Empty tables — I’ve spent a fair share of my time at them.
Growing up, my brother had gone off to college before I was 10. My father worked non-traditional hours on the railroad, and my mom (who also had a full-time job) had little patience with me.
I was constantly living in a dream world of my own grandeur, breaking precious possessions of hers and conjuring falsehoods of how they had met their demise. Many an evening I spent at the long, lace tablecloth-covered table, with the tall-back chairs staring at me in judgment for whatever trespass I had been placed alone to “sit and think” about.
I usually spent the time reflecting on how I could go bigger on the destruction next time, which inevitably led to more dinners with my party of one.
I encountered empty tables daily during my adolescent years. Being a lying, smart-mouthed narcissist riddled with anxiety seemed to keep the other children at bay during the horrible self-esteem carnage called middle school.
It was a time I remember well, as every moment stretches to eternity when the empty seats staring back are a screamingly loud reminder of how you’re so incredibly flawed that no one can stomach sitting through a lunch period with you. Head down, pretending to be intensely focused on my gluey macaroni and cheese or whatever concoction was being passed off as Salisbury steak and potatoes, my cheeks burned pink as I prayed for the minutes to tick by faster and end my torment until the next school day dawned.
Thankfully, I grew out of the traits (at least a few of them) that kept me in isolation enough that I managed to make a few friends to fill those seats during my high school tenure. As for college, I can admit those years are a bit of a blur. I obviously managed to eat through them, but that’s about all I can testify to.
Then I met my first empty table of adulthood about a year ago.
I had been nominated for an award, a prestigious honor from the community. There were tables of eight for each nominee, and as I shared my news with my boss, he was quick to take the entire table to fill. Through the years, I had humbly received awards at other organizations I represented, but typically they weren’t represented well; I knew leadership already felt intimidated by my success so I never saved any seats for them.
This was going to be different, and I was excited to have colleagues actually celebrate this honor with me.
I forwarded the details as the time approached, sure that it was being shared with our team. I didn’t want to ask who exactly was coming. As I said, having work people present was new to me, and I didn’t want to bring it up too much lest I seem like I was bragging.
The day of the event, I poked my head into my boss’ office to let him know I was leaving, but his office was empty. I surmised he had already left for the venue.
As painfully obvious as it seems now that I recall this, predictable as an ’80s horror movie, I still had no clue what awaited me when I walked into the banquet and sat down to a table of only myself and seven monstrously huge empty place settings. I waited, alone, amid the hustle, the mingling, the jovial laughter that surrounded me but halted just inches from where I sat in solitude.
My cheeks flushed that familiar magenta, and I stared down at a plate of lettuce drenched in Caesar dressing. I wanted more than anything to simply disappear, and when the winner was announced, I had never been so grateful to hear someone else’s name called.
I hadn’t thought much about my empty tables until recently when we talked about a Thanksgiving drive for the children in our schools. Admittedly, I had forgotten about the holiday in the midst of our back-to-school drive, the huge Celebrity Chef fundraiser and planning for the winter “Believe” bags. We had already made so many changes at the Blessings in a Backpack organization since I started in May, and Thanksgiving was one I just hadn’t honed in on.
It was already October, I reasoned. Other organizations had planned way in advance, had businesses engaged; we would be late to the party and also have so little time for the logistical piece. It would be messy, I reasoned, and best to just move past and plan ahead next year.
Everyone supported this logic of mine, but for whatever reason, the thought that had to spring into my head at that moment was those empty tables.
So many of the children in our schools battle food insecurity every day, and that doesn’t take a break just because it’s a holiday. I thought of so many little ones headed home, achingly aware that it was a time for abundance and bounty for others, which makes it so heartbreaking when none of it is to be yours.
I thought of what made my “empty table times” bearable — the family that, even when they were exasperated with me, still always showed that they loved me.
The friends to whom I would text “I’m sitting alone at this table, so embarrassed I could die,” and instantly receive confirmation “what?? that’s messed up!! Want me to come, I can leave now!”
And always, the food — the basic nutrients that served to distract and detract from that pain just a little because, although I was hurting, never did I have the utter loneliness that can only come from deep-rooted hunger.
Then I realized that so many children in our community would be spending this Thanksgiving at an empty table with nothing to soothe, nothing to calm or heal, nothing to nourish their bodies or souls.
“We’re doing a Thanksgiving drive,” I announced. “I don’t know how we’ll come up with everything we need for 2,600 kids this late in the game, but they need to know that we’re at that table with them.”
A hastily thrown-together Amazon wishlist later, and the bags quickly began filling up.
Community is made of moments such as these. Ensuring that, regardless of what home life our children have, not only do we want to fill their plates, we also want to fill a seat for them. Especially when no one else will pull up to their table.
As we approach the season of gratitude for the plenty at our own tables, please consider how far the smallest of blessings will go to those who are facing a barren holiday.
While I have mentioned our organization, there are so many amazing nonprofits that can help stretch even the smallest amount of time, generosity and kindness.
Filling an empty plate or an empty seat is truly to fill an empty heart, both to the receiver and from them whose table the blessing flows.