They are painted in a range of blues, reds and whites, with little black dots for the eyes. Some are tall and thin while others are shorter, squatter. They aren’t too heavy, less than an orange but more than a clementine. And they fit right in the palm of my hand as I stare down at one of them, perhaps the top of a fin protruding slightly over my fingertips.
I wouldn’t have thought that a set of fish-shaped napkin holders would be the object that most represents my mother and our summers together. But they are.
The fish are carved in profile, painted on both sides, with holes in the middle for the napkins, puncturing their stomachs. Do fish have stomachs? These fish live in my mom’s home in the Hamptons and have since we first set down roots there in the 1970s amid the potato fields.
Every family lunch, birthday celebration, dinner party or summer barbecue, my mother’s table would be set ahead of time. Cornflower blue or white, the napkins would offset the bright, painted, almost tropical design of the wooden holders that would clang together as she cleared them from the table after the meal.
Just the sight of the napkin holders on display meant the meal was going to be important. This wasn’t going to be just another tuna salad pita sandwich with celery and carrot sticks on the side. It would be an occasion. I should dress properly.
When I was young, my mother would outfit my little brother in me in matching prints before the meals, a barrette in her mouth as she brushed my thick, long, brownish-blonde hair into submission to rest just so. Sometimes she traded it for a rubber band and then covered that with a beautiful ribbon which she pulled out of her baggie, her secret stash of ribbons, gift detritus that could potentially decorate me.
At fancier dinner parties to which my brother and I weren’t invited, the fish sometimes stayed tucked away in the heavy wooden drawer of the hutch, painted blue and white plates with a couple small seagull sculptures scattered about the shelves above them. When company came, the nicer silverware appeared, perhaps some silver napkin rings that would sit to the side of the calligraphed place cards. Always place cards.
My mom would often have dishes of chocolate scattered around the table between the blossoming hydrangea arrangements, which she would have had delivered earlier that day, wiping the bottom of the vases with a plush dishtowel before setting them on the tablecloth. Sometimes she padded out barefoot into the yard and carefully clipped flowers from the garden.
For those events, we were paraded out often in matching bathrobes, wearing identical red slippers with soft black soles. A headband rested over my just conditioned and combed hair, the green, claw-toothed Tangle Tamer having done its work. For those events, we were allowed to say hello, and then put to bed early, dozing off while listening to the sound of grown-ups laughing, talking, gossiping without us. Sometimes I would open the door to my small bedroom with the white iron bedframe and lavender quilt and look down the long hallway to see if I could catch a glimpse of any of the adults wafting through our summer home, smoke trailing their cigarettes or cigars, ice clinking.
But the fish, those were for us. That meant we kids were welcome. Invited and expected to behave, sit down, napkins on our laps, elbows off the table. We were supposed to compliment my mother on the food whether she’d made it herself or not, particularly her famous cheesecake, a recipe passed down from my grandmother.
Fast forward 40 years.
I’ve gone from being a young girl to a mother of four myself. Some of my children are the same age I was when I learned what my mom’s entertaining really entailed. When we all pile into the car and drive to my mom’s house, I know the fish will be out, as freshly painted as always, swimming along through our seasons.
“Let’s play our game,” I tell the kids as we drive over. “When you see a napkin in a fish napkin holder, you A) leave it there the whole time, B) pull it out and put it on your lap, or C) grab the whole thing and throw it in the pool.”
They all laugh and scream, “B! B!”
Later, at the table, I give the little ones a little elbow nudge with a quick glance towards the fish as we sit down. They smile.
“Remember these, Zib?” My mom always says.
My kids pick the fish up, turn them over in their hands, discard them to the side of their personalized mugs and the white ceramic corn on the cob holders my mom has also had since I was young. Their napkins disobey and slide off their laps, eventually landing under the feet of our dogs who pad across them, back and forth, hunting for scraps or waiting for my youngest to feed them hamburger bun.
“Mimi is pretty strict,” they whisper.
“Shhh!” I say.
At our home, I am much more lenient. My littlest often runs around the table throughout the meal, sometimes even scootering around us. Various kids hide under the table. We all get up and down throughout the meal which we serve family-style. It is loud and chaotic and amazing. We only use cloth napkins when my mother comes over. She ordered them for me after we had her over for dinner once; they arrived the next day via Amazon. We have them ready when she arrives.
We are often a reaction to how we were raised. I can’t maintain my mom’s standards. It’s a battle I haven’t picked with my crew. I embrace the disorder, kids talking over each other, yelling, laughing and calling out. Sometimes I put my head in my hands at the craziness of it all, but I love it that way. During the pandemic, I would order in pizza, slap down the box in the center of the kitchen table without plates, napkins or silverware, and just say, “Dive in.”
My mother is in her mid-70s and I’m in my mid-40s. I’m all too aware that life is short and that our days are numbered. It isn’t my mom’s beautiful abstract paintings, fancy silver, designer duds or intricate jewelry I’ll want.
It’s the fish.
Zibby Owens is an author, podcaster, publisher, entrepreneur, book-fluencer and founder of Zibby Owens Media.