The Table: A Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage

Stalks of aged goldenrod and teasel stood frozen stiff beside the roadside. Milkweed pods on rigid stems had long since split their casings, spilling seeds to the wind, leaving only whitened hollows. Rows of stubbled corn, bleached to gray-brown, sat in ice-puddled fields. Except for the black dots of crows and grackles in bare distant treetops, the color of steel flattened an already horizontal landscape. The sky hung low over the winter earth.

At Homer, Indiana, ice glazed the only real street. Down at the corner, a pick-up truck and a station wagon had pulled up to a wood railing that marked where a curb should be. Behind the railing the little furniture store, The Sampler, was open for business. Though icicles dripped spikes from the eaves of the building, the steamy glass of the windows meant that within the shop tea was on and coffee perked in a big urn for the customers.

Inside, Emmett Newkirk stood behind the front desk, writing up an order. From the little room to the right, stocked with boxes of tea, small kitchen gadgets, and bins of hard candy, there wafted a faint aroma of sassafras and cinnamon. To the left were the showrooms — first, two rooms of dining tables and cupboards, then a far room of living room pieces, and, finally, an upstairs full of bedsteads, chests, tables, armoires, and dressing tables.

After stamping slush from our boots and taking up cups of tea, we browsed through each showroom. Though we had long since memorized each one, and some things — like The Sampler — never change, we still relished the comfort of admiring anew the same familiar pieces. The sight of the mellow, close-grained wood, the silkiness of its finish never grew old.

With this visit, however, we intended more than a leisurely browse. We had come to rectify a mistake. On the face of it we had made no great error. We had simply bought the wrong dining room table. Several years before we had bought an oval mahogany Hepplewhite table from a good North Carolina manufacturer. Everyone admired our table, and it was a beautiful table by nearly any standard. We admired it, too; we told each other we were delighted with it. But inwardly we doubted.

Then we admitted out loud: our Hepplewhite Phase was all wrong — a vision of grandeur with pretensions far beyond our simple Newburgh house. More bothersome, this table was an adaptation rather than a faithful reproduction. In my eyes it lacked historical roots. Unable to afford the real thing and never imagining a day when we could, we had settled for an imitation, a dressed-up pretender. We had fallen into the trap of imagining we saw beauty in something that had no substance. Realizing our mistake, I could not get the table out of the house fast enough. I ran a classified ad and found a buyer in two days. We now were back to having supper on a cramped little walnut table, but at least our integrity was saved.

 

Then we bought a piece of furniture that, after our cherry bed from Homer, set the pattern for our lives. Our friend Adah, who sold country antiques from her house in Darby Hills, had a cherry New York china cupboard that she dated about 1834. It was a good, simple piece in fine condition, still with the old glass panes in the doors. Every day or so I walked up the hill with our children, had a cup of tea with Adah while the children played with the cat, and looked longingly at the china cupboard. One morning, after what seemed an eternity of scrimping, I hurried to Adah’s door and announced, “Adah, Bill and I think we finally can get the cupboard.” I did not tell her that to hasten the scrimping, we had cashed in an insurance policy that I had had since I was a child.

The cupboard came home to our dining room. Then we knew. Living in a small town on the Ohio River in Indiana, we belonged with country furniture, not with primitives but certainly with pieces bearing the simplicity and straight-forwardness of having been crafted a century before in the Midwest. Or if not country antiques, then good current country cabinetmakers. If we did not have the money to buy these country pieces, we would do without until we did. No more fake substitutes that pretended to eighteenth-century Georgian grandeur. It had been a mistake to try to transplant to the Ohio Valley a Rhode Island finery we could not possibly duplicate and that belonged genuinely only to Rhode Island, not to the Ohio Valley.

It was some time before we could afford a Homer replacement table for our Hepplewhite mistake. But cutting back here, juggling there, we managed to save the necessary funds. And so, on that winter day at The Sampler, we chose our drop leaf table. This time we did not make a mistake. We were as sure of it as we had been of our cherry bed. The table was to have handsome spindle legs, an apron drop, an extension of leaves to seat a dozen people. Although our table would not be ready for several months, we were patient. People wait for what they love.

