For years, it’s been tradition at our Christmas table to set one empty place setting. It started when the children were little and we wanted to find a visible way to express that the day signified more than a red-suited Santa and a bazillion presents and a plate of cookies left out on Christmas Eve, only to magically disappear some time in the night. We wanted to impart that there was another magical experience that marked the day.
Thus, began the Empty Plate. The extra chair. The magic of belief.
When my mother, the children’s grandmother died, suddenly and oh so sadly, the only way to mute her profound and palpable absence that year was to add her spirit to the empty plate. We figured Jesus wouldn’t mind sharing.
The following year, we added Stanley the dog, who had somehow escaped the back yard and, during a night of wild abandon only a doggie Lothario would understand, ran lustfully into the street and was hit and killed by a car.
Each year, it seemed more lovely spirits were added to the empty plate; Rocky the gerbil who was squished accidentally in the door, assorted fish who found heaven at the flush of a toilet handle, a clumsy snake who had the misfortune to become a mouse’s quarry instead of the other way around.
The kids’ paternal grandparents.
We added a lost cat to the growing list … just in case, as well as, two desert tortoises who dug under the fence and ran off together. Then there was the year we added Pork Chop the calf who we had raised specifically to fill the freezer. I spent the day preparing a beautiful rib roast, courtesy of Pork Chop. As I recall, that was the first year the kids ate all their vegetables, while hardly touching the main course.
After the kids were grown, the empty plate tradition stuck. We just keep adding souls to that crowded place setting. Friends who became ill and died way too young. Unnamed homeless men and women who suffered under the weight of the streets. Loved ones and strangers alike were remembered with equal measure.
The worst time was that no good, rotten, horrible, terrible, very bad year when one of the kids passed away. We didn’t think we could get through that Christmas. That empty plate seemed half misery, half blessing. Nevertheless, it was set with extra care. The dinner blessing was mostly just gulping down tears and not saying anything … because we simply had no words.
Two years ago we added Dan’s father. This year, we’ll add his mother. Through all our years we’ve just kept adding people to that empty plate. It’s gotten to be a pretty heavy platter piled high with all its years of memories of loved ones missed during this tender season.
I think this year we’ll go back to Santa and his reindeer, with a little plate of cookies and a side glass of milk. I’ll happily volunteer to magically “disappear” those cookies. And the empty place setting at the Christmas table? Well, on second thought, maybe one more year …..