I grew up eating around the table almost every night. At about 6:30 p.m., we’d hear the familiar dinnertime call and yes, sometimes even the ringing of an actual dinner bell. Teenage footsteps bounded down the stairs, faucets ran in the bathroom as we washed our hands, and dishes clattered as we set the table. With six kids and two adults, eating together was no small feat.
The oval table in the eat-in kitchen was fully extended, and if my oldest siblings were home from college or guests came over, we squeezed in a few extra chairs from the dining room. I still remember where everyone sat. My parents at each end of the table, my brothers on either side of my mom, me just to the left of my dad. Dinner guests complicated things, though, because that usually meant someone had to change seats—an inconvenience we did not suffer well.
We sat around that oval kitchen table sometimes for hours. Dinners seemed to last forever, but not because we were slow eaters. When there were eight people around the table, if you didn’t eat fast you didn’t eat (a lesson my husband learned the hard way after a few meals with my family). We practically inhaled plates of rice topped with pineapple chicken, or epic portions of pasta with Mom’s homemade sauce.
But the meal wasn’t over when our plates were empty. We prayed, then ate, then we talked. Conversations ranged from meaningful to mundane to, well, let’s just say my mom often had to pull the reins in on the sibling teasing or discussions of bodily functions. We piled on second helpings (or snatched a few bites right from the serving bowl, much to the annoyance of my mom), read a devotional book or Bible story, talked a little more, shared prayer requests, and my dad closed in what seemed as a kid to be the world’s longest prayer. Occasionally, we’d time him, and it wasn’t uncommon for that post-dinner prayer to take upwards of 20 minutes. Once in high school, I fell asleep with my forehead on the table, and my mom nudged me awake when it was over.
Sometimes we complained, arguments broke out, and no part of me felt like sitting still a minute longer in that dining chair. It didn’t hit me until adulthood that my one brother and I likely sat on opposite sides of the table in an effort to keep the peace. There were meals my immature palate didn’t appreciate, and often the task of cleaning up felt like a cruel punishment.
As we grew up, basketball games, piano lessons, and late work nights competed with dinner times, but over the course of those 18 years I lived at home, family dinners remained the norm and those other activities the exception. Even after all five of my siblings moved out of the house and I was the last one left, I still sat at that table with my parents.
As a mother now, I look back at the habit we had as a family, of sitting around the table, and I realize what a rare gift it was. Our rituals may have felt forced at times and shamelessly quirky at others. But we enjoyed good food together, laughed together, prayed together, read the Bible together. We got to know each other around that table.
It was just over two years since my mom’s cancer diagnosis, and the end was nearing. Out of town family flew home that week to spend those final days with her and with each other. The night before she died, I tossed and turned, feeling restless and burdened with the weight her impending death.
In the morning, I shuffled downstairs to her room and sat there without any words to say. Only my mom’s gasps and our own sobs broke the silence. I could feel the grief so deeply in my gut that it felt like I had the wind knocked out of me, like I was gasping for emotional breath. Yet at the same time the ordinariness of the moment seemed crude. She was there; then she wasn’t. That was it. I felt a surprising mix of confusion, relief, sadness, heartache, and peace all at once. What do we do now?
I knew more waves of grief would come. I knew discussions of funeral plans, airport pickups, and other logistics would eventually happen. I knew my own bouts of sobbing were bound to hit me when I least expected - in the middle of the produce section at the grocery store or when I wanted to ask my mom a cooking question. I knew there was a long road ahead to healing. Yet in those moments after her death, when we no longer waited to see if today would be a good day or a bad day for her, when we didn’t have to coax her to eat spoonfuls of pureed fruit or organize her weekly pill boxes, there was an surprising and almost awkward stillness.
So we did what we knew to do, what we had grown up doing, what was familiar and comfortable in the midst of a loss so unfamiliar and uncomfortable. With tears still on our cheeks and eyes puffy, my siblings and I shuffled into the kitchen.
My brother took out the oversized cast iron skillet from the drawer underneath the oven and started heating it up. Someone else began cracking eggs into a bowl. Another cut slices of cheese off the huge block stored in the refrigerator drawer. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure there was bacon being fried, too. We refilled mugs of coffee. Plates clattered around as we set the table, and we poured big glasses of orange juice. (There was always orange juice in that fridge growing up. We had even had a system to tell which cartons had been opened and which hadn’t—every unopened carton faced forward, while the opened one was turned 90 degrees.)
I can’t remember what was said, if anything, but nothing needed to be said. In those moments after my mom’s death, when we didn’t have the words and our eyes needed respite from tears, we ate. Together.
So much was different. We were adults. All of us had long moved out of that house, some of us hundreds of miles away. My mom wasn’t there to call us when it was time to eat. There was no childish bickering as we found our seats, and the usual rush to devour our food was replaced by slow and quiet bites.
But so much remained the same.
In the midst of devastating change, we were still a family. I don’t remember if we sat in our childhood “assigned” seats that morning at the table. It didn’t seem as important anymore, since Mom wasn’t in her usual spot on the end. Despite our grief over her empty chair, the familiarity of gathering for a meal brought unique comfort. There was joy and solace, tears and even laughter that morning around the table—just as there had been for so many years before.
Skillet-Baked Eggs with Sweet Potatoes + Bacon
Yields 4 servings
Adapted from Food Network
8 ounces thick-cut bacon, diced
1 pound sweet potatoes, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus extra for garnish
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 large eggs
1 cup shredded Asiago cheese*
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Heat a cast-iron skillet (about 10-inch sized) over medium-high heat. Cook the bacon until it’s almost crisp all over. Drain off all but about 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat (just eyeball it). Return the skillet to the stove (with the bacon and some fat still in the skillet), and turn the heat to medium.
Add the sweet potatoes and cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender. Add the parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper, and stir for about one more minute. Turn off the heat.
Make four little wells in the sweet potato mixture, and crack two eggs into each well. Put the skillet in the preheated oven. Cook for about 10-12 minutes, until the egg whites are cooked through but the yolks are still slightly runny. Sprinkle on the cheese and bake for another minute until the cheese is melted. Garnish with a chopped fresh parsley. Serve immediately and enjoy!
*You can really use any cheese you typically enjoy with eggs. Try white cheddar, fontina, or Gouda. Or, skip the cheese entirely to keep this recipe dairy-free.