After that dining room table, which was such an immediate comfortable fit in our house, in our lives, we bought other Homer pieces — a big round table for the kitchen, Pennsylvania spindle beds for the girls, a graceful and roomy desk. Some possessions in a family are ordinary and replaceable or expendable. Others — certain furniture, jewelry, china, silver, linens, books, a fine Belgian Browning shotgun — are emblems of a family, each attached to a particular moment, giver, or incident of family history, each passed down from mother to daughter, from father to son.

Jewelry, for example — a strand of wedding pearls, a gold cross brought by a fifteen-year-old son from Crete; an anniversary cameo from Rome — is a special emblem. The most personal of possessions, it can commemorate our highest moments, watersheds of a life — births, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries. Of all possessions jewelry has the greatest possibility for symbolism of the sacred. Little wonder, then, that in any museum antique jewelry is displayed next to the chalices, rosaries, pectoral crosses, and accoutrements of religious life.

Furniture, too, can be symbolic. Of all the equipment of a home, nothing indicates more than the furniture what the occupants hold dear and what they want their life to be. Most of the time furniture tells more than books do about who lives in the house. The furniture alone does not tell a story, however. It works hand in hand with the color and design of the room that surrounds it and the house that encompasses it. Still, the furniture is primal. Even before the room, most people begin with at least one or two pieces of furniture. For us moderns furniture has some of the security that a fortress must have had for the ancients. I cannot speak for chrome and glass, but wood has an air of solidity, substance, even protection. Moreover, it ages well. It spans generations. It is possible, of course, for furniture to be mainly an accumulation and not symbolic of anything but acquisitiveness, but the pieces that we most value are highly symbolic, closely attached to our incarnation. Furniture that we continually touch is our favorite — what we sleep in, eat on, sit in, write on, work on. No concrete object more defines our immediate world than our furniture.

 

Our furniture pieces my husband and I have loved are first our bed, then our table, and then our desk. We love them in order both of chronology and of importance. One has led to the other. First came the bed, foundation-place of a marriage, where vows were cemented, fidelity incarnated in new lives. Then came the table, the gathering place for a growing family. The bed means vows and fidelity. The table means fruitfulness. Because of the bed, there is a table. Because a man and woman have loved each other in a bed, there are faces around a table. Because there were vows, a decision, in other words, for fidelity, vows given life in a bed, there is the fruitfulness of life incarnated around a table. There is a further life, as well, that flowers from the vow of a bed and the fruitfulness of a table, and that is the life of mind and spirit that occurs at a desk.

Home is where all of these kinds of life grow — the love of a man and woman for each other; the fruition of their love, their children; and the intellectual, spiritual, and moral life of everyone in the family. No place is so suited as a home to the flowering of these basic elements of life. These most fundamental human and humanizing activities belong within the protection of the home.

The family is the Lord’s design. Thus it transcends any political arrangement. Although the commonwealth or state is essential to the protection of the family, and the family cannot survive without it, any such political arrangement is merely a human construction. Hence to serve and defend the family is the purpose of the commonwealth. A well-ordered commonwealth, by its proper arrangements, also encourages virtue in its citizens. Today, however, our world is dangerously inverted. Today the state, instead of defending the home and encouraging virtue, threatens the family in a hundred ominous ways, and we are obliged to put up with its seemingly benign but nonetheless predatory incursions. In this disordered inversion the tiniest and most innocent of lives are under siege. Marauding barbarians who pillaged the homes and villages of our ancestors were hardly more threatening predators than the abusive modern state that first relieves a family of responsibility for its own care and then preys upon all the life within it. The modern state attacks first the most vulnerable members of a family; yet it does not ignore the strongest. It has become masterful, too, in depleting the moral and spiritual energies that traditionally have given families the wherewithal to resist. No one has understood better than Tocqueville how noiselessly, tirelessly, and insidiously the modern welfare state usurps control over families. Begetting, nurturing and protecting children, the reasons for which a family exists, are functions that the state strains in every way to wrest from the family. To seize such control is the natural inclination of a disordered state. Thus the need for the home to retain its private character is all the more crucial. The very emblems of a family — jewelry, furniture, books, and so on — are signs that the life that goes on inside a home has a source and end that transcends the state. Life in a family surpasses politics. It is not the state that gives meaning to the family but the family that gives meaning to the state. And it is the state that exists for the family, not the family for the state.

