In almost 38 years of marriage we have only had usable tables for about two of them. We have five now. Our tables are places where conversations can take place, where individuals can be with individuals as they share meals and thoughts.
Having five tables is not overcompensation for having lost what we had to the fire or making up for lost time. We planned on two, one in the kitchen and one in the dining room. Well, make that three since we have on the deck too. Well, make that four since we have one on our little dog-trot side porch that is 5 feet wide and 21 feet long. That table is what they call a bistro table and if you are very careful you can balance a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal on it.
While there have been years when we had no table at all, we usually had tables that were unusable for some reason. When the fire came it burned two very nice tables. Both were so nice they were effectively unusable. No of us wanted to sit at the table and drink coffee and chat. The tables were too intimidating. The larger of the two had been my mother’s pride and joy and when we inherited it there was a mix of worry that we might hurt what really was a fine table and worry that Mama was looking down from heaven going, “tisk tisk” if we split anything or used the table without a pad or did not protect it properly from glasses that might mark the table.
I wanted our furniture in this house to look nice but to be sturdy and invite people to share meals and have discourse on the human condition. I was a bit stymied because nice finishes and mothers chasing visitors with coasters seem to go togehter like peanut butter and jelly.
While I was refinishing all of our box-store furniture so it looked like it was kin and it looked better than box-store, flat box furniture, I discovered that the furniture-related paranoia of people my age and older, is because varnish-based finished melt when water is applied to them. Thus, the dreaded white ring left from a glass on a table. Urethane-based finishes don’t get marks like the varnish finishes so now-days, unless you have a special finish or an old item, you won’t make a white ring.
Which is why our little kitchen has two place mats and three coasters on it. I finished that table with so many layers of top coat you could drop a piano on it and the table would be crushed but all the parts would still look good. I wanted us to be able to put glasses, coffee cups, sticky jars of jam and all the other things that can find their way to a table without worry. In the morning my spouse carefully puts the jam on a coaster and when I go by I take it off the coaster and put it on the table. I guess I am tempting fate but more than that I want our tables to be friendly.
Our dining room table is huge and imposing looking. It really is friendly. It started life in a box store in a big box. It’s claim to fame (besides its low price) was that it was sturdy. Sturdy we liked.
We had a reason for wanting a sturdy table. Through the first dozen years of our marriage we kept trying to find a table at a second hand store that would hold up. We had a string of them, some were less shaky suffice it to say that our usual dinner table was the coffee table my dad made from the door of his Navy locker he mustered out with. I miss that table, ugly thing that it was. Nothing could rock it. My sisters and I all learned to walk holding on to that table and my mom reported that there was some teething around the edges too. She had sanded the edges so they were rounded but there were a few small indentations that could have been teeth marks.
Knowing our sorrowful table situation, in 1987 my mom gave us the table I grew up with. It was a special table with a special story but it was a pedestal table and if anyone on the south side of the table pressed on it there was the real possibility that what the person on the north side of the table would slide to the south or at least to the equator.
It was a golden oak table that my folks got out of someone’s trash while they were driving on a dark night. The story went that my mom spotted it and asked my dad to back up so she could salvage it from the trash. He refused. She cajoled and back they went. As they were loading the table top into the car the front door of the house opened and the a women stepped out. Both of my parents held their breath but the lady called out, “If you would like them, I have two table leaves here in the house you can have.” Although it had leaves, it did not have legs. My dad drilled three holes for each of four modern wrought iron v-shaped legs. My mom painted it black.
Later, as my mom started to furnish our house with antiques she rescued from junk stores, we stripped the table (I was around by then) and put a golden oak finish on it. I was in charge of putting the top coat on. I put 8 layers so the table could stand up to family use without having to worry. The worry was the table legs. The wrought iron legs were no longer stylish. My mom told a friend to look for an antique pedestal like the table would originally have had. Her friend found one and Mama paid her friend two books of S & H green stamps, the modern day equivalent being points on a credit card. The Sperry and Hutchens company sold the stamps to retailers who rewarded their customers with green stamps proportionate to your purchase. The stamps were put into a stamp book and then traded for merchandise at the “Green Stamp Store.” Mama always shopped at stores that gave away green stamps when she could.
So the trash-modern legged table reentered our house in its transformed in the summer of 1964. We were still eating off that table when I left home in the summer of 1976. A decade later it came to our house and stayed there until the fall of 2008. During that time our family and friends learned that if you wanted to lean on the table after dinner or when we were playing board games, you had to work it out with the person across from you so you either leaned at the same time or the non-leaning fellow held on for dear life to keep the table from tipping. After my mom died in 2008, I sold the table at an antiques fair for $800. Embarrassed that they were paying me so much for a table that had come fro the trash and was paid for in part by S & H Green Stamps, I told them the story and they said it made the table all the more valuable to them.
Leaving behind the issues of its tippiness, we sold it to make space for two new tables. Somehow when the estates of my mom and my grandmother were settled we ended up with tables from both of them. Very nice tables indeed. That is how we ended up with yet more tables we could not really use, this time because they were too intimidating. Both of them burned in the fire and we were faced with more tablelessness.
So the table that we have in our dining room lured us in by its box-store price and by the fact that it was advertised as being “sturdy, real wood.” And, in fact, it is sturdy. If you dropped the piano on this one I think the piano would have the short end of the stick. When we took the table out of its flat box it looked perfectly awful. We liked the chairs but not the table. It was not only a bad quality finish it did not go at all with the set of chairs vintage dining chairs we found. I ended up stripping the original finish off the table and refinishing it to match the chairs. Which is how we got an imposing dining room table, just like the two we had that burned.
It should not be an imposing table. It did hail from a box-store on a sale. Like on the kitchen table, I put layers and layers of finish on it so we would not have to worry about spills or being overly protective with the table. We and our friends could sit for hours drinking coffee reorganizing the world’s function to suit our preferences. Sadly, those protective layers are what make it look imposing. The multiple coats have a glistening depth in the finish that perfectly reflects light. Our friends want coasters or to go sit somewhere else.
From shaky to toppling over to imposing and tough, our tables have taught us the about life and the meaning of “being at the table.” Sometimes we expect others to bear more weight than they can. Collaboration is important to keep balance among people. Imposing structures are not conducive to homey relationships. Finally we have learned that the surface appearance may not reflect true strength.
Now, in this house full of tables, our world is different Our tables all have true strength and beauty. Upon that, armed with a cup of coffee and friends, we can build a new world.