Four Tables

"The songs seem to come from somewhere ancient and strange."

"The songs seem to come from somewhere ancient and strange."


The tablecloth is white, and the chandelier casts its light like a gold cup inverted over our table. The silver gleams. A few days ago, my father died. We have not yet relinquished this ritual of family dinner. We remember how he would wince whenever someone scraped her knife against the china, how the condiments and serving dishes always somehow drifted, drawn towards his end of the table as he made his deliberate way through a meal. My mother sits in her place at the foot of the table; it is still Christmas vacation and my sister and I have not yet had to return to high school, changed. The gold dome cups us in its embrace and it feels like we hover, here where memory is fresh. The wine glass at my mother’s elbow is deep burgundy tinged with amber, viscous yet alive with the light that plays off its translucent depths.


It’s winter, and so we eat after dark. The four of us eat at the round oak table next to the counter where I will teach my sister how to eat fries with catsup, and where, at my high chair, my father allegedly fed me pickles and knockwurst. We have been outside in our snowpants and mittens, and my face feels hot on the inside but cold to the touch. The oak table has no cloth, only blue crochet placemats, the same china blue my mother picked for the stained glass lamp hanging above the table. In its circle of light I feel protected; here in rural Maine I often hear coyotes at night. My mother puts a roast on the table and my father stands to carve. She hands him a dish of horseradish. My mouth waters. I put my warm hands against my cold cheeks and sigh; I say, “my cup runneth over.” My mother looks at me with startled eyes: “Where did you hear that?” she asks.


It’s a long table. There are so many people here I don’t know, but Leo Siegel is on my left and this makes me feel special and worthy, if a little nervous. Usually we have Seder only with Leo and Gloria, in their little house on the water where the upstairs has a cut out so you can see downstairs and there’s a terrier named Brillie and a cat named O.C. because she’s an Outside Cat. Now instead of Dr. Siegel’s shining silver book and white shawl there are only Xeroxed booklets at each paper plate, and Leo and my father took their yarmulkes out of a basket at the door. I hope they won’t have that mushy fish that I always have to at least try, because Gloria made it herself, whatever that means. But I’m pretty sure that Leo won’t get out his violin in front of all these people, or tell that story about the Jews living underwater.  Leo is the only person I’ve ever seen my father defer to. Daddy says that Leo tells the joke best, and though I don’t understand why it is funny I laugh because of this authority my father gives. Leo is from Daddy’s other life, the one in New York, not Maine. There he learned to read those square letters and sing those songs which to me are beautiful and fascinating but scary, too, because they seem to come from somewhere ancient and strange — foreign, like the letters, or why that one book is so special it’s plated in sliver, or how a cup of wine can get drunk just by opening the door.

The Siegels have children but they are grown up and live in New York. Maybe this is why we have the Seder with them, because in our house Daddy never talks about being Jewish. I sip the little paper cup of sweet, thick wine and put it back. Dr. Siegel gives me a look so hard I don’t quite catch the twinkle: “Don’t drink that too fast, young lady.”


We carried the table up four flights of stairs — or Ben and Ben did, while I cooked. Ben is my boyfriend and the other Ben is my best friend. My boyfriend is Jewish, dark and Sephardic-looking, and my best friend has yellow hair standing up like dandelion fuzz on the top of his head. I called my Aunt Doris and asked her how to make a brisket; she didn’t understand why I laughed when she used the word schmear. At any rate, I have schmeared the meat with Knorr’s onion soup mix, and stabbed it in various places where I stuffed in whole garlic cloves, and sealed it in silver paper and cut up onions and kept the water at a simmer and now it seems done. Carving the soft, brown meat I realize my mother made brisket, growing up. The juice runs down the cutting board; I cover it and put it away.

I’ve been at work all day, and I haven’t stopped to eat. The Xeroxed pamphlets at each plate are of my own design. The guests are coming in, lingering to smoke on the back porch, clustering in the living room with glasses of wine. Someone starts passing a joint, probably Best Friend Ben, who is set to perform an art-rock rendition of the Exodus later that evening. The instruments are waiting in the bedroom. I let the smoke fill my lungs until they twitch, and then I blow it out in a long, thick stream. I tell my boyfriend Ben to help get everyone to the table.

I’m at the head of the table, in my reclining chair, with the plants and the window behind me; Ben and Ben are at the foot. I like seeing their faces. I feel warm. Between me and the Bens are almost twenty guests. My friend Leon is here because he can sing the Hebrew: I want my Seder to be full of music. Around the table one woman refuses to join in the reading. I’m angry; I think she shouldn’t have come. I want my Seder to be a new and real community, just as college has been. I still think that my willpower is the only necessary thing.

Leon sings the blessing: the first cup of wine. I drain it. Ben and Ben are dark and light spots very far away. The plants hover above me like desert palms. The second glass is way past too much. The table swims now, and I let the ceremony go on until its time to tell the story of how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt. Cue the music — the band sets up.  I excuse myself in a voice that sounds low and muddy to my ears. I feel my hips lightly swaying, miraculously avoiding the obstacle course of chairs and elbows and amps and coiled electrical cable. I am very concentrated on not losing control. In the bathroom I watch my burgundy-colored vomit paint the sides of the bowl. The tile floor is cool and seems to stop me from spinning. Electric exodus splits the air, surges past me.

Margaret Schwartz is a graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Program, a PhD candidate in media studies, and a former Fulbright Scholar to Argentina.