The golden maple bowl was a big glowing half moon to my young eyes, fallen from the sky. Entering the dining room from the kitchen, it stood to the right of the doorway on three wooden legs positioned like a tripod to support it. It was wide-bellied and, suspended on its legs, almost half my size when I was five years old.
The room it occupied was filled with Heywood Wakefield furniture – a blonde oval dining table in the middle, with a matching mirrored buffet to one side to make the cramped room seem larger. A simple lighting fixture above the table gave the entire room an amber glow. It was a warm space you wanted to eat in together. We seldom did.
We were a family that came and went, catching meals on the fly in the kitchen when our stomachs signaled it was time. My father worked long hours as a policeman on the beat. My mother taught school far from home and came back tired and distracted. Meals were not times for social connection; they were practical necessities.
Except when my grandmother came with her culinary gifts in tow, none of which she had passed on to my mother. Then, the scents of blueberry muffins, freshly made applesauce, just-roasted beef and finger-formed meatballs filled the house and spilled out into the neighborhood when the windows were open. My brother and I arrived home from school deliriously hungry on the days she came to cook, and we would eat and talk with abandon as she stood nearby us at the kitchen table.
The dining room was never important in my childhood, at least not for dining. It mattered because it housed the bowl, the great big three-legged wooden bowl to the right of the doorway. The bowl was the designated repository for all our belongings when we returned home from school. Gloves, scarves, hats, bags, books, toys, miscellany all found their way there. Jackets were hung on the hooks at the back door, but everything else went into the bowl.
The bowl satisfied my mother’s need for tidiness at all costs. Messiness was painful to her, like a nagging injury; it put her in a bad mood. We were children, careless and carefree, while she was fighting to keep gloom at bay. She managed the challenge by tucking away our playthings in basement closets and crawlspaces, and by organizing the ones remaining in view meticulously on shelves. She managed by discarding whatever she considered excess without consultation from us. And she managed by allowing the bowl to absorb the overflow of our belongings, which, if left unattended on the floor, were like flotsam and jetsam to her, a wrack line of ugly childhood debris.
As a kid, l learned the value of neatness early to maintain peace in the house. My mother yelled less when our things were put away. I learned as I grew older to keep most of my life out of sight. The messy stuff – my doubts, my worries, my questions – went underground, unaddressed, My mother assumed oversight of all the early spaces in my life except a space deep inside me that she never chose to see.
What is curious to me still is how much I loved that big wooden bowl. It was a strategic weapon for my mother in her fight against mayhem and moodiness, but for me it became a one-of-a-kind safe space, sturdy and constant as a good friendship. Its familiarity was comforting when I came home from school to a quiet house. Its reliability was a reassurance when no one was around. It confined me, but it contained me as well. I always knew where to find my mittens on the way out the door.
Throughout her career as a clinical psychologist, Bonnie Chwast listened with great appreciation to the stories her patients told her. Now in retirement, she is finding time to tell some of her own.