Hence the vibrancy of any commonwealth comes only from the richness and depth of the private life within the family. Where love is strongest, where life is most closely guarded, where virtue is taught, where moral values and traditions are an esteemed patrimony — that is, in a family — there is the greatest fullness of being to be found in mankind. No state can approach, even remotely, the high degree of love, friendship, trust, sacrifice, unselfishness, and intellectual, moral, and spiritual vigor that enlivens even the smallest and most ordinary family. The friendship which derives from the family is indeed what makes possible the friendship among citizens in a healthy commonwealth. The family, the fundamental unit of and reason for all of society, is the driving energy of social order. Thus, the home, with its sacred non-public character, is the nerve cell of the world. The importance of a home is best revealed by one of the most astonishing facts of Scripture — that Jesus remained at home for thirty years in preparation for only a three-year public ministry. Even today thirty years is a long time to remain in the nest. In Our Lord’s day it must have been incredible.

The essence of a home is delicate, mysterious, and mostly unseen by the outside world. The book of Psalms describes a happy man as one whose wife dwells in the recesses of his home as a fruitful vine, whose children are like olive plants around his table. The truth of this image of a family still holds. A fruitful family is still to be prized as the greatest of God’s blessings.

The olive plants around the table are the very reason that the divine plan calls for man and woman to come together. Even though man and woman marry because, first of all, they love each other and, only secondly, because they want to have children, their fundamental purpose, whether they are aware of it or not, is to have children. The result of their love is meant to be an incarnation — a child. To say that the purpose of marriage is to bring forth children is not at all to downplay the essential love between husband and wife. Love is essential, and we know that from experience. The point is, rather, that this very love between the spouses far transcends the lovers, so much so that God uses it for a purpose the lovers cannot come close to imagining — the creation of a new being. This revelation of new life is something for which the spouses make themselves instruments but in no way do they originate. Though man and woman make the stuff of their bodies available for God’s use, the actual mysterious creation of life is the divine doing. Around the table sits the astonishing evidence that the greatest gift God can bestow, the greatest good, is being itself. My own experience is that parents never quite get used to the mystery of these new beings; parents remain ever amazed. It is a mystery — that from two mere humans, a man and woman, issues a family. Two in one flesh beget not a clone of themselves but an altogether new being, who has never before existed and who will now exist forever. From this new being will come other beings, likewise unrepeatable, who will also live forever.

I have heard it said that in today’s world, when people live much longer than their ancestors, it is likely that a married couple will live together far beyond their reproductive years, and so the purpose of their marriage must eventually become unitive and no longer procreative. This view is short-sighted, I think. In the first place, it seems to me impossible to divide the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage. They are indivisible. But, secondly, this view understands procreation too narrowly. Procreation is not simply the physical begetting of children. It surely means much more — the responsibility of parents not only for their children but also for ensuing generations. Scripture tells us to rejoice if we are able to see our children’s children. And we are blessed indeed if we can see our great-grandchildren. Because the probability of our living to see our great-grandchildren is likely for us today, we have all the more reason to think of procreation as something of more far-reaching consequence than a single act. Ultimately procreation must mean the love, responsibility, and vision that link generations. We come to the table not only with those who are living but also with those who have come before us and those who will follow us. It is these family members, generation after generation, who symbolically sit around the table with us.

Thornton Wilder once wrote a play called The Long Christmas Dinner. Taking as his theme the bond between generations, he depicted the life of a family as one long banquet, a continual Christmas dinner in which the family members come in to dinner, sit and eat and talk, then gradually grow old. One by one a character rises and moves quietly out a rear door, just as another character comes in and takes his place at the table. Each character is unique. He has a purpose, a role to play in the drama at just the time he appears. Without him in the play there would be a missing link in God’s providence, and the play could not go forward. Without him in his place no other characters could take their entrance cue; the action would stop.

 

Each character is here for a reason, a definite part in the dramatic scheme. Yet, at the same time that he is unique, and his mission is specific and unrepeatable, he stands also as a universal type in his relation to others. This man is a father like his father, a son like his son. This woman is a mother like her mother, a daughter like her daughter. No two people are fathers or sons, mothers or daughters in the same way, and yet in each generation there are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins to stand in for those who have filled those roles in the last generation. When it is time for those presently on stage to leave, others will be waiting in the wings to be new fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.

