Family Table

This morning I heard this line from a Jane Smiley audiobook:  It was exhausting just to hold ourselves at the table, magnets with our northern poles pointing into the center of the circle.


Nick Flynn’s latest book, THE REENACTMENTS, follows his experience in making the movie of his life.  The movie, based on his book, based on his life.  Page 135 reads:  I get a call to be in Tribeca at noon (De Niro’s office) — today is the day of the table read, where a dozen actors, each with a role or two, will read the script out loud, to see how the words feel in their mouths (I guess).  Coffee and bagels, we shake hands all around, each will pretend to be someone I once knew.  We sit.  De Niro opens his mouth and my father comes out, then Dano opens his mouth and I come out, then Julianne opens her mouth [and my mother comes out].  Day of the dead, dawn of the dead, I sit off to one side, pretending to watch myself, pretending I’m here, but I’m not, not really.  My disembodied family, risen from the grave, sitting around a table, laughing.


I recently scribbled this in my notebook:

Draw a picture, Teacher says.  Draw a picture of your family.  She turns her back and picks up a brand new stick of chalk and scrapes four stick figures with round heads and straight legs.  She draws them on the blackboard in just the right order. Father mother sister brother. Draw a picture like this, Teacher says.

You copy Teacher’s picture. You copy Teacher’s picture because she says this is what a family looks like and because you are unsure and because only last year her picture was true, true enough, and because that’s you, that was you, between your mother and your brother, holding their stick-figure hands, and because already, at age seven, you are nothing if not a pleaser. Please her. 

Next year you will draw a new picture, add a baby brother, and in another year you will draw mother daughter. A year after that you will draw grandma grandpa uncle mother daughter, then mother daughter again, then grandma grandpa mother daughter, then mother daughter. You will draw so many pictures, none of them right, none of them wrong.

This week I’ll go back to work and decide what that means.  If anything.

Imagine holding yourself, like Nick Flynn, at the table with Robert De Niro as your father, with Julianne Moore as your mother, with Paul Dano as you, while they practice their lines, a table full of northern poles.

What does your family table look like?

21 thoughts on “Family Table

  1. Averil Dean

    At the moment it’s a kitchen counter for two. Mother son. Growing up it was father mother sister sister, with an alcoholic shimmer over the center of the table.

  2. Pamela

    My table was quiet, because it was just 3 girls: Mom, sister, me. We ate small portions, sometimes together and sometimes on tv trays.

    There was the rare projectile, across the table — a plate aimed at a neighbor lady’s head, because she showed up at dinnertime and woudn’t stop yakking, just as my harried mom had gotten off work and needed to cook dinner. There’s still a dent in the kitchen wall right where mom barely missed that lady’s head.

  3. Lyra

    The notebook entry is beautiful.
    I remember when my daughter was little, maybe around first grade, she had to draw a family picture. She had two women, two men and herself in the middle. Her teacher was wonderful because from that picture on when the time came to make something for mother’s day, she got to make two. Father’s day, the same thing. Having a grown-up to subtly let you know that your family is “normal” at that age is so important. Now I imagine her drawing would have her two moms, her two dads and her four brothers, but as she is now at the wise age of twelve she would caption it, “My Freakshow of a Family” as that is what she calls our unorthodox clan.

    At the moment, mine would show two boys and a girl on the run, along with my husband and I with our heads popping.The cartoon bubbles overhead say, “Get your elbows off the table already!” “What do you say after you burp like that, for the love…” “Can you stop making yourself burp just through one dinner??” with the three kids laughing as they see their plot to make us insane come to fruition.

    1. Teri

      Awwww, nothing quite like a dinner table with little boys. So many bodily noises, so little time —– well, except that dinner time is the PERFECT time to try them all out. You’ve got everybody in a circle, your own private audience, and nobody wants to leave their plate. Smart boys!

  4. independentclause

    I am editing alone at my family table. But the cat is ramming me with her stripy head, and this table was surrounded by my friends over Thanksgiving, and also over New Years’ Eve. The family table is covered in crap (my mom would rise from the grave and slap me if she could), but it cleans up nice and holds food for a lot of people.

    The repeat of the line “please her” slays me, in a good way.

    1. Teri

      Funny how things like “pleaser” and “please her” come out all by themselves. The fun part of writing, for sure.

    1. Teri

      I finally stopped working at the dining room table, which means it’s finally clean. Having that giant space as my dumping ground was detrimental to my writing anything — at some points, I didn’t want to sit down and have to look at it all. As if I’m not distracted enough!!

    1. girl in the hat

      I”m afraid that stick figure picture is what my family looks like right now. Of course, I’d add some details, like some muscles and a surfboard for dad, fill out the mom’s features a bit, manga eyes for the kids. And while I did that, I’d think about what they say, that sadness is what inspires greatness, that happiness is not conducive to anything deep, and I’d feel embarrassed that my little sketch meant I was doomed. Ha!

      1. Teri

        That happiness is not conducive to anything deep. This is exactly what I tell my daughter when she says, “Can’t you write something happy?”

        Happy is so not interesting. And since I would describe myself as a pretty happy person, I’m not all that interesting either!

  5. Catherine

    I loved your notebook scribble. Makes me think of my youngest son’s family drawings – they are just as confused, expanding, reduced, hopeful. All those branches and Sons Of…

  6. LauraMaylene

    “You will draw so many pictures, none of them right, none of them wrong.”

    I just adore this line and the entire excerpt. Adore!

    On the most literal level, my family table currently contains a huge second-hand poinsettia that is shedding leaves by the hour; a messy copy of the Sunday paper, that old relic; and a pair of mini-blinds I need to return to Home Depot. The glamor! But the real business gets done at the kitchen counter on the stools I bought from a rich family in the far-west ‘burbs off Craigslist. Just this morning, Peter and I ate sprouted wheat English muffins with homemade jam at this counter while the cats circled our feet, meowing.

  7. Denise Charles

    lI had a similar incident when I was in middle school and I wasn’t given a choice. So I told the vice principal that he should probably call my mother. Her response was that if he hit me that she would not be responsible for what I do to him. Violence begets violence. Its unacceptable either way…EVER. Oh and he never laid a hand on me.

  8. September Girl

    The dinner table has evolved over the years as our daughter grew…now a teenager…ughhhh…and she barely converses unless it’s about something she wants or what she wants to do….with her friends of course. Looking forward to getting past this stage. Haha!

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