The Empty Table Syndrome

photo off blue goblets
Photo by Valeria Boltneva on

My husband just having retired over the summer from the Marines after thirty years of loyal servitude to the empire, we are in the midst of going through a period of adjustment. In military terminology, we are “transitioning.” What that amounts to, is that many changes are hitting us all at once. While we’re so far navigating these uncharted waters rather with ease, there have been bumps in the road to be sure. One such bump popped up in my road this morning, although it’s been on the horizon for a while. I just couldn’t recognize it at first for what it really is.

I’ve always been one who enjoyed and anticipated the holiday season with joy, no matter how much stress this time of year can bring. I try to ignore the secular machine that can destroy the enjoyment of all of it if allowed to do so. When I go into the market in the middle of July and find the fall décor and candies available, I’m able to by-pass it with little notice. When I find all the winter décor and candies available in September and discover we’ve by and large skipped all things having to do with the turkeys, I’m still able to turn my head with relative ease and pay all that no mind. I take the holidays as they come according to the calendar, unrushed and on no one’s schedule but my own. Retail giants will never have me stringing Christmas twinkle lights up in July next to the red, white, and blue bunting next to the plastic ghosts and jack-o-lanterns. Never happening.

I think it probable one of the reasons I’ve been able to navigate what I’ve fondly dubbed Hallowthanksmas over the years due to the standard practice of lumping it all together starting from July and ending with the New Year is that in our world time is precious. Now, I realize time is precious to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Our reason for holding the moments as individual swatches of time dearly and savoring them is because time apart exceeded time together quite a lot. We learned to treat our time as though we might not be afforded any more of it past the current moment, because truth be told there was no guarantee we would be. For the last half of my husband’s career, he spent more of it away than at home. Sometimes those away times came during the holidays. Time is such a valuable commodity and we are given a finite amount of it on this earth.

Early on in my life as a military bride, I learned that as part of something bigger than myself, there were a whole lot of people sailing in the same boat we were. There were times we were far away from family with no way of making it home for the holidays, and it was in those times I learned to appreciate the family we were, the lot of us stuck on bases all over the world. It was with this in mind, the realization that so many of us were together in our aloneness, I began to open my home on every single holiday we were home to anyone who wanted to share our table. This practice began in Okinawa where our first Christmas there I had over 25 people in our tiny 800 square foot apartment for a meal and fellowship. That was the year of the great Christmas feast disaster. Looking back on it now, we laugh at what a catastrophe it was, although it could have been much worse. I managed to catch the oven on fire while heating rolls. My turkey had dripped over into the bottom of the miniature size appliance (all the appliances are smaller there than American versions, you see) and I didn’t catch that this had happened until one of our friends informed me in a completely nonplussed way that we had a problem. When I came to grips with the fact he wasn’t joking, let’s just say grits and gravy was the least of what flew out of my mouth. Holy collards! A few minutes later, with soda ash drifting throughout the house and the pies covered in it, the fire was out. We dusted ourselves off and ate what was salvageable. My Okinawan English students wanted to know if every American Christmas was that exciting. They can be, sure, but normally it’s because every family in America has their Griswold moment or two. I know we’ve had more than our allotted share of those over the years.

Every year since then, every holiday we were home, I had as many troops as wished to come over who didn’t have anywhere to go or couldn’t get home for their family traditions. There have been a few more disasters, but fewer of those than stellar successes. Sometimes I’ve cooked for days in anticipation of the big event. It brought the greatest joy to my heart seeing my table full and overflowing with a rainbow of people from all backgrounds, every nationality, religion, color, creed, and belief. We gathered as a whole. We swapped stories. We lent our landline to those who needed to call home (in the old days smart phones weren’t the norm). We played games and sang and laughed and danced. Sometimes, we cried. We were a family, as rag tag as we were. And every year some of the faces changed, because in that family people came and went as regular as clock work to other stations, aboard ships, and off to war.

About eighteen months ago, my husband and I went to our first transition assistance conference designed to help us make the leap from military life to that of plain old Joe and Jane civilian type. It prepared us for many things. What it didn’t prepare me for was my table being empty this year.

A couple of weeks ago, I told my husband something was off. I felt a little weird this year getting in the frame of mind that the holiday season was upon us. Where has the year gone? I couldn’t put my finger on what this feeling was exactly, although on some level it seemed familiar. Last week, I went to buy a turkey. Then it occurred to me, why do I need a whole turkey? That should have been a red flag, but I brushed it aside and moved forward buying the whole turkey anyway because they were on sale and well, honestly, who doesn’t like all the leftover goodies you can create? Then while looking for the ingredients to some of our favorite sides, I realized that most of them aren’t so easy to whittle down to a recipe for two. So we decided on two sides that were easy to prepare for a couple and moved on. Yesterday, I pulled my small turkey out of the refrigerator so I could roast it and bone it, have that part of our meal ready, only to find after seven days of being in the refrigerator it was still a bit frozen. I all but snarled at that poor bird. I finally got it thawed using the cold water every fifteen minutes in the sink method and got it in the roasting pan only to find the pan wouldn’t fit in my miniature oven. (No, we’ve not moved back to Japan. We bought a house that was built in 1954 and had to special order appliances to replace those that we inherited with the house—and the versions we had to replace are MUCH smaller than modern day versions.) I snarled at the oven, dragged out my electric roaster, and commenced to roasting the stubborn bird on the counter top. Then I snarled at my husband.

What was wrong with me?!

This morning I woke up to an empty house, and an empty table. And I cried.

After all the transition conferences and classes, after all the preparing for the retirement years we’ve done, nothing prepared me for this moment I would realize that my family dynamic has once again changed. It changed when I left my parents’ house, an eager bride to a United States Marine. It changed when our son became a man and flew out of the nest. It changed randomly over the years as the faces at our table changed, and those tragic times came along one of us in that family lost someone close leaving an empty chair. I survived all those changes, survived all those years of sacrifice and separation in joyful anticipation of this new phase of our life. We’ve finally arrived, only to be faced with yet one more change, and my heart is a little bit broken.

This empty table syndrome is somewhat reminiscent of the empty nest days, but different somehow, too. When the nest emptied, it was never totally empty. Our son would pop in now and then, come by for holidays as he could get here, this wasn’t one of those years. He has a small family of his own now and a whole passel of in-laws. I remember what it was like juggling two sides of a family with only so many days off a year. We support him in whatever he needs to do to stay sane and keep everyone involved happy. But this, this empty table, this has me on my heels this morning. I know just like all the other changes, eventually I’ll make it through and figure out one day what the new normal is, find what it is we will fill the whole with. But today is not that day.

I bid you all a happy and safe day and weekend. And for those of you going through a change in your normal today, know you are not alone and this too shall pass.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s