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Set the Table for Good-bye


Cocoa Puffs at breakfast, and for lunch the housekeeper mixes Hellman’s into Chicken of the Sea. She spoons it onto bread, cuts the sandwich into four white squares and hands me the plate. Near suppertime my mother rushes home and pours cans into a skillet and stirs in frozen peas. She is making a dish my sister loves but I hate. I sit on the frayed couch in the living room watching The Galloping Gourmet and try to take notes but he talks too fast and the recipe becomes a blur. Later, I read Craig Claiborne and pick a recipe called Oriental Beef Balls on pg. 108 and take money from the cookie jar to buy the ingredients at Key Food. Next night I set the round formica table with our chipped regular dishes and serve the dish with a side of Rice-a-Roni and I am lauded and become a cook, and become a caretaker and I am proud and also sad because my mother who wasn’t ever too much there is now there even less.


It is Spring my freshman year and even though there isn’t yet phone or gas I have moved into my first apartment. I’ve gotten myself a puppy because I always wanted one but my mother said I couldn’t until I had my own apartment so the day I signed the lease I visited the ASPCA. Now I am sorry because the puppy pees and barks when left alone and instead of making me popular on campus I get grief because she steals food from the students who picnic on the lawn.   I had just put some kibble in a bowl on the floor and was wishing there was a table where I could set a place for myself when there’s a knock on the door. It is a monitor from the school telling me to call home right away. He is looking at the floor and turns away before the words are out and I know it is not good news. Clipping the dog to her leash we walk to the pay phone and I call my father’s number and there is my sister on the other side of the line telling me our father’s dead. I am not surprised, he’d been ill, but the words still startle. We walk briskly to campus, the dog her usual self pulling and stopping incessantly.  I find someone to watch her and someone else to loan me my train fare and get on the train carrying nothing, which is everything.


I am the mother of two young boys and my marriage is unraveling but I am trying my best. I set three places on folding trays and the boys and I eat in front of the TV. Other nights we go up the street for potluck with neighbors—all women and children. A lot of wine is consumed. Weeks blur to months. Most nights I leave a fourth plate in the kitchen under a mesh dome meant to keep away the flies and in the morning empty dishes are in the sink.


My mother travels back and forth between hallucinations. The other day she asked for a cup of tea and before I could get it she reached for an imaginary teacup and set it on the table. With her left hand she pinched the label on the teabag pulling the string taught while with her right she delicately stirred. Gingerly she lifted the bag, put it on the spoon, wrapped the string around and squeezed the imaginary teabag into her imaginary cup. She pursed her lips in anticipation of what wasn’t there.


Cheese and apples cut in the cradle of my palm with my brother-in-law’s penknife lay on a smoothed-down paper bag on the foot of the hospice bed. Whisky in paper cups line the radiator ledge, and there is ice for my sister who has stopped eating but will suck on cold chips. Earlier in the week she’d had a bite of watermelon and feeling hopeful we’d bought some from the deli up the street but then it languished until somebody tossed it away.  Tonight there is the usual stream of visitors. Some bring food to add to our brown paper ‘table’ at the foot of the bed. The priest stops in and shares a bite, and warns again that if an administrator comes by we should lift our cups in prayer because that's okay but boozing is not. He takes the bottle and stores it in his desk.  Near ten, Paul and Woody and maybe someone else go downstairs for a quick smoke, and Dana and my half sister and maybe someone else is straightening the room. Maybe it’s Dana or maybe I am holding my sister’s hand. We notice my sister’s breathing is quite labored and then we notice that she has stopped breathing and we all need to think about it and look again and verify and help each other to see what we are seeing; a breath and then no breath. It’s a tiny difference that means the world.


Deep in the darkness of the woods in my mind, in a musty hut with rusting shutters, a girl sits on a frayed couch waiting for her father who as it turns out is long dead. It seems unlikely he will return and even though the girl and I know this, she waits because she has always waited and in the always she has grown attached; as if her hair had woven itself into the fibers of the couch. Across the room is an old wooden table with wobbly wooden chairs and here’s what I propose: set this table with heavy plates, hammered forks, sturdy goblets and a pitcher of warm flat stout.  Set out raw spring onions, churned butter, dark bread and the head of a bear whose teeth are pulled but whose tongue remains, that has been smothered in herbs and rubbed with honey and roasted in embers until tender and sweet.


Wood ash swirls underfoot in the commotion of Spirits scrambling to feast and in that moment, I pull the girl across the room and out the door and down a twisted path shaded by leaves and made treacherous with gnarled jutting roots. I am running and short of breath and wishing I could see before and aft and then I realize the only footsteps are my own.

Ame Gilbert

Ame Gilbert work's with food, and art and food as art, teaching, curating themed salon suppers and gatherings, organizing tastings. For the past two years she has been writing a memoir/cookbook. The stories are generated cooking and eating which accesses buried stories from her youth. She has a BFA from Cooper Union in NYC and a Masters in Liberal Studies from University of Wisconsin where she wrote a cookbook for my thesis.