How to Set the Dining Room Table

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

Step One: Get assigned the chore

Pouring and serving the milk for dinner is your first chore. You are six- or seven-years-old and stand on tippy toes to pull four glasses off the cupboard shelf. Your parents serve themselves wine or scotch. You and your three older siblings get milk.

Raise the heavy plastic gallon jug with shaky hands, one hand on the handle, the other holding the bottom as you tilt the jug, trying to position its mouth just right so the arc of the milk makes it into the glass. When it doesn’t, wipe up the puddles with a paper towel. Your mother glances over but doesn’t comment.

Carry the full glasses, two at a time, as large dollops of milk slosh over the brim onto the kitchen linoleum or the dining room rug or the dining room table. Worst case scenario: you stumble as you place the glass on the table, tipping it over. Your mother rushes to soak up the stream of milk with a dish towel. Your siblings shout in exaggerated shock and disappointment, “Klutz! Can’t you do anything right?” Tears spring to your eyes and your siblings laugh, “Look, the baby’s crying over spilled milk!”

How many nights do you spill the milk before your mother reassigns the dinner tasks? Your older sister will serve the milk. Now you are in charge of setting the table.

Step Two: Follow the rules

You don’t remember how you learned the rules. Your siblings must have told you. But who told them? Your mother is not the type to care about the placement of utensils. She wears corduroys and Keds and has dirt under her fingernails from gardening. Your father, the lawyer, wants the table to look orderly and his children presentable. He scolds your sister for sitting with her knees spread wide on the chair instead of underneath the table. “It’s unladylike,” he says. But your father pays no attention to details. He would never notice if the sharp edge of the knife was or wasn’t pointing toward the plate.

Regardless, you follow the rules. Place utensils in the order of use, from the outside in. Fork to the left of the plate, knife to the right, blade facing in. Spoon to the right of the knife. Paper napkin folded either in a rectangle or a triangle underneath the fork. Glass above the knife. This placement is for regular, everyday dinners. Holiday dinners have more elaborate rules. Use the “good silverware,” the sterling silver flatware set monogrammed with a B, a wedding gift from your father’s law firm. Pull out the brown leather case from the drawer in the pantry. Unzip the top and breathe in the dusty brassy smell which will always remind you of large dinners with extended family. Grab a handful of utensils from their velvet-lined compartments. Place a salad fork to the left of the dinner fork, a bread plate above the forks, and a wine glass and a water glass above the knife. Use ironed cloth napkins instead of paper. Optional: Make homemade place cards, so guests know where to sit.

Step Three: Enjoy dinner

When all six members of your family are present for dinner, feel whole, balanced. Like the utensils, you are all placed where you should be. Your mother sits at the end of the rectangular table, close to the kitchen. Every night, she jumps up two or three times to retrieve something, the salt shaker or more gravy or sour cream. Your father sits at the head closest to the bay windows and near the front door. He appears right as dinner is served and returns to the living room when the dishes are cleared. As the youngest, you sit to the right of your mother in case you need your meat cut. From you, your siblings sit in age order clockwise around the table, ending with the oldest to the left of your father. The second oldest, the only son, is to your father’s right. Sit in the same spot, dinner after dinner, night after night.

Feel connected to your siblings when you all act out a scene from Little Rascals, “Don’t drink the milk!” “Why?” “It’s spoiled!” Laugh at the baffled looks from your parents.

Step Four: Observe not all families follow the rules

Have dinner at a friend’s house. Notice that the fork and knife are placed on the same side, to the right of the plate. Wonder why your friend’s family doesn’t set the table properly. At another friend’s house, eat at the square kitchen table because their dining room table is covered with the father’s stamp collection. You and your siblings only eat dinner in the kitchen when your parents go out. Feel relieved when you are back in your regular spot at your dining room table with the fork to your left and the knife to your right.

Step Five: Request the last family dinner

As the youngest, watch one sibling move out and then the other and then the other. When you are a teenager, family dinners occur only occasionally. You often grab a slice from the pizza place next to the video store where you work.

Graduate high school and request a family dinner with parents and siblings to celebrate. Your fellow graduates make reservations at fancy restaurants, but you want to be in your dining room, with everyone sitting at their spots at the table like it was when you were younger, and you spilled the milk.

Your sisters set the table for you because it’s your special night. They put champagne glasses above the knives at each place setting except for your brother’s. He is back from rehab and “sober.” Feel giddy and content. Is it from the champagne your parents allowed you to have? Or is it because you are all together? Mother at one end, father at the other, and four children sitting in a square, each a point on the corner creating equal sides and equal angles and equal diagonals.

