Setting the Table by Holly M McGhee
September 5, 2017, marked the publication of Come with Me, a picture-book collaboration I made with my close friend, Belgian artist Pascal Lemaitre.
We dedicated Come with Me to Pascal’s mother-in-law, Yvette Pierpaoli, who devoted her life to refugees—she was a humanitarian who died in the line of duty for Refugees International, in Kosovo, in a car accident. It was she who wrote, “though at the level of the individual our actions are as light as a cloud, united they can change the color of the sky.”
Because of Yvette, Matt Dillon and Sam Waterston, both deeply involved with Refugees International, joined us on stage at our launch celebration in New York. RI is a “powerful voice for lifesaving action,” their job is to “shine a light on the real problems, and make recommendations to policy makers at the highest levels to help shape responses to those in need.” And so our discussion at the launch was about storytelling, as it is the individual stories of the refugees that ignite change.
Matt introduced our book and talked about Yvette, and after that, we had a rich conversation, moderated by Julie Burstein. Midway through the evening, Matt said, “Children are going to read that book and they’re going to make it their own.” But he also had a question: “The little girl, she sets the table . . . it’s very nice, but why, why did that end up in there?”
“Her mama cooked,
and the girl set the table,
piece by piece,
as she’d always done.
Plate in the middle.
Knife and spoon to the right.
Fork on the left,
napkin by its side.
Nobody had asked me that before. And as I sat on stage, in a packed room of people, my first response to Matt was that it harkened back to my days as a child in 4-H, in the rural land of upstate New York. Each year, every 4-Her in my club put on a demonstration, for which we were awarded a red, white, or blue ribbon. My first one was in elementary school, and I demonstrated “how to set a table.” It was pretty easy because I was simply sharing something we routinely did at home, before supper at 5:00. We didn’t have much money or fancy food, but one of us four kids set the table, every single night. It marked the end of the afternoon and the beginning of evening.
But then Julie, our moderator, pushed me further. She asked, “Is there something about that action—I mean, we’re bringing order to chaos when we set the table . . .”
She brought me right back to six years prior, when our oldest child was very, very ill, extremely depressed and hearing voices, sometimes unable to read or play piano, often times gone off in her mind to a place she called “rainbow tomato land” . . . the doctors prescribed anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medications for her . . . we tried everything they said for months and months, and she didn’t seem markedly better. She was bullied and paranoid and the doctors suggested she would need a caregiver all the way through college and beyond . . .
It was overwhelming and we were all afraid—
But there was one thing I always did when nothing seemed to be working. I’d pull out a drawer of clothes from my daughter’s bureau, and then I’d fold each item into a tiny little perfect square. I gave order to the chaos in that one teensy corner of the world . . . which helped me go on in a time of utter despair. The ability to keep going eventually led to the correct diagnosis—neuropsychiatric Lyme disease; from there, my daughter could begin to heal—a process that took several years—but now she is well, a brilliant musician, a college freshman, who called me the other day sounding happier than I have ever heard her sound.
In Come with Me, the little girl is overwhelmed by what she sees on tv. Her parents do some very ordinary things with her, saying hi to people on the subway, grocery shopping, and asking her to set the table, like she’s always done. They help her give order to the chaos. So that eventually she is ready to face the world on her own. And she is greeted by a little boy across the hall—together they venture out.
The boy notices a ladybug on the little girl’s shoulder and they get closer . . . And then something magical happens—the little girl gives her hat to a child she meets outside. It is this act of kindness, which Pascal added to the story, that brings the three kids together . . . From there they share the sidewalk chalk and draw beautiful pictures, and the community comes together through the ritual of drawing. The children make a difference.
I think about one of my favorite poems, which I learned in high school, by William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963:
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
So, in answer to Matt, who asked why the dishes are there . . . They are there because just like the poem says, everything depends upon the ordinary . . . Those simple gestures and traditions, at the level of the individual, can give order to the chaos. There is meaning in the rituals.
Which also brings me back to today and the work of Refugees International, helping people around the world and also right now reaching out to those displaced by hurricanes. As Alice Thomas says in a recent blog post on the RI site, “The succession of these record-breaking disasters leaves one with the sensation of treading water in the midst of a violent ocean storm: having been struck by the first strong wave, and just as you come up gasping for air, a more violent one hits.”
These refugees have no table to set, no way to feel that small sense of order in the midst of chaos. Which makes our responsibility even greater. Every child can be a tiny leader, and as Matt said, they can “make it their own,” just like the little girl in Come with Me.
Holly M. McGhee is the author of the middle-grade novel, Matylda, Bright & Tender. She has also written picture books and a chapter-book series under the pen name Hallie Durand, including Mitchell’s License and Mitchell Goes Bowling. A literary agent too, she lives with her family in Maplewood, New Jersey. You can visit her at hollymcghee.com.