In May of 2009 I sat down to dinner at a large table with about a dozen other people. Women and girls filled the table and greeted me warmly and asked me questions about my life. My presence at that dinner table was part of an interview for me to work and live in the home as a houseparent in a non-profit residential program.
I loved everything about it. The girls, the home, the town, the job. It was all so me. Well, I guess I should say I loved almost everything. At the dinner table my plate of chicken sat atop a bleach-stained and wrinkled placemat and my silverware lay across a faded floral napkin with frayed edges and a thread bare hole in the middle.
I'm willing to admit here that I've got aesthetic snobbery issues. I'm willing to admit that despite my love of [almost] everything during that job interview, those napkins bothered me. Why were obviously worn pieces of cloth still being used? These young women deserved the dignity of pretty, or at least neat, napkins!
Hospitality is in my blood, I toyed with the idea of becoming an interior decorator. I value things being pretty and welcoming and pleasant. While my emphasis on where those things should fall in the scheme of important things has changed over the years, my heart is still firmly rooted in making spaces welcome and hospitable - and in my head that has often meant "nice." While it may sound silly, I was literally kind of sad for the people who lived in that house that their napkins had holes.
Fast forward a few months and I'm packing up my apartment. Getting rid of most of my belongings, putting things I love into storage, and selecting the bare minimum to move with me 800 miles to my new job as a houseparent. As I sorted through my kitchen I pulled out my napkins, and placed them in the "Take to Chicago" pile with a smile.
Now, my napkins were not fancy. They were simple linen squares in a neutral color. But thy were clean, the color was consistent, the hem was in tact, and there were no holes. I had laundered them carefully during the two years I had used them and folded them as soon as they exited the dryer. They were clean and neat and wrinkle free. I would take them with me and replace those worn and faded things I had seen.
The napkins got put into the linen drawer at my new home and job. I threw out the torn and frayed ones. Over the next three years as countless meals were served at that large dining table they were put into rotation with the other napkins. They got tossed in the laundry hamper after our family dinner each night. Laundered, folded, and put away back in a drawer for the process to repeat the next day.
At the end of the summer of 2012 as I prepared to leave my job as a houseparent and move on to grad school in Philadelphia I was organizing the dining linen cabinet and ran across a couple of those napkins that had I had brought with me years before.
They were splattered with bleach spots. A couple of thready holes found their way into the fabric and the hems were tattered and frayed. Evidence of hundreds of meals and cycles through the washing machine. Evidence of laughter at dinner and stories of the day. Evidence of tables full of food and a chorus of "pass the .. . " for ten minutes while we all filled our plates. Evidence of chore time and the labor to wash it, fold it, put away, and re use it all over again.
For the three years I had lived in that house, I had not had sole control over those napkins. I did not launder them myself, careful of temp and cycle and detergents. I was not there every time they were put away to ensure they were folded and not crammed. The napkins got swept up into the life of a busy house and were part of that community. With so many people and so much life to be lived, the napkins quickly got pushed off my radar of things about which to be concerned. While I will argue in favor of caring for our material goods, even meticulous laundering would not have preserved napkins that went through hundreds of washes. They were used as they should be and showed the signs of age.
With all my "aesthetic snobbery," I wouldn't trade those three years of laughter around the table, dinner clean-up, and loud music during chore time for the prettiest napkins of all.
That summer as I organized the linen cabinet, I took one of those napkins I brought with me to Chicago that was now faded and torn and placed it in my "take to Philadelphia" pile. It'll never be used as a napkin again I'm sure, but it's there in a memory box so that when I run across it one day in the future I'll remember those family dinners, the way that chore time became a dance party, and that some things are more important that aesthetics.