had moved up to St. Louis and lived with my uncle and aunt. She had operations to remove as much cancer as possible, which meant losing part of her lower jaw. She endured with a pleasant attitude.
During that first adult vacation down-home, Grandma and I went to stock-up at the IGA, and in the cereal aisle, she gave me the look. We both laughed at the thought of getting Cap’n Crunch. Grandma seemed to know it was wrong to insist I eat eggs and bacon. Reliving a childhood memory was too good to pass up. So the following morning, she sat in her chair, just one to the side of the end, with her feet on top of her two phone books, and we ate breakfast: she, bacon and eggs, and I, Cap’n Crunch. She had a way of drinking coffee by holding the cup in both hands, between her forefingers and thumb with all her other fingers spread. When she put her cup down to talk, she’d stretch out her hands, circling, fingers spread outward like she was polishing fine china. We smiled at one another in the silence as she held her coffee in both hands over her plate of eggs and bacon, and she gave me that look again.
After my grandma succumbed to her final battle with throat cancer, my dad, my uncles, and I went down-home to get the dining room set and other possessions. My dad told me that I could have the set. I think all the brothers were jealous, especially my dad because of how quiet he was when we moved the dining set into my house. I suspect the dining set was supposed to go to him, but his wife didn’t want it, so he decided to give it to me. I remember standing at the partial island with my dad and uncles when they told me to take anything else I wanted. At this time, I had started attending a similar church as my Grandma, so I instantly grabbed her black Bible with the gold zipper and the ones with the duct tape-repaired bindings she used when she visited my church during her time with my uncle and aunt. I looked through the stacks of romance novels in the bedroom, laughing as I read from one, but ultimately left them behind. I also brought back some old black and white photos. I forgot the box of dominoes in the drawer of the partial island. I imagined they were thrown into a plastic bag and taken to the curb. Or hopefully, they were overlooked while cleaning the house before it was sold. Maybe the next family had a child who ran across the kitchen floor, slid to the island, reached up and opened the drawer, and with grasping fingers overhead, found the smooth plastic box with worn edges.
The dining room set looked at home sitting inside my family’s dining room. We had no special dining plates to store inside, so the cabinet became a showcase for artwork and storage for various school supplies, the drawers were used for kept but forgotten household items. We ate dinner at the table every night. It served as the place where the kids did schoolwork and art projects since they were home-schooled. We carved pumpkins and colored eggs at the table. It was also where my wife did her crafts. It was where we had Bible studies as a family. As large and sturdy as they were, the chairs could not withstand the constant use and eventually fell apart, one by one. I remember standing over the last one in the basement, trying to find some way to repair the damage; I knew my Grandma would be disappointed. While the table was in the dining room, my Grandma was there, and during the times we had Bible studies, she was there. At the end of my marriage, my wife stood in front of the table and said, “I have no feelings for you.” I soon had to leave, my family and the table.
Finding the resolve to endure with entirely new surroundings made me confront myself. I thought of the endurance of my grandmother. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see my family together again, eating at the table in front of the cabinet. The first place I moved was not mine to refurnish, and the second place was too small for the set. A couple of years after the divorce, my fifteen-year-old son moved in with me. Not too long after that, my ex asked me if I wanted the dining room set. I’m not sure what brought that about. Maybe she finally felt the presence of my Grandma.
The dining room set sat in my garage for months while my son bugged me to bring the bottom cabinet inside to serve as our entertainment center. He was tired of looking at the small rickety table we used for the old 20” tube TV with the foil-covered antenna and the stacks of CDs, DVDs, and books on the floor. I was hesitant. I couldn’t fathom separating the two hutch pieces, and there was no space inside for the table, a family that I didn’t want to split-up. But I relented. Now it is again within my sight every day. After we moved it, I opened the bottom drawer and found a quilt storage bag with various appliance directions, receipts, a handful of Eagle stamps, and a National Council State Garden club pin. Even now, I continue to learn about my grandma.
The paint-splattered, chipped dining room table remains, leaning against the drywall in the cold garage. The top part of the cabinet is there too, its round vertical pillars and glass-paned doors now serving as a makeshift table with a spare piece of plywood on top to hold various houseware items. The bottom part still sits in our living room, filled with CDs and DVDs and a stereo sitting in the cove on the left side, just below where the hutch sat with the dominoes behind the glass door. A flat-screen TV sits on top, along with a Marshall amplifier my son and I use to jam. There’s also a box of washable markers, a pair of Barbie sunglasses, and a few miscellaneous Hot Wheels. It’s here. Grandma’s here. And once again, things are better.
Billy Thrasher is a poet and graduate of the MFA program at Lindenwood University. He writes at home in his office, at the coffee shop, at the park, and in his car during lunch breaks. The simple, brief moments in life catch his attention and spark his creativity. He has poems published in Moon Magazine, Lagom: A Journal, Jenny, Dovecote, Panoplyzine, White Wall, As You Were: The Military Review, and Dunes Review.