Diagonal Napkins

Our house is always a mess. Little piles of stuff, bigger piles of stuff everywhere all over the place. It isn’t chaos, because I know where everything is. And to be honest, some of the time I like it. Especially lately as our daughter becomes a talking little person. As she toddles around, I see her maneuver through our piles in the living room saying, “Move mama books,” or “This daddy tunes?” Her world is surrounded by dog toys, her toys, articles, books, photographs, and music.

There are phonographs, records, tape decks, CDs, and sheet music. We have two pianos, a guitar, clarinet, saxophone, flute, conga drum, and a kazoo. Katy will conduct all music while standing on a stool with a chopstick. The three of us share our interests, activities, and fun. They fill up our house and are constantly around us.

“Uh-oh, Oxfohd diksonary is vewy dusty!”

These things are our family. Extended families have more people to share. Sometimes lots of work or annoyingly ‘in your space,' but usually comforting and supporting. Generations are entwined in their kinship tree and everyone is embraced. I’ve always wanted that for my child. That warmth, that busy almost chaotic sense of everybody talking and doing: the security of your ‘people’ all around you. Selective memory, yes, but isn’t that why we choose it? We want to remember the good stuff.

I remember the chaos at my grandmother’s house, usually on holidays. She had six sisters who each married and had a pack of kids who, in turn, had had us: the kids of the clan. There were crying babies. There were Velcro toddlers holding onto apron strings and pant legs as they maneuvered around the kitchen or dining room with elders. Then there were the teasing older cousins running in circles. I always loved the activity, the varied conversations, the laughter, the stories, and the huge group of relatives all at the table together. Everyone was animated and full of life. In their stories and remembrances, certain of their expressions, gestures, or sayings were the same. They still remain in the faces or voices of their children or their children’s children. We were one. I was happy, safe, and surrounded by joy and love.

I was named after my grandmother’s mother, and my daughter has our eyes. But she never knew either of those elders or the big family, and she doesn’t have a single cousin in town. It’s a very different world for her, and I wonder if her ancient eyes see the love and the joy that surround her in our tiny little family. I wonder, too, if I want that large family for her because it would embrace her too, or if I want it so she’ll like the same things I do, and experience life the same way I did. And of course, that’s impossible, and of course, it’s happening every day.

We share our piles of books, we read poems and stories, we write down her stories, and we play music together. We dance and smile. We laugh and hug tight. Our deep, long embraces fill me with ancient warmth, and she can see it in my eyes.

This year we have leaf-patterned napkins for autumn and turkey ones for Thanksgiving. And the rest of the house and the yard and the porch are a mess. But on Thanksgiving, I carefully place one turkey napkin diagonally atop one leaf napkin for each of us, centered and positioned carefully in their spots on the table.

There are still times when the house mess does get to me. The ‘too much’ overwhelms me, distresses me, and swallows me up. I am truly lost inside the beast of burdens. This is the beast of society, and piles of bills, and work-clothes laundry, and lunches to pack. It’s the newspapers and broken fixtures and appliances with too many dials, and this beast will eat you alive.

Unless, before you are consumed, you get a chance to have some silly little napkins. Oh, of course, it could be anything, but little and seemingly insignificant, and therefore a personal path to escape. The beast’s jaws open and you jump out.

On Thanksgiving, I was grateful for that moment with the napkins that allowed me to truly stop for reflection. The mess never really matters. What is really important is the each of us, on the diagonal, but centered, positioned carefully in our spots at the table.

L.E. Duchin writes fiction and nonfiction in a small group led by a professional writer. She has had a creative non-fiction story published in the online Everyday Fiction journal, 2018. Her non-fiction children’s book was published by Who Chains You Publishing, 2021, and a non-fiction story is being published by Small Leaf Press in their short story anthology, In Touch With Nature, 2021.

Though her background is in science, Duchin’s passion has always been creative writing. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and two dogs. She has traveled much of the world and enjoys hiking, camping, reading, and dancing.

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