Morsels We Keep After the Meal
Words by Erin Boyle Photographs by Lisa Warninger Styling by Chelsea Fuss
The author remembers large family meals shared around a table with older relatives who had tales to tell, and while some are no longer with us, she still likes to listen to stories as she eats.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with older relatives. There was a whole band of Greats and Grands and thrice-removeds to visit. Often, we took weekend trips to my Aunt Ruth’s house. My parents would pile my three sisters and me into our blue Dodge Caravan and make the trip to Long Island, crossing bridges and tunnels to get there. We passed the time with our noses pressed against the windows or into books until we found ourselves at her house in Port Washington.
A physician for 60 years, Aunt Ruth survived miraculously on a diet of ginger ale and English muffins, but when company came, she put out a spread. Cold cuts arranged on platters, slices of Portuguese bread in a silver bread basket, iceberg lettuce and beefsteak tomatoes and crystal bowls of Miracle Whip, mustard and sweet gherkins. The food wasn’t fancy, but the presentation was.
As we ate, I mostly listened. It wasn’t that I grew up in a family where children should be seen and not heard, but during those late-afternoon lunches there was just so much to hear. Aunt Ruth told stories of medical school in Texas in the 1920s, cross-country trips by train and doll collections. Other times we would visit our cousins Grace and Bill at their home in Queens. Grace served petit fours on plates painted with forget-me-nots and told stories of sea captains and elevators in the Woolworth building. Still other times we would spend a morning at my grandparents’ house where we listened to stories of a little boy scratching his name in the crown of the Statue of Liberty and playing stickball in alleys.
These trips to visit older relatives are no longer compulsory elements of my weekend, and as I’ve gotten older, the storytellers have left us for another realm. But I still seek moments of listening. Indeed, so impressed have I been by the tales of older folks, I focused much of my own graduate work on collecting stories for historical purposes. Last winter, in Providence, Rhode Island, I sat at the oilcloth-covered kitchen table of Stella Santos and recorded stories of factory work and Catholic nuns and cold-water flats. I was recording for an archive, but sitting at Stella’s table, just listening, was what really mattered. The time we spent together did both of us good, more than either of us expected. She served lemon Bundt cake, baked that morning, and poured strong coffee. We slid my recording equipment to the side while we ate. She was seventy years my senior, but Stella’s eyes lit up just as mine did with each retrieved memory.
These days, our cousin Mildred meets my sister, Cait, and me at the waffle place on the corner of 21st and 1st, when we all have the time. No matter how hard we try, she is always there first, waiting. She eats yogurt with fruit and as she talks her wedding ring swirls around the thinness of her finger. Mildred tells us stories of Astoria and Bay Ridge, of learning how to drive, and of finding the time to read.
At each meal, Aunt Ruth began with the same secular grace: “Grab it and growl.” At her table, and at all of these shared tables, the reason for gathering was to fill our bellies—but the secret source of nourishment was the stories themselves. The stories I love to hear, shared over meals and cups of tea, are not always stories of great accomplishment. They’re not guaranteed to unlock deep mysteries or explain cultural norms, but there is comfort to be found in the way that the stories of one person’s life can resonate across space and time. It’s not the particulars that matter so much as their sharing: the mutual agreement that individual stories are worth the telling and worth the listening.