There was an empty place at the table. Every night, at 6 p.m., there it sat, expectantly waiting for its occupant. A glass filled, a fork and knife flanking an empty plate, all resting atop a patterned placemat. Every night, at 6 p.m., there it sat. Empty. Always, always empty. But always, always set.
Every night, I sat and ate, staring at that seat, even though it was I who could not eat a meal without that place being set. For years, I carefully placed each item in its spot, making sure it was exactly how she liked it. I made sure to use the glass she liked, the fork with the floral etching at the bottom, the wood-handled knife. Every night for the past 15 years, I tended to her place at the table. Wishing. Hoping. Praying. That she would be there.
Some nights, I prepared a meal she loved. Pasta with red sauce and braciole. Or the sausage and peppers she always ate on Sundays. Others, it was the dessert I knew she always craved that I needed in the house. The pastries. The cookies. The pies. If I were to have her place set, the meal needed to match. Especially on the days I missed her most.
It was on those days that I talked to her as I ate. I told her how life has changed since she’d gone or about how warm it’s been this winter. I told her my worries and my sadness, my victories and my joys. I talked about how much I’ve grown, what I’ve done with my life, how I hoped she was happy — maybe even proud — with who I had become. When we talked, I could her cooing from her place at the table, “Come sei bella, come sei bella.” Just like always.
It was hard to talk to her some days. I would start, then quickly stop as my eyes welled with tears. In those moments, I chose to be quiet, to get through my meal as quickly as I could. It was then that I wanted her with me most. It was on those days when I wanted to sit next to her, take her hand, and run my fingers over her veins, then to her knuckles and fingertips. I wanted to feel the hands that fought their way to this country, that worked a sewing machine in a blisteringly hot factory, that raise three children, that cooked countless meals. I wanted to feel that she was real, not some figment of my imagination that existed only in my childhood brain. I wanted to know that she was alive, with me, right there, in that moment. Holding my hand just as much as I was holding hers.
And when these moments come, as they always do, I remember that she is with me, she always has been, from the day I was born into this very moment. I carry her name, and she carries me through life. She is not sitting at her place at the table. But she is there. I feel her. I hear in my mind, “Come sei bella.”
I finish my plate, and clear my place setting. I clear hers, too. Dinner is over, but she’s still here. She will be for a while. And that’s all I ever wanted.