On keeping company
That first week the sun shone brightly, there was no wind, and in six days the snow was all gone. The prairie showed bare and brown, and the air seemed warm as milk. Mrs. Boast had cooked the New Year’s dinner.
“You can all crowd into my little place for once,” she said.
She let Laura help her move things. They put the table on the bed and opened the door wide against the wall. Then they set the table in the exact middle of the house. One corner of it almost touched the stove, and the other end was almost against the bed. But there was room for them all to come in, single file, and sit around it. Mrs. Boast sat by the stove and served the food from its hot top.
First, there was oyster soup. In all her life Laura had never tasted anything so good as that savory, fragrant, sea-tasting hot milk, with golden dots of melted cream and black specks of pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters at its bottom. She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could… Afterward they sat talking in the little house, with the soft air coming in and beyond the open door, the brown prairie stretching far away and the soft blue sky curving down to meet it.
– Laura Ingalls Wilder, By the Shores of Silver Lake
The pages turned easily with a moistened finger as my young-girl eyes consumed these words from the fifth book in our tattered Little House series. The story spilled out as I read, pooling deeply in my imagination where it reflected a perfect picture of the New Year’s dinner in that tiny house.
I could see it all, and nearly taste it, too. This tale of the life of a girl my age captured me fully and gave me a seat of my very own at that dinner where the conversation was full and the memory sweet. I read along easily, knowing it then only as a delightful story; I know now that it was so much more.
It was the earliest awakening of an understanding. It was the seed of a life-course. It was a line-drawing of simplicity and uninhibited small-space living. It was the perfect description, not of entertaining, but of keeping company.
Company-keeping says come in here where the door swings wide. It’s a welcome gathering, no matter your space. It’s humble, and it’s real.
It lets you rest your elbows on the table as you linger near wax-dripped candles, empty soup bowls, and crumb-covered plates. It nurtures deep, without even trying to impress. It’s oyster soup on a New Year’s Eve.
It’s the very thing we came to know one day, my husband and I, when we climbed a wooden ladder into the low-ceilinged loft of a little woodshop perched on an island in a small bay in Alaska.
We’d just come across the swollen sea water in an open fishing skiff to stay with friends who lived their summers there on the island. They’d prepared for us their best – that place beneath the faded tin roof of their tiny woodshop.
There was room in the little hide-away only for a mattress, which was dressed in fresh floral-patterned sheets and a handmade quilt. The pillows were fluffy where they sat at the head of the bed under the small, clear window; the window that offered a view through the towering spruce trees to the blue water below. On the windowsill sat a small jelly jar filled with fresh, wild flowers.
In the bright evening, there was dinner, close-quarters style, around the handmade table in their small cabin. Fresh salmon was served, with vegetables and wild mushrooms and there was spring water to drink from canning jar cups.
There was conversation and silly games and erupting laughter. And we felt kept. We felt fostered, nurtured, nourished, and kept.
They knew how.
It was because of stories and experiences like these, that we knew, too. We knew that our little house could be the perfect place to keep company – for dinner around our table, surely – and even overnight.
We’d give adult guests our bedroom, that little retreat at the end of the hall. I’d prepare the bed with freshly-laundered sheets, the white cotton ones, and top them with the quilt. I’d place a footed vase filled with handpicked flowers in the night stand nook, right beside the clock (there may even be chocolate there, too, wink).
The kids would all sleep upstairs – a giant (wild?) communal sleepover in the hobbit-house loft, complete with sleeping bags, pillows, and giggling bodies strewn in heaps all over the beds and floor. Someone might lose a sock or two, but that’d be a small price to pay.
We’d unfold the sofa-sleeper in the great room for ourselves, the one that’s amazingly comfortable and always made up. Perfect. Perfect, because this way, in the early morning, our guests could sleep while we began breakfast and started the day.
We’d make hot coffee, and boil water for tea. We’d set the table with our simple white dishes and mismatched silver, and we’d keep the food warm in the oven until wakening guests began to appear.
Yes, even in this little 665 square-foot house, we could company-keep, too.
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