All over Shelter Island, 11-year-olds are wondering: Is this the big year? Is this the year when I get moved to the big table for Thanksgiving? Still, regardless of the obvious public elevation through adulthood bestowed by this gesture, there’s something to be said for dining at the children’s table. When you’re at the children’s table, especially when you are one of the table elders, you have so much power over those around you that you never fully appreciate it until you are gifted with the understanding that comes with age.
At any given moment there are three mothers circling the table like sharks. They grant every and any wish in a group effort to keep everyone quiet, non-violent and clean. There’s no better place to settle an old score with a relative than under the children’s table. From under the table, you can throw an elbow and crack a rib. The injured, crying child will be scooped up by a mother. Another child, like a seat-holder at the Oscars, will be quickly deposited in the empty chair to maintain the symmetry.
Kicking, hitting, pinching, all manner of horrors happen under the little table while the occupants maintain innocent little faces. While the mothers fuss and fix and struggle to maintain the status quo at the children’s table, another group of women in the living room are coaxing, begging, threatening and bribing the men to rise from their chairs and ambulate to the adult table. The men will walk slowly and discuss seat locations on their way into the dining room, completely upsetting the seat assignments already negotiated by the women who are corralling them to the big table.
As the men amble in, it’s easy to see from the children’s level whose fly is open, which is always a source of laughter for the children. The child who laughs the loudest is the one who gets grabbed by the arm. Not an ordinary grab, but a vice lock that stops all blood flow. Children look up in surprise that their sweet mother even has such a grip. And it is clear from her face that they had better stop laughing or she will snap that arm clean off.
You kind of know when your turn is coming. Someone at the big table will suggest your promotion, there will be a brief discussion, and suddenly the chairs will part and the path to a chair at the big table will appear. It’s a moment that freezes in time. You turn and take one long last look at the children’s table. You see all the cute decorations and the clean clothes on the lowest-ranking members of the family. Some look at you with envy, but the child who will now be the ranking member of the children’s table regards your departure with a barely concealed glee. You can watch the corners of his mouth turn up as he begins to calculate, in his new stable of victims, who shall be the first to be stabbed in the leg with a fork or get a muffin in the face, as they sit there wearing homemade paper headbands with paper feathers.
As you approach the grown-up table, you feel your status increase. Obviously people have noticed the sophistication with which you use a fork, your adeptness with a napkin, and your ability to skillfully pass a bowl of peas without spilling any. You made it to the adult table. And even though you are starting at the bottom again, you can envision yourself moving up slowly through the years to the head of the adult table. And from that lofty station, you can command the whole family.