Marriage is the institution in this drama that bridges the span between generations. It is the engine that God chose to move us along through history. By marriage are fathers linked to sons; by marriage are mothers linked to daughters. By marriage does a civilization make its perilous passage from one generation to another. In large measure this laborious passage through time is effected through the long Christmas dinner around the table, when one generation tells its stories to the next and that generation tells them to their children. What do these stories tell? Little things, mostly — discussions of who was related to whom, anecdotes of what we did when we were little, memories of how scared we were when so-and-so was sick, confessions of how we plotted with our brothers and sisters to get the better of Mom and Dad, recollections of what Mrs. Coe said in our second-grade class or Mr. Pence said in our freshman college English class, observations on an upcoming election or current political issue, reports of a phone call from Grandma or a sister-in-law, praise for an especially good homily heard in church, comments about the food at hand — both pro and con. Small things — but over time, much time, they weave a pattern. Taken all together, through a lifetime of sitting at the table memory that can keep those children anchored in the larger family, despite the disunion of their immediate parents. Such circumstances illustrate the immeasurable gift of being surrounded by an extended family of relations. In an immediate family births and deaths and all the in-between carry enormous impact, sometimes unbearably so. They stand out in the sharpest relief. But in the wider family births and deaths, comings and goings, trials and tribulations strike a cushion that softens their impact. Against the comforting backdrop of grandparents and cousins listening and talking, the stories become a tapestry like the long chronological embroidery at Bayeux — a record of what a family holds dear, of what its members will live and die for. Sitting around the table, the family receives the collective memory, runs it through the filter of the present generation, and passes it on to the next. Without that collective memory the tie of family members to each other, to their ancestors, to their descendants, to their roots in their community, whether that community be a church, a town, a region, or a nation, dwindles and fades. The collective memory stirs and keeps alive the piety that urges us to revere the natural authority of those who gave us being. This piety that the collective memory encourages reminds us to honor the advent people who made straight our paths, smoothed our mountains and valleys. It moves us to hold fast to the treasure they have bequeathed us, lest we diminish the patrimony we hand on to our children. We, too, are appointed to be advent people for the generations we bring into the world.

No greater blow can be dealt to the collective memory than a marriage that breaks up and renders its children rootless. And yet, even when a family is derailed for a generation by a broken marriage, the resilience of a family, especially when it extends to include its wider membership of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, can be mightily profound. For broken marriages there often seems in God’s providence to be a grandfather or grandmother or aunt who gathers up the children, takes responsibility, and tries to call forth the patrimony of the large events of one’s life, particularly the sad ones, stand out less starkly. It does make a difference when there are extended members of the family who step forward to share the burden.

When we in our family all gather around our table, I see us as we are now. I see my husband at the other end, the constant figure in my life, beaming because we are all together in what has become a special-occasion occurrence, now that our children are in college and graduate school. I see our son, David, on his side of the table, first-born, a big man, steady, reflective, possessed of judgment far beyond his years, his blue-green eyes by turns twinkling or serious. I see facing him on the other side of the table our older daughter, Catherine, serene and peaceful, in her young adulthood discovering how satisfying the intellectual and spiritual life can be. The sides of her long dark hair are caught up in a barrette, the rest waving gently on her shoulders; her brown eyes are soft and calm. I see next to her our younger daughter, Margaret, exuberant, generous, high spirited, sometimes intense, her brown eyes sparkling, her dark hair woven into a long French braid. I see also, next to David, a new member of our family, his bride Chris, a charming, radiant, hazel-eyed young woman, fun-loving, sunny, devout in faith and strong of heart, cherished instantly as one of our daughters. I marvel how thoroughly she has captivated us and how naturally we have enfolded her, as if she somehow had been present with us all along. These grown-up children are not only our delight; they are also our friends. To our surprise, these friends hold dear what we hold dear. We are boundlessly grateful, for things do not necessarily happen this way. In the hands of these four friends the collective memory of the family, our particle of the patrimony of civilization, is safe for the present generation. We have reason to hope that at least from our hands to theirs the civilizational transfer has gone intact.

Sometimes there are other family members around our table, without whom we cannot imagine our family at all. My husband’s mother: now ninety-six, an independent, dignified little woman of staunch faith, still with beautiful snowy, softly curling hair, her quiet good humor ever encouraging me and bearing with my idiosyncrasies as a daughter-in-law. My mother: youthful and active, loyal, generous, devoted, her pretty smile and girlish giggle as disarmingly a part of her as they surely were when she was ten. My father: distinguished, the doting grandfather, true patriarch, moral authority of the clan, leader not through force but through superior judgment, integrity, and vision; mentor in the intellectual formation of all of us.

