When I was a child growing up in our tiny homestead, it was often my job to set the table. I would tip toe across the cold linoleum floor of our kitchen, reach up into the cupboard and pull down a stack of plates. Most of the dinner plates were different, gathered from here and there. As the children in our family accidentally broke one, another would be acquired from a yard sale or a thrift store. My mother had a gorgeous set of china that my father had brought her back from Vietnam, all matching with a single pink rose painted across them, but those were only brought out for special holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter.
Most of the time, I set out the mismatched ones. Some white with little brown crown like designs on the border, some tan with dark brown fleur-de-lis in the middle, some cream with something that reminded me of mushrooms, but probably were pansies. I set them around the table often waiting for guests to arrive.
There were seven of us regularly at that table for the five years between when my little brother was born and my oldest brother graduated. I think the table was about three feet by five feet but I remember playing under that table, running little matchbox cars on the decorative bottom, so I may be off on the dimensions. Things appear so much bigger when you are little. How we fit all seven of us around that table was a miracle in itself, but often we would have guests over for dinner.
My dad would invite Spit Rats, young workers on the slime line in the cannery who would live in tent villages on the Homer Spit. They would come in their xtra tufs and knit hats, always smelling vaguely like fish and campfire smoke. My parents would invite ABIers, Bible students who came to study for free at the Alaska Bible Institute and were far from home and often penniless. They would invite singles or couples from church over for Thanksgiving. I remember counting out 13 or 15 plates for the people who would be coming over. I have no idea how they all fit in that cabin.
I remember those times being joyous: sitting around a full table with a huge bowl of air-popped popcorn and hot chocolate; playing Dutch Blitz with a teacher from ABI who was too busy analyzing the symbolism of the numbers to play the game; my mother’s delicious roast receiving compliments as people passed around the plate for seconds. We were privileged to get to know people from all over the country with different backgrounds and ideas .
My mom told me that she was once embarrassed to have mismatched plates when she would have guests over until another woman told her that it wasn’t the plates that were important. That became symbolic in my eyes as I watched my parents employ their gift of hospitality. Things didn’t have to be perfect because they never would be. The fact that they had an outhouse for a bathroom, no couch, a 12 inch black and white TV and a wood stove did not stop them from asking people to share their home and food with them. There is no way some mismatched plates would.
For a few years, we have been in a transition point in our house with the floors unfinished. Because of this, I have been hesitant to have people over because they will see the mess. We finished up most of the floors in the spring and have been having guests over all summer and sometimes people drop by when there is laundry baskets out and dirty dishes in the sink and no quick edible food to be had. I am learning to remember the lesson of the mismatched plates. They have not come over because my house is perfect. If I am waiting for that day, I might as well lock my doors permanently. There is simple joy in opening our home, learning the stories of others, sharing laughs and sometimes disappointments, breaking bread together, and sharing a glass of wine or cold beer.