I am now reading Sara Miles’s latest book, Jesus Freak, in which she tells a story of inviting 25 challenging high school students to help out in the food pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. Because they are working, they are invited to the lunch that all the volunteers eat together before the pantry opens. The kids are blown away. “No one ever put a tablecloth on for us before.”
I was raised with place mats for family meals. We knew it was a special dinner when my mother got out a tablecloth. There were tablecloths for when the table was closed down to seat four people, and for when it had one leaf, and for when it had two and would seat ten – 12 if we squeezed in.
I now have a table that opens out and a much smaller and much plainer collection of tablecloths. Many times we don’t use a tablecloth at all, opting for what we think of as a clean, modern look. But now I may re-think that. Perhaps there is a kind of universal language that says a tablecloth means the meal is special, the guests are honored.
I think plain white is the way to go. I have seen tablecloths in catalogues that would steal attention away from the food and even from the people. There are vivid colors and patterns with roosters or large bunches of grapes. Those might be fun once but for the kind of everyday sacredness I have in mind, it has to be white. All the better to show off the table setting before the meal begins and all the better to show off the crumbs and crumpled napkins and discreet stains at the end.
So I don’t promise to use a tablecloth every time – I still like the look of the wood grain – but I will look for more opportunities to “put a tablecloth on.”