Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size… That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?
A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf, 1929
At the invitation of a friend, I will be attending a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) party tonight. For it, I am to bring a photo of someone of significance from my life who has passed and a dish to share. That picture, for me, could be none other than that of my maternal grandparents. And the food item, I’ve decided, is to come from the kitchen creations that are affixed in memory to Nanny, my maternal grandmother. At this point, a gumbo is winning the mental play, in close competition with shrimp creole, cherry mousse, Nanny’s special brownies (not to be confused with Colorado’s special brownies ;)), fried chicken, fig preserves, peach cobbler, or pot roast. All fabulous, though none particularly healthy. It was the South, after all.
And lost in the reverie of days and meals at my grandparents’ place in South Louisiana, it occurred to me, at some point, that the table at which we sat in their home was round… a meaning not lost on the likes of King Arthur or, say, … Virginia Woolf. Tables matter. And I’m going to diverge here from my grandparents’ home to tell a story of a different table. This particular table was one in my own home, a sweet 1914 bungalow in Denver that I shared, on the day in question, with my then-husband, two children ages 1 and 5, and my visiting in-laws. It was Easter, a holiday that, for me, was and is more about the coming of flowers, and rain, and bunnies than the resurrection of Jesus… though I rather think he would smile on this Easter story. He DID, after all, kill the party of money changers (substitute corporate profiteers) and hang out with marginalized varieties like prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors. And, no doubt, like my grandparents and King Arthur and Virginia Woolf, Jesus would most certainly have dug a round table for eating and drinking with his friends. But on this holiday in 1999, the table that became the focal point of our attentions was rectangular. Not round.
The back story to this moment is, of course, Virginia Woolf. I’d begun reading her several years before and was re-thinking every tradition and structure of my life over which I had any control. One was this business of “head-of-household” and the patriarchal implications for such a title. Then, of course, were the associated traditions like men and fathers sitting head-of-table with the little missus seated opposite, closest to the kitchen. And although both my husband and I had grown up in that tradition, I now had passion and academic argument on my side. So when I informed Bob that we would be mixing it up at the table, he was good with it. Oh, and, by the way, I won’t be pretending otherwise when your parents come to town. Poor Bob 🙂
As we began the Easter procession to the table, my little five-year-old, C1, strode to the head spot, while Bob and I saddled up to the sides of the table. My mother-in-law caught C1’s ear from behind, whispering loudly enough for all but my father-in-law to hear, “Shouldn’t your dad be sitting here?” C1, not a child to back down easily, said simply, “I’m sitting here.” Bob and I made it clear by our silence that we weren’t going to force a change in the seating arrangement. When my father-in-law got to the table he looked at C1 and said, “That’s the seat for the head-of-household.” At this point, Bob piped up and told his parents C1 could stay where he was, then, rather awkwardly, we all sat down to eat our Easter ham. The story should have ended there. It didn’t.
Now, you should know that my ex-husband came from an extremely patriarchal, affluent family. So anytime something was amiss in the minds of my in-laws, the problem was the influence of the little wife of middle class, substandard upbringing. So… they need only train me to the proper traditions, and, by extension, the proper way of thinking. By this time, they’d known me long enough to know better.
Old habits die hard.
The next morning, my mother-in-law rose early. She prepared a breakfast feast for royalty and had it on the table before I’d wiped the sleep out of my eyes. In fact, by the time I was getting downstairs, she was assigning seats. Her husband, the patriarch, to be seated at head of table, Bob, C1, and I at servile sides, mother-in-law and matriarch opposite her husband, close to kitchen.
As you might imagine, I wasn’t happy. This, you’ll recall, was the little residence in Denver that belonged to Bob and me; it was not their home. I froze for a moment before I turned on my heels and headed back upstairs. C2 was still sleeping in his crib, so the nursery was an easy harbor. After the last breakfast plate was licked clean, Bob joined me in the nursery, knowing just exactly what I was thinking and wondering what I planned to do. We both knew this was now my battle with his parents; Bob could only ever go so far, and, to be sure, I appreciated that on some level, he’d tried.
I had till dinner to decide how to deal with the situation, but it wasn’t going to be easy; I wasn’t comfortable insisting that ANYONE sit in a particular place. Virginia’s ideals of peaceful anarchy had gotten inside me, and it seemed to me that by forcing something, I’d be little more than a patriarch in women’s clothing. More seat assignments weren’t going to work.
So the very anti-climactic ending to the story went something like this…
As you might imagine, my in-laws were tip-toeing around me, not knowing what the hell to do. It was something like musical chairs as we approached the dinner table; no one wanted to sit down. A good sign. With everyone still standing, I took a deep breath, gathering every ounce of righteous indignation I had (and by then, I had a LOT), and delivered the line I’d been rehearsing in my head all afternoon: “You may sit wherever you’d like at this table, but know that there is no position here or anywhere in this home that grants a man more value than a woman or an adult more value than a child,” then quietly, we all shuffled into seats. But before my mother-in-law took hers, she caught me and whispered through gritted teeth, “It’s just tradition.”
I suppose to some it seems silly that I would make such a big deal of table arrangements, but to my thinking, there’s blessed little that is just tradition in this world. Most of what we choose to do on any regular basis at either micro or macro levels carries meaning. My in-laws’ very reaction to a table arrangement that didn’t suit the traditional power structure of their family belies the suggestion that traditions are often just anything. Virginia knew it… she knew it in patriarchal power structures that perpetuate war and class, exploitation and greed, heads-of-households and their voiceless, subservient household minions. And the gift of her voice was in rounding the corners of an earthly table to blur the lines of power and make accessible to any a life free of oppression and the entitlement of its perpetrators. Of course, we’re still working on it. Virginia would cringe at the human rights abuses born of power structures privileged in NAFTA and waiting in the TPP; at the decimation of the Voting Rights Act and the social/political implications of Citizens United created to protect the interests of the corporate elite; at a culture that objectifies women, reduces their pay and controls their bodies through legislation; at wars and propaganda and the destruction of the environment and so many, many things relative to heads-of-states and heads-of-households… relative to power. But Virginia had enough faith in the potential of the human spirit to do an about face on what ills them that she committed her art and her thinking to paper; she did it hoping that someone would hear. Someone did.
So in the tradition of Dia de los Muertos (not all traditions are bad :)), I’ll pause here and give thanks to Virginia Woolf… and my grandparents and Jesus. Human and imperfect, but a rounder more generous humanity I cannot imagine.