The fourth grandparent, Pappy Joe, my husband’s father, has been missing from the table for a decade and a half. Although Margaret recalls him only through story, David and Catherine remember him well, a bald, friendly man who prized order and who greeted everyone with a smile lit by crinkly brown eyes and punctuated with a voice made gravelly by throat surgery. He had taken me in immediately as a daughter-in-law, assuming that anybody Billy chose as a wife should be unquestioned. During rose season I could count on Pappy Joe presenting me with a weekly bouquet from the supply he grew in his backyard.

 

When I look more closely around the table, I see us as we were years ago — David as a happy little boy in Sears Toughskin jeans, shoveling in his food, swinging his feet under the table. He has positioned a small Matchbox Chevrolet next to his glass of milk. Catherine is there in a puffed-sleeve red plaid dress, humming as she eats, secure with a miniature Fisher Price doll beside her plate. Margaret is in a highchair set on a plastic drop-cloth at my end of the table. She is mashing pieces of carrot into her mouth and trying to make her brother and sister laugh. Bill, with more hair than now, is at the far end of the table, attempting to relate to me the events of his day but being continually interrupted by distractions at the table.

Then, as I look on, I see a brown-eyed little girl — something like Catherine, something like Margaret, but yet not like them. Instead of dark shiny straight hair, this little girl has dark curly hair. It is I, Anne Husted, age eight, seated at the round oak table on Audubon Road, with my mother and father and my maternal grandparents, who live with us. My two-year-old brother David is clambering up and down off a window seat behind my father’s chair. He is a fine, strong little fellow in short red pants. He has a perfectly round head and a sweet smile. I am exceptionally fond of him, but right now I am bored, and I think I am sleepy. My daddy and grandpa are talking politics, which I don’t think is interesting at all. I hear them talking about President Truman. We have had pot roast and lima beans for supper, the work of my grandmother. My mother brings on the dessert, cherry cobbler. They always divide the work in the same way — my grandmother fixes the meat and vegetables, my mother the salad and dessert.

 

My grandmother laughs and delivers one of her funny, homely sayings. I never forget these sayings: that somebody is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or that someone else is as poor as Job’s turkey, or that yet another doesn’t have the manners of a louse or the sense God gave geese. My grandfather, too, has some expressions that I think are funny. He is always referring to somebody as an old skinflint, and he calls a bicycle a wheel. My grandfather is a handsome man, with chiseled, regular features; he is probably the best-looking member of our family. His deep-set dark-gray eyes always look kind, and he often smiles. He has awfully big ears, though, but perhaps they show up because he is thin. Grandpa has scarcely ever given me or anyone else a cross word. Even more than my mother he has the Walden easy gentleness. I wish my grandpa would hug me sometimes. I know he loves me, but I wish he would be more demonstrative. My grandmother, whom I call Gonga, says that Grandpa has chronic bronchitis and is afraid of giving people germs. Once Grandpa took me on an errand to the gas station in Irvington, our local shopping area. As we crossed the street and walked along the sidewalk, I reached up and took his hand. He in return squeezed my hand quite firmly and did not let go until we had arrived at our destination. All the while I skipped along, consumed with joy.

My grandmother is twelve years younger than my grandfather. She broke her engagement to a wealthy young farmer in order to marry Grandpa. I see my grandmother’s animated face at the table, her gray eyes lively with mirth, her rimless glasses slipping partially down her nose. Unlike her friends, she has never cut her hair; she wears it, however, not in an elegant French twist but in a haphazard roll that she anchors at the back of her head with a few old-fashioned hairpins. Too unconscious of herself to be stylish, she has no time to spend primping. She wears matronly dresses that fit her overweight frame and black orthopedic oxfords that I love to clomp around in when she leaves them beside her bed. I cannot imagine a stylish grandmother. I cannot imagine that kind would be any fun. But Gonga is the most fun of anyone I know. Not only does she thrive in her role as matriarch and welcome everyone into the sympathetic warmth of her motherly sphere, but she also revels in being an entertainer, a comedienne, a cheerleader. When my parents go out for the evening, Gonga and I indulge in our favorite pastime. We prop up in pillows in her bed and look at the old Charles Dana Gibson books. She tells me stories of when she was a girl being reared by her maternal grandparents. She tells me how she rode in the buggy making house calls with her country doctor grandfather; how she volunteered to dress the dead infant next door for its funeral because the family was overcome with grief; how she listened through the door when her grandmother was ill and heard her aunts conferring on what would be done with “that child” if her grandmother should die; how a boy threw a snake into the boat she was in and she screamed and jumped out, even though she could not swim; how she ate too much at the young people’s picnic and, to relieve her discomfort, ducked into the outhouse, unbuttoned her dress, stripped off her expensive new waist-cinching corset, and pitched it into the privy, bringing on a scolding by her grandmother, who pronounced her a glutton. I hear Gonga wind stories about our family tree. I hear tales of Aunt Nerve with her twelve children; of Uncle Bob, who came to stay with Gonga and Grandpa for two weeks and stayed twelve years; of my mother when she was two; of my mother when she was eight, like me, and got glasses, discovering that now she could see the flowers in the draperies. I hear Gonga tell of her sister-in-law who is in her nineties, thirty years older than Gonga. I gather this sister-in-law, Aunt Anna, is our only rich relative, since she has always had a butler and a maid. She is a Catholic, too, which none of us is.