Step Six: Take away a place setting

Less than two months after this dinner, trays of ziti, platters of sandwiches, and plates of cookies crowd your dining room table. Neighborhood mothers brought the food while you and your family attended your brother’s funeral service. They have put out plastic forks and knives, not the good silverware. People tell you to eat, but you are not hungry.

After this event, it’s uncommon to have a family dinner. One sister lives in an apartment, the other has gone to study abroad. Your parents are either out or up in their bedroom with the door closed. Get hungry at 9 p.m. and remember you never ate dinner. Rummage through the kitchen to find something. Melt American cheese on saltine crackers in the microwave. Bring the plate down to the basement to eat in front of the TV.

Graduate college and move home. Have dinner with your family every once in a while, when your sisters are around. Set the table without your mother asking. Pull out six forks, six knives, and six napkins. Place the utensils around the table. Feel your heart drop into your stomach when you realize you don’t need the sixth place setting. Return the extra fork and knife to the utensil tray in the kitchen drawer, quietly, so your mother doesn’t notice. You don’t want to remind her she has three children now not four. Wince when you glance at the empty chair to the right of your father which feels like a gaping, unbandaged wound.

Step Seven: Take away another place setting

A year after your college graduation, your dining room table is once again filled with trays of ziti, platters of sandwiches, and plates of cookies. Seven years after your brother’s repast, there is another repast after the funeral for your oldest sister.

Family dinners are now rare. When they occur, set the table for four. You and your sister sit in your regular spots next to your mother and the chairs to the left and right of your father are empty. The table is a ship. Your mother’s end sinks into the water. She is submerged and unreachable. Your father’s side lifts up into the air. He rises three feet, unmoored, legs dangling. Attempt to balance the table by moving closer to the middle. But sitting in the middle feels false and unsettling. Eating dinner at the table is too painful. Move out of the house to get away from the dining room table and its unproportioned place settings.

Your parents sell your childhood home and say take whatever furniture you want. You want the formal dining room table with its carved wooden legs, two leaves for expanding, and a burn mark from a party you threw in high school. You want it despite its empty seats reminding you of your losses. Maybe you want it because of that. But you have no room for it in your tiny apartment and no reason for it as you do not have a family of your own. Watch with resentment as the dining room table gets carried to your cousin’s pickup truck.

Step Eight: Marry a man who knows the place setting rules

At a business dinner, notice your co-worker next to you is making the OK symbol with each of his hands. Or you think it’s the OK symbol, but then you hear him whisper “bread” and “drink,” while gesturing with his hands. Raise your eyebrows at him. “B and d,” he says and shows you that his left hand has formed the letter “b” and his right, the letter “d.” “It’s how I know which bread plate is mine and which water to drink from.” Marry this man who understands the importance of knowing which bread plate is his.

Step Nine: Decide on how many place settings your dining room table will have

Become pregnant with your third child and have a discussion with your husband about the size of your family. Agree that you will only have three children because having babies is hard and expensive. Wish you’ll be surprised with twins when your third baby is born so that you can have four children and be a family of six. Six feels complete and balanced. Resign yourself to having only five place settings at your family’s table.

Step Ten: Get Real

Watch PBS’s Downton Abbey with your husband on Sunday nights. Become enthralled by the intricate place setting rules. The servants measure the distance between utensils to make sure it’s equal. They wear white gloves to keep the silver clean and fingerprints off the glasses. Cry when the youngest sister, Lady Sybil, dies. Wonder if the butler feels an empty despair night after night when he skips over her place setting. Wonder if her sisters feel her absence the most when they are sitting at the dining room table, the empty chair like a phantom limb you keep trying to use even though it is gone. Recognize these are fictional characters. Their loss is not real.

Step Eleven: Continue to set the table

Night after night, set the table for your family. You should ask one of your children to do it, but it still feels like your chore. Note that your children, like you and your siblings, have their unspoken spots at the table. One place setting for you at the head of the rectangular table, closest to the kitchen. One for your husband at the other head. Place settings for the children on each side of the table. You only need the basics: Fork to the left of the plate, napkin under the fork, knife to the right.

“Who’s coming for dinner?” your husband asks after he kisses you hello when he comes home from work. Stare at the table to figure out what he is talking about. Realize you’ve set the table for six.

Elizabeth Jannuzzi is a writer and a mother living in New Jersey. Her work has been featured in Entropy, Mothers Always Write, and Grapevine. In 2018, she received Honorable Mention in Memoir Magazine’s Recovery Contest and in 2016, she was a finalist in the International Literary Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Contest. She is currently a student in the Creative Writing Intensive workshop at Project Write Now in Red Bank, NJ, where she is working on a memoir and personal essays about loss, motherhood, and recovery.

Appears In

Issue 7

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