The dining room table that sits in a corner of my apartment is a storehouse of memories. Until I went to college, my parents, my two brothers and I sat around it and ate together almost every night of the week. My parents are no longer alive. My brothers will certainly have their own memories of the table that brought us together and divided us from one another.
My parents, Raskin and Millie, were members of the Communist Party from about 1934 to 1948, when they slipped away, without giving up their belief in a communist society which, my father explained, would operate according to an idea made famous by Karl Marx: “To each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” A man of contradictions, my father never ceased to surprise me. When I was 22 and living with a woman, 18, he sat me down and said, “We’re not bohemians. We’re communists. You’re going to get married.” He believed in the institution of marriage and lived with my mother for 38 years.
As an adult, I once complained to my mother that she and my father never said, “We love you.” She looked at me and said, “But we put a roof over your head, gave you clothes to wear and made sure that there was plenty of food on the table.” She and my father endured the Depression of the 1930s. “If you are hungry day after day you never forget it,” my father explained. It was hard for him to stop eating when he was already full, or to pull him away from the table, which was the first thing he and my mother bought when they came into money. “I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from,” he added. “So I kept eating when I had food in front of me.”
At home on Long Island during the nuclear age, my father sat at the head of the table, my mother on his right hand. I sat as far away from my father as could be and still be together with everyone else. My brother Daniel sat opposite my mother, and my other brother Adam sat opposite me. All of us, except Adam, ate the meals—heavy on meat and potatoes—that my mother cooked and served. Adam would make himself peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on rye bread —signs of his rebellion—and eat them, while we tried to ignore him.
My father expected us to engage in “philosophical discussions.” For example: “You are in a boat at sea with 12 others, including women and children, with only enough water for two days. Who gets the water and who doesn’t and why?” There was never one “right” or one “wrong” answer. The point was to explore the possibilities.
I suppose I had as happy a childhood as I could have had in a white, middle class, suburban, atheist, lefty family. My brothers and I had chores to do: set the table, clear the dishes after the meal was over and wash them at the kitchen sink, while listening to rock ‘n’ roll on the radio. Outside chores: raking leaves, weeding the garden and cutting the grass. When I was in my 20s—a college graduate with a teaching job—I looked back at those years in the late 1940s and for much of the 1950s when McCarthyism was alive and well. In school, we were supposed to keep silent about the lefty books by Howard Fast that we read and the folk music by “subversives” such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly. I tried to blend-in, played football and belonged to the neighborhood gang.
Little by little, I recognized that my family wasn’t a democracy, that my father aimed to create “socialism in one family,” an adaptation of Stalin’s effort to create “socialism in one country,” rather than wage what Leon Trotsky called “permanent revolution.” When my brother Daniel was an adult, he decided that we had grown up in a “Stalinist cult” in which our father was a little Joe Stalin.
He accused me of being our father’s “henchman.” Adam was far more forgiving. Curiously, he carried on heated political discussions with our father far longer than Daniel or I. In the early 1970s, Adam joined the food co-op movement and insisted that the most effective way to change the world was to change what people ate, where they shopped, where food was grown, how it was distributed, and the culture of the family (or the commune). My father laughed at his notions, which he dismissed as “a banana revolution,” and argued that the only way to change society was with a disciplined party that would overthrow the bourgeoisie and enshrine the working class.
My father insisted that the house rules he laid down were necessary for our family to survive as an economic unit and not be torn apart by the anti-communist crusade that swirled around us. We had prescribed roles to play and were not supposed to deviate from them. “I go to the office to make money to support everyone,” my father said. “You boys have to go to school to be educated. Your mother has to keep house, make sure there’s food on the table and raise you properly.”
My father’s system came apart in the 1960s. He and my mother sold their home, shipped their belongings, including the dining room table, to California, bought 4 & 1/2 acres for $15,000, built a modest house for $35,000 and joined the back-to-the-land movement. When I asked my father why he and my mother settled in Sonoma, he said, “If it was good enough for Jack London, it will be good enough for your mother and I.” (London, a lifelong member of the Socialist Party, left Oakland in 1905, settled in Sonoma, raised horses and pigs and tried to create a co-operative community. He died at 40, before his dream became a reality.)
My father grew organic fruits, berries and vegetables. He sold the berries to a “natural food” store, became a hippie and told his hippie friends, “I’m a socialist.” My mother joined the U.S. China Friendship Society, traveled to the People’s Republic of China and embraced the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The Sino-Soviet split exploded my parent’s marriage. My mother refused to cook and eat meat, switched to tofu, brown rice and steamed vegetables. My father often sat by himself at the dining room table, now the lone patriarch. When he died of cancer at 67—he had been a two-packs of Camels a day smoker— my mother moved to Berkeley and became a kind of matriarch to a younger generation of radical feminists. I visited, sat with her at her small kitchen table and watched her slow decline.
When she died at 80, I inherited the house in Sonoma and the big table. Years later, the redwood deck began to disintegrate. My father had built it with his Wobbly pal, Joe Germain. My pal, Michael Saaks, a carpenter and woodworker, took the deck apart, salvaged the best lumber and built a table ten feet long and three feet wide, which I used when I hosted feasts and banquets. Every time I moved, I dragged both tables around with me, for years. I couldn’t imagine selling them or giving them away, though when I moved to San Francisco, I downsized and gave away the table Saaks built. It was too big for my small apartment. Something told me to keep the old family table.
I am looking at it right now, folded up and compact with a bowl containing fruit and another with quarters and dimes. It reminds me of the meals with my family in the 1950s, when dysfunctionality was the name of the game, and when patriarchy reigned in the home where I grew up and in the homes of my friends with their Republican parents. We all lived in nuclear families, like Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their two sons, David and Rickie, that we watched on TV, as though to persuade ourselves that we were normal. I know now that we were and that we weren’t, and that contradictions were built into that table, where two cultures, one of the Old Left the other of Cold War America, met, co-existed and collided.
In his book, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, Adam Gopnik tells a story that I’ve witnessed. Indeed, I’ve enjoyed five course meals with a French mom and a French dad, and their two French sons. The French aren’t alone. American culture is also built around the table where food is shared and enjoyed, especially at holidays, from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July, and from Passover to Easter and the end of Ramadan, which my brother Adam has observed for years. During Ramadam, like a good Muslim, he didn’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset.
As a young man, I wanted to run as fast and get as far away as possible from my own family and from “the family” as an institution. I remember sitting at the infamous dining table during a last supper of sorts, before my parents moved to California. I looked from face to face and told myself that nothing was more toxic than the bourgeois American family, though I got married, settled down and raised a family of my own. My wife and I and our son used the table she inherited from her mother, who had been a single parent, didn’t believe in rules and didn’t put food on the table. Her daughter had to fend for herself. As Sly Stone sang in “Everyday People,”: “Different strokes for different folks.”
This Thanksgiving, which some of my relatives think of as “The National Day of Mourning”—because of the genocide of American Indians—I will join my brother, Daniel, his two sons and his daughters-in-law, both Asians, and their Asian-American kids, as well as other relatives. We will sit down at a large table in San Francisco. We won’t have a patriarchy, but we will have diversity. We will break bread together, share turkey, stuffing, gravy and memories, be grateful we have survived the pandemic and feel sad about those who have died in distant lands and close to home. I’ll feel sad that we’ll never live in a society governed by what my friend Doris Lessing, the novelist, Nobel Prize winner and ex-communist, called “the sweetest dream.” “It’s not love, as you might think,” she told me when I visited her in London and ate the food she made. She added, “The sweetest human dream is for a utopian society governed by the notion, ‘to each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’” Amen.