Some of my most potent childhood memories took place around a table. And I’m not even talking about eating. We’d often linger in our seats long after the meal was done, nibbling at fruit, cracking nuts, refilling glasses for wine and peaches. It’s when everyone’s personality truly surfaced, and we’d click into our familial roles: The bigmouths took to their podium and carried on; the worker bees cleared dishes and wiped crumbs; the restless kids escaped under the table; the nosy kids climbed someone’s lap for a view of the action. The soft spoken spouses sat back, kicking their beloved under the table when they thought a line was crossed. It could go on like this all night, and on holidays, it went straight through to midnight, when someone fired up the grill for sausages.
I was a restless kid with nowhere to escape. Sometimes I’d run off with my cousins, but I was just a touch young enough, or awkward enough, to not fit in completely. I was always the kid who stayed back with the adults. Even at school, in the playground, I’d talk to my classmates’ parents rather than my actual classmates. I’d befriend whatever parent was on “lunch duty,” promising myself I’d work on finding friends my age the next day. So I didn’t mind staying behind at the after-dinner table, and now, I’m glad I did.
The most memorable, inedible thing from our family table is my mom’s interlocking orange rings. She ate an orange every night, taking special care to peel it by carving vertical lines down the skin every few inches; then she peeled it back in wide panels.
Next, she’d take a piece of peel and cut a big circle out of it. Inside that, she’d cut a much smaller circle to create a thick O.
Then, the hard part: To be completely honest, I don’t know exactly how this part is done. I’ve gone through four oranges trying to duplicate her technique and only got it twice. Both times, I don’t know what I did, exactly. It sort of just happened. All I know is that she runs the knife’s tip through the perimeter of the O, almost slicing it into two separate rings but stopping about halfway.
It was almost like a nervous tick for her. Perhaps she did it to stay out of trouble; she’d stay focused on something tactile to keep from chiming in on an argument. Or maybe there are just certain parts of her Sicilian roots that will never leave her. I finally asked where the orange rings came from. She said it was something her family would do around their table in Sicily. Without TV, radio, or any form of entertainment in their three-room houses, they had to improvise. These orange rings became a popular game growing up, all the kids competing over who could cut the best set. Only they were using oranges from the groves around their town. So after playing, they’d hang their peels to dry then use them for tea. I haven’t taken it that far—I just don’t trust our C-Town oranges to be all that chemical-free.
As a kid I’d sit in wonder at my mom’s knife skills as she carved loop after loop. We’d line them up by size and imagine what they could be if they weren’t feeble orange peels. Jangly-hoop earrings, perhaps, or key chains. I wanted to loop them through my oversized t-shirts (remember, it was the ’80s), hang them from my ceiling, bring them to school and watch the other girls gawk. They’d make perfect bracelets for my dolls. Maybe even necklaces for my Playmobils. When I was finally allowed to use a knife we’d sit and cut together, peeling more oranges than we could possibly consume.
In all those years, I’d never known that this was an old pastime from her childhood. I’d thought she was just bored and crafty, sharing her fidgety creations with a restless kid. I’m glad for that now. The thought that something created in another lifetime, in another universe, practically, could sneak its way into American life and cozy up to our table is reassuring. That something borne from such humble beginnings could excite a restless city kid surrounded by toys and video games gives me hope. Because no matter how much time passes, and however many gadgets we have to keep us distracted, we can still reach back a few generations, over a few continents, and find things to keep us connected.