I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Nancy L. Agneberg’s reflection “Living with a Sacred Object: The Humble Harvest Table.”
The first piece of furniture we bought when we moved to an 1800’s farmstead, Sweetwater Farm, in rural Ohio was a dining room table. A primitive, antique harvest table, similar to one where my grandmother on the family farm cleaned chickens for Sunday dinner or where the farmhands gathered mid-afternoon, between dinner and supper, for “lunch.” That table was laden with platters of egg salad sandwiches, pitchers of Kool Aid, and homemade cake or brownies.
We found our version of that table at a favorite antique shop. Nine feet long with wide boards, a solid piece on sturdy legs. Stained and pock marked. Worn, used, loved.
On move-in day, accompanied by barn swallow song, my husband and I maneuvered the table through the Dutch doors on the front porch. Once in place the table looked as if it had always been there.
Most days a vase or pitcher of flowers rested on the harvest table. Gladiolas or sunflowers or Black-eyed Susans in the summer. Bittersweet and mums in the fall. And evergreen branches and holly in the winter. Alongside the flowers might be a basket of apples, a pumpkin or two or three, a platter of tomatoes or gingersnap cookies.
When I baked cookies, I cooled them on the table. I addressed and signed Christmas cards at the table, stacking the completed ones on one end, still leaving room for our evening meal. I folded laundry and planned menus for parties and other gatherings; cookbooks sprawled in front of me. Sometimes I moved my laptop from my office, preparing the classes I taught.
One year, despite not being crafty, I made Valentines at that table, cutting pink and red hearts and filling envelopes with heart and cupid confetti. I wondered if the children of the table’s previous owners had glued doilies to big red hearts, as they sat at the table. I wrapped Christmas and birthday presents there; the table’s size perfect for the unwieldy wrapping paper.
When our first grandchild was born and came to visit, we lay her on towels spread on the table after her bath and soothed lotion into her unblemished skin, tickling her, making faces at her, delighting in her giggles. When she was a bit older, we pulled a highchair up to the table, for she was the guest of honor.
We ate our dinner each night at one end of the table, often by candlelight. The table was our altar, its welcoming surface a call to prayer. We didn’t always say grace, but we felt grace. We received grace.
And when my mother in Minnesota called to tell me her colon cancer had returned, I sank into a chair, my elbows on the table, one hand clutching the phone and the other covering my eyes. After that I called her every day when I wasn’t with her. I looked out over the valley beyond, gripping that table, knowing it was strong enough to receive my grief and fear.
On Thanksgiving Days, I layered the table with a quilt in dark, rich colors, antique plates painted with turkey images, and pearl-handled flatware passed on to me by my mother. In the center pumpkins and squashes trailed almost its entire length.
The first Thanksgiving after my mother died my father drove from Minnesota, and we filled the table with dear friends to receive his loneliness. Another Thanksgiving, before our son and daughter-in-love, Cricket, were married, her parents joined us, and we caught her mother, Jane, surreptitiously turning over one of the turkey plates to see the maker. Johnson Brothers. We all got the giggles, and the ice was broken as two families merged into one, bound together by love for our children.
Little did we know that was Jane’s last Thanksgiving.
Group after group gathered at our table. We hosted parties for Bruce’s colleagues and Christmas parties for neighbors and other friends, completely covering the table with Christmas cookies and other desserts. When our church was in crisis, Sweetwater Farm became a temporary house church with potlucks after outdoor services. The day after Geof and Cricket’s wedding, our friends and family congregated at the Harvest Table for brunch and reviewed the happiness of the days.
I led retreats and convened women’s spirituality groups at the farm, and instead of meeting in the living room in front of the fireplace, we gathered at the Harvest Table. Ah, the wisdom that table absorbed, and the deep and honest sharing it seemed to inspire.
We welcomed our children and their friends. We welcomed extended family and friends, long time ones, as well as new. I welcomed those who came to sit with me in spiritual direction and those who brought a meal as I recovered from cancer surgery.
Each time I passed the table, whether my arms were full of towels, still warm from the dryer, or I was heading purposefully into the kitchen to start dinner, my hand lightly skimmed the surface, just one edge, unconsciously, automatically. My touchstone, a sacred object, a reminder of God’s presence in my life and a nudge to be God’s presence in the world.
The Harvest Table absorbed pain and hurts, yearnings, and questions, along with joy. At that table we listened with the ears of our heart, and love, trust, and acceptance grew.
Sometimes all that was needed was to come to the table.
That humble Harvest Table.
Nancy L. Agneberg is living her sacred seventies fully and gratefully in her many roles, including mother, grandmother, spouse, friend, writer, teacher, hometender, spiritual director, church member, voracious reader, labyrinth walker. Read her perspectives on aging as spiritual practice on her blog, LivingonLifesLabyrinth.com