The Blue Tray

I came unhinged over the blue tray.

It’s thick plastic, cheap, origin unknown.  I know that it has been in my parents’ house for a long time, since my childhood, because my dad ate dinner on it for as far back as I can remember.

He didn’t have dinner with us.  Couldn’t.  He got home late because of his work truck-driving, and so Mom always held back a portion of whatever we’d eaten for dinner and then reheated it for him when he came home.  He ate it on the blue tray in front of the TV while he relaxed.

Last night, at dinner, we were texting: Dad was curious about the Korean chicken I was eating, so I sent him a picture.  And a few minutes later he sent me one back of a rudimentary salad he’d rustled up from the kitchen: cucumbers and tomatoes lightly dressed.

He was eating on the blue tray.

I became so deeply and immediately sad, immediately burst into tears, that for a minute I didn’t even know what was wrong with me until I realize that somehow I have always, indelibly associated that tray with Mom.  I had spent eighteen years of nights watching her arrange dinners on it, sometimes helping carry it into Dad. 

“I got it,” Dad would sometimes say, reaching up to get the tray himself and arrange his dinner on it.

Mom would wave his hands away.  “You go sit down.”

Somehow, that silly tray is woven into my memory or her—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that my memory of her is woven into the tray.  And as I looked at that picture, knowing Dad was eating alone in his living room hours away, I was both heartbroken and amazed that he was still doing it.  He’s eating at a different time now, eating different food, but the tray remains  Her practice of love has become his habit, now.

When we talk about love in Christianity, we talk about action: sacrificial love, doing things for people, “love is a verb,” and all of that.  And yet I think we tend to singularize those activities rather than viewing works of love as a whole constellation of behaviors within a relationship, some small and seemingly insignificant, that contribute to a greater and more organic whole.

When I was in college campus  ministry, after a particularly tempestuous period, our minister decided we needed to wash each other’s feet—literally.  And there commenced the single most awkward and mortifying Christian ceremony I’ve ever been obliged to participate in.  I don’t mean “awkward” and mortifying in the Peter sense here—“Lord, you will never wash my feet!”—I mean awkward and mortifying because, critically, the act of service and love had no context.

A guy I knew was scrubbing an old washcloth over my heel and gazing meaningfully into my eyes, but I felt no love or sacrifice or particular meaning from that act because there wasn’t any.  We didn’t serve each other in daily life.  We weren’t mindful of each other’s welfare.   He was scrubbing my foot: that was all.  And when he stopped we’d return to a life of saying “hey” to each other in the halls and nothing else beside.

Contrast that with my marriage, which has been imbued with acts of love large and small embedded in a larger web of service and lovingness: learning about each other, looking out for each other, helping each other.  Love has saturated the warp and woof of the union; love has created and established the context of how we relate to each other.

I suppose the critical difference I’m getting at is this:

It would be possible, right now, for me to take my mother’s plastic tray to the house of, say, an overworked and overtired neighborhood mom.  “You sit down,” I might tell her, “and let me take care of dinner.”  Perhaps I’d cook for her, arrange everything on the tray, and present it to her so she could for once eat a meal on the couch in front of the TV.

That would certainly be an act of love, and service.

But it is a magnitude of order different than the love that takes that same tray, every night, and makes dinner and arranges it on there regardless of the weather, and what hurts, and if there’s been an argument, and who deems it all worthy because you genuinely care for the person receiving that tray.

The neighborhood mom might keep that tray and think, “What a nice memory of someone doing something kind for me.”  My dad eats on that tray still, and whether he thinks it consciously or not, knows he was loved about as much as a man can be loved.

And I think of smaller, similar things my husband and I do: not because we have to or because we decided we needed to love one another, but because we do love one another.  Sometimes we do each other’s dishes on nights we don’t have to, and sometimes I bring in the garbage cans from the curb even though technically it’s his job, and sometimes he cleans up a mess I made. 

This isn’t me knocking random acts of kindness or service.

Those are needed, too.  But I also suspect those acts of love can come easier and faster than the deeper, smaller, more involved ones—the ones that add up to a lifetime’s worth of difference but in the moment seem so unbearably small and easy to neglect.

Devoting ourselves to the welfare of others is the order of the Christian life.  But to do so consistently and over a long time is world-shaking and heart-opening.  My mom’s blue tray was a reminder of how that love persists long after its author, and a convicting reminder to me that diligence and simple commitment can build up to something so much greater than the flashiest, one-time sacrificial act.


2 thoughts on “The Blue Tray

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