BY SIRI BARDARSON
December 16, 2015
Will you set a table, offer a seat or accept an offer to a table this holiday season? Who will you be with and why and why not? There is opportunity for the rich and thrilling pageant of a ritual, casual company or maybe a fleeting moment, one cup of coffee and a shared muffin, phone call or a surprise knock at the door. In spite of the bustle, there is enough time off in this holiday season to make the connection. I have lived in the thick of it and I have lived on the starved edge; and all I know today is how important it is to love who you got.
I can say this stuff about togetherness but the truth is—I’m bad at it. I’ll be doing my usual trick of hiding in the kitchen. When I invite the people closest to me to come and sit, I will be “present” for a moment and then I will leap up.
I am doing my best.
My prep is part of a big meditation. I do the same things almost every year. These preparations are the kinds of activity that physically ease and slow my mind. It’s like knitting.
Come join me at my five-piece place setting for holiday breakfast (with a little help from “Familiar Quotations” by John Bartlett).
After the first big gulp of coffee, I can see the tiny sprig of mistletoe inside the lip of the Spode teacup. The cup has a green rim and an Art Deco decorated tree. Little Japanese lanterns hang from the branches of the tree and a doll that looks like Shirley Temple stares blankly from a pile of unopened gifts.
It hath been writ that anye manne
May blameless kiss what mayde
Nor anyone shall say hym “no”
Beneath the holye mistletoe
— Oliver Herford, “The Enchanted Oak”
The plate is the right size for Christmas breakfast. This includes my homemade cinnamon rolls. I make the dough the night before and it is tender and light. Someone has taken the time to figure out the perfect balance of flour, yeast, sugar and egg. When the rolls come out of the oven, they are drizzled with a glaze that has the perfect amounts of milk, melted butter and sugar. It is dreamily smooth and so sweet that, until you bite into the hot bread and the chewy surprise of a burnt raisin, it is too much.
Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?
— A. A. Milne, “The King’s Breakfast”
I was married when I was 19 years old to the loveliest boy. We were so young and I know we were only on the edge of a vast place that took more courage than I had at the time. Our wedding was the last of a vintage—the Emily Post kind where gifts came in the mail. I received sterling silver. I still have the place settings and I have used them constantly for 44 years. Their patina is crosshatched like my crow’s feet. The weighty knife, fork and spoon sit alongside the plate. I polish it every holiday and the polish pulls apart my fingerprints with some crazy chemical reaction. And I think about all the breakfasts and dinners and all the special occasions and the lovely wedding and the boy.
The man who never in his life
Has washed the dishes with his wife
Or polished up the silver plate—
He still is largely celibate.
— Christopher Morley, “Washing the Dishes”
The place setting sits on a tablecloth. I used to collect linen tablecloths in the 1970s. I have three gorgeous ones, each with a different flower design; chrysanthemum, rose and daffodils. This year it is the daffodil one. I dampen it and wrap it in plastic and put it in the refrigerator for a day or two. Once I forgot about it and it got all moldy. To iron it, I have to spread a sheet on the floor so it doesn’t get dirty. I spray-starch the heck out of it. (If you get spray starch on the linoleum floor your stocking feet will shoot out from underneath you and you will fall on your ass.)
The daffodil tablecloth has an inset rectangle in each of the corners that is a picture frame for an enlarged daffodil. The fabric is so thin and smooth that it has a luster like eggshell and a touch like white velvet.
The linen napkins don’t match the tablecloth but they have hand-embroidered “B”s on their corners; I found them at a thrift store in Ballard. They must be dampened, too and ironed hot with starch. When you wipe your mouth with a starched linen napkin, the stiffness disintegrates and the fiber absorbs the gravy or the jam like a sponge, or the way a wool sweater can endlessly absorb dirt and sweat. When you set a linen napkin in your lap or on the table alongside your plate, it doesn’t collapse; it has a sort of loft like a cloud.
Is not old wine wholesomest, old
pippins toothsomest, old wood burns
brightest, old linen wash whitest? Old soldiers, sweetheart, are surest, and old
lovers are soundest.
— John Webster, “Westward Hoe, Act II, Sc. 2”
I have four small pewter animals made by Whidbey artist Georgia Gerber. Each has personality, a pose and an attitude and bears a gift. The cat is lying down, the duck sallies forth with a bow around its neck, the bear stands on his hind legs clasping his present and the seal is balancing a ribboned box. They circle round the base of the candelabra my great-grandmother carried over from Sweden. It is roughly wrought and tall with seven candle holders.
It is expensive to buy that many beeswax candles but worth it because the heated air smells like honey. The animals nest in holly picked from the small volunteer tree that is growing up through my big rosemary bush in the back yard. Candle wax drips on the heads of my animals and candlelight glimmers on their buffed surfaces.
All who joy would win
Must share it,—happiness was born
—Lord Byron, “Don Juan Canto I”
When I look up from my five-piece place setting I see my people of my past and my present. Cheers to the future and Happy Holiday to you!
Poem fragments were taken from “Familiar Quotations: A collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Trace to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature,” John Bartlett, John Little Brown and Co., 11th edition, 1938.
A Northwest native, Siri Bardarson is a writer with an emotional hotline to the vibrant natural beauty of Puget Sound. When not writing about the importance of the wild blackberry, daisies and natural time, she practices her cello a lot and sings at the same time. She loves her Whidbey Island home.
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