Sometimes I sense it is hard for my parents to live with Gonga and Grandpa. There is some harmless bickering between Gonga and my mother and my father that sometimes ruffles the peace, and yet the bickering ultimately does not mean much. My grandmother and my father, two strong personalities, never assert victory and have a deep affection for each other. For me the richness of three generations under one roof is the backbone of my childhood. My grandmother commands a completely child-centered household, where tidiness, time-tables, and diversions outside the household are put aside in favor of caring for, doting on, listening to, making over my brother and me. In my view my friends who have no grandparents, especially no grandmother to color their days with the vivid primaries of her vivacity, are deprived indeed.

Once a year we have a visitor at our oak table. It is Mary, my father’s mother. I have never called her Grandmother; she prefers being addressed by her name. Even though Mary is much prettier than Gonga, I do not like it much when Mary comes. I am intimidated by Mary. For one thing, she does not look like a grandmother. Rather than house dresses, she wears suits in her favorite deep red and flowing, long-sleeved blouses. She wears rouge and lipstick and fashions her auburn hair in little curls along her forehead. I do like to watch Mary — her graceful hands, her glowing skin that bears no wrinkles, her intense brown eyes, her radiant smile, and her dimples. When she is at the table, everyone else looks pale. But when she is at the table, I feel silly and stupid; I am tongue-tied. Mary is formal; she expects children to live up to standards. Those words, “Will you play for me, dear?” send me into a terror. Only a hasty excuse by my mother can save me from revealing how dreadfully my piano playing suffers from long neglected practice. When Mary asks to see my drawings, I fare a little better. Mary herself plays and paints. She teaches shorthand and typing at a business school. She is also a reader in the Christian Science church. She talks to my father about Mary Baker Eddy until he changes the subject. My father does not seem quite himself when Mary comes. Since he lived with her only until his parents’ divorce when he was five, he really does not know her as a mother. Both my parents sit stiffly at the table. My mother is eager that my brother and I behave creditably. Only Gonga and Grandpa continue in their natural mode — my grandfather as his mild, courtly self, and my grandmother in her hospitable warmth. When Mary leaves, I am exhausted with good behavior. I usually throw a satisfying tantrum to clear the air.

Looking back at the scene years ago around the oak table on Audubon Road, I miss a character who should have been there — my father’s father, Seth. I never met him. He died long before I was born. My father was but eleven when Seth, a young man of thirty-five, died in an automobile crash. I know Seth from his pictures; my father looks a great deal like him. Seth had a keen, direct gaze and the tall, straight forehead and long upper lip of the Husted men. He had dreams of owning a successful apple orchard but never made a go of his business. Had I known Seth, I would have liked him. Everyone did. My father’s Aunt Ruth, Seth’s youngest sister, said he was the most popular member of the family.

Seth and Mary were divided in life by a bitter divorce, yet I think that in death these grandparents of mine are somehow back together, reconciled in at least something of the bond that united them when he was the confident young man and she the beautiful curly-haired girl in my ancestral photo album. And although I never knew Seth and never felt close to Mary, I nonetheless am grateful for their having lived, married, and passed on their life to me. The Husted-Church union of my father’s side produced a spicy mix of imaginative, artistic, visionary, bookish genes that complemented the thoroughly stable, placid gentleness of my mother’s Walden-Hupp line. Had it not been for the touch of the flamboyant and unexpected in the Husted line, the family would be dull indeed. Had it not been for the solidity of the Walden contribution, the family would be incapable of laying down anchor.

