Ironworks. A chandelier—enormous, cumbersome—hangs from a heavy, black chain (same material) over my kitchen table. Deceptive to call it the kitchen table, since who ever heard of one eight feet long and almost four feet wide? In fact it’s the only dining table we have—except we don’t have a dining room. We have a kitchen. And this is where we entertain, catty-corner from the annoying double stainless sinks (try washing a soup pot without splashing, just try), across from the oven with the broken clock—this is where we accommodate eight to twelve, no problem, and twenty for Thanksgiving or Passover, squished on long, unfinished benches, gray and full of splinters. A neighbor, with a standing invitation, brings them from his own backyard. I take out the Murphy’s Woodsoap then, dust the cobwebs from between their legs, and cover them with throw pillows for the occasion, whatever it is.
But this chandelier, it’s a hand-me-down—it’s you-like-it-you-can-have-it—it’s the story of my life to end up with this sort of fixture, to admire it in somebody else’s house and find myself taking it home. And that’s what happened. Went to visit a movie-star friend in her big, old house. Drank coffee with her in her breakfast nook, at her regular-sized table, and on my way out, passed through the dining room (she has a dining room) where a crystal chandelier hung over an oval of polished mahogany, tinkled in the breeze coming through the French doors; meanwhile this one, this rough-hewn number, sat on the sideboard, looking uncomfortable. Well, but what chandelier wouldn’t look out of place on a sideboard, you ask? Chandeliers are supposed to hang from ceilings; that’s what they do. But this one—oddly proportioned as it is—was entirely anomalous in that elegantly appointed room. It just didn’t belong.
I stopped in front of it. “Beautiful,” I said.
“You like it, you can have it,” said my friend.
She carried it out of her house and hoisted it into the back of my car all by herself, lest I leave it behind.
“What is that?” asked Fred when he saw it sitting in the middle of the table.
“What is that?” asked Eliza, when she came home from school that afternoon.
Who could blame them, twenty-four arms, a black tarantula, an upside down octopus, a prehistoric bug; and nearly half those arms—generous (if primitive) loops that curved down and up again like the most dangerous theme park ride—missing the glass in their black filigree holders. The remaining votives—clear, green, blue, and amber, thick, pock-marked, evidently hand-blown—were glued somehow into the iron. So obviously artisan-made, one of a kind; picture a man in a leather apron, in leather gloves up to his elbows, picture a hot poker and tongs, picture him coming out of his cave into Mexican sunshine at the end of a long, soldering afternoon. Awkward as it is by day, at night, when the broken arms seem to disappear, it becomes an illuminated creature, each tentacle working overtime to compensate for others, detachable and removed, sitting in various states of disrepair—glass cracked or shattered or altogether missing—in a shopping bag in the back of my closet, behind the dust buster, and next to my scuffed winter boots.
Anyway. Everybody happy when I found a hook and chain strong enough to support it. When I got a hold of Bernie the Handyman, who came to the house and measured between the recessed lights, drilled into the ceiling smack in between, installed that big iron hook, plastered over the hole and lifted it up to hang it as if it had always been part of the plan.
Dinner party rituals: there’s the night before, leafing through cookbooks and recipes clipped from the newspaper. There’s getting up in the morning before everyone else, going through a half a pot of coffee all by myself while I firm up the menu. There’s making a list and shopping—and remembering (and congratulating myself for remembering) while I’m in the store, to buy heavy cream for whipping, and flat-leaf parsley, and a couple of yellow onions, because I’m not sure I have any at home in the onion drawer—even though I didn’t write down any of those things. There’s starting the eggplants for babaghanouj as soon as I walk in the door. Setting the table, washing the stemware, looking for tarnish on the backs of the dinner forks. There’s vacuuming and plumping the pillows and cleaning the bathrooms, and checking that the towels are fresh —and all of that before I’ve even begun to cook. There’s a trip down to the garden with the kitchen scissors. And if the roses aren’t blooming, the lantana, the potato vines, the geraniums, and the ivy very rarely let me down. There’s remembering to pick a lemon from the tree behind the deck. Funny, I don’t ask my kids to help, not much, and I wonder now if I’ve done them a disservice, cheated them of something important; that time I had with my own mother, when I was the one who set the table, plumped the pillows, arranged the posies for the downstairs powder room.
Last looks, they say, in my business, just before the camera rolls. Then the hair and make-up people bustle in and hover with combs and brushes and mirrors and gloss and blush, until the A.D.’s hustle them out again, and call for “background action.”
When everything else is done, and just before the company arrives—or just before they’re due anyway—I stand on a chair with a long wooden match and light the candles.
Dinah Lenney wrote Bigger than Life and co-authored Acting for Young Actors. Her essays have appeared inAGNI, Creative Nonfiction, LARB, Ploughshares, The New York Times, Brevity and elsewhere. Dinah teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.
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