 

Now the cloud of witnesses who preceded my four grandparents around the table are in their seats — John and Martha Husted, Uzziel and Phoeba Church on my father’s side; Elijah and Margaret Walden, John and Nora Hupp on my mother’s side. The door at the rear of the stage continually opens to reveal earlier and earlier witnesses whose names I know but about whom I know less and less — Nathan; Reuben junior and senior; David; Moses; Angell; and finally Robert, the first Husted in this country, who sailed from Weymouth, England, in 1635, settled at Mount Wollaston, south of Boston, and then moved in 1640 to Greenwich, Connecticut, where he was reported to have lived temporarily in a wigwam. On the other side of the water the identity of the witnesses fades out. The names fuzz into a generic Husted, which means “the place where there is a house,” or housestead. My very name, then, signifies that I am to be rooted in a household. No wonder I am earthbound, loathe to leave my anointed, appointed place. I am not sure where the ancient witnesses lived in England — some definitely in Somerset, Dorset, and Norfolk, but also perhaps in Kent and the Isle of Wight. At some point those ancestors must recede into the past of the medieval yeoman and then of the Anglo-Saxon settler and finally of the Neolithic Stone Age primitive. Ignorant as I am of these witnesses, they yet gave me life, handing on through one marriage to the next, generation by generation, both the gene pool that would become specifically mine and the fragile thread of civilization that is common to us all.

 

As far as memory traces the names of the witnesses, there were no Catholics in the direct amity line. Once, however, we were all Catholics, and so the step I took with my conversion reunited me with the faith of my ancestors. It is meet and proper that this should be — a restoration of order that had been broken for five centuries. When my brother, together with his wife and children, made the same move into the church that I did, he sealed for our family the restoration for which I surely think the cloud of witnesses had been praying. The breaking of the bread around the table was once again united with the sacramental, sacrificial breaking of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.

We are here, the catechism says, to love, honor, and serve God and thereby to save our souls and be happy with the Lord in heaven. More specific about our purpose we cannot be for certain. Our unique mission specifically given to each of us will be ever veiled in mystery, veiled because we can never see how our tiny role fits into God’s total plan for salvation. One thing we do assume, however — and that is our responsibility to each other, not only to those living but also to those who have died and those who are to come. We are to tend those in our care, our parents, our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren. In all this caring for those in our charge, we by a thousand and one tiny ministries exercise what is surely our mission as members of the human race—to pass on civilization. Passing on civilization means handing on the faith that vitalizes civilization, for no true civilization exists that is not the framework built around man’s response to God’s call at a given time in history. There simply is no real culture that is not at heart the outgrowth of worship and of how man sees himself in God’s world. The civilization that grows laboriously out of the worship of God either remains rooted in faith or is dying. There is no in-between. Either we provide ways for our civilization to reflect the transcendent link between our everyday lives and the divine, or we hasten our civilization to a painful death from a secular blood-letting.

How faith and thus civilization is passed on is, of course, an enterprise of extraordinary delicacy. The passage is not guaranteed. Sometimes, even despite the best intentions, it does not take place. Certainly it does not take place simply by teaching children theology, although some basic doctrine is indispensable as the intellectual underpinning. It rather more takes place, I think, and as Professor Louise Cowan of the University of Dallas suggests, through the poetic imagination. Something must happen to fire a child’s poetic and moral imagination. Something must so kindle his imagination that his faith becomes identical with, what he loves, and the Lord becomes the One he lives and dies for. The saints show us the power of imagination. Though their grasp of doctrine is impeccable, what makes the difference is the degree to which their imagination fires them to love the Lord and to give their all for him.

 

The firing of imagination happens often through reading the work of a great writer who was so inspired. It happens even more universally through the daily life of a family, in which the collective memory of the ancestors is passed on and enhanced through stories, admonitions, and observations round the table. These stories, taken collectively and over years, have the possibility of firing the poetic and moral imagination of new pilgrims in each generation, who must discover what is to be the goal of their journey. We are a communal race. The spark that kindles the imagination in one soul can catch fire in another. Another’s words, whether we read them in a book or listen to them around a table, can inspire us with courage and a will to emulate the good that has so enthralled the imagination of our kinfolk, our friends.

By

Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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