Sliding open the barn door, the antiques dealer ushered my newlywed parents into his workshop filled with cobwebs and piles of ‘old wood furniture’. A table caught my mother’s eye as it was covered in half-used paint cans, but had gorgeous legs. My father was more interested in a fall-front desk, which they bought and will have its own tales to tell one day. The over-spilled paint cans on the rather large table fascinated my mother though and she asked if she might buy it. The dealer explained that it would need ‘some work’. But the proportions were just perfect for the dining room in their new house, and being a somewhat determined woman, she persuaded the man to restore the table to its former glory.
Over the years the table hosted many dinner parties. It also was where my sister and I learned to eat once we outgrew entirely eating with our hands. The beautiful dark mahogany surface was never covered with a cloth. Placemats were preferred although not always used. The sound of the knives and forks and spoons being set every day has left an indelible mark. There was never any noisy clanking, but rather a measured purposeful sound, much the way the conversation usually flowed.
And like the conversation, which remained civil and uninteresting much of the time, so too the table rarely expanded to its full size. When the large leaves were added and the table was fully set for a formal dinner, oddly the conversations developed into more meaningful exchanges of ideas and real lessons were learned. We learned about different foods and how to eat them properly, where they came from, who grew them, even how they were cultivated. Animal husbandry was introduced, as were discussions on hunting and shooting. We learned that food originated in the wild, in natural settings and not on grocery store shelves.
Politics and economics were introduced at an early age as our family was heavily involved in both. We learned to appreciate the strengths of all people in office and spent far less time discussing weaknesses. Leading politicians, great athletes, and a few entertainers became our mentors. In these formative years, one could trust those around one. Fear of punishment was also something we learned to trust never reared its ugly head at the dining room table. Unpleasantness was never discussed. Shortcomings in the classroom or poor performances at sports were brought up at other times. The dining table was a safe haven from a world fraught with the challenges of growing up in a privileged but nonetheless highly dysfunctional family.
I remember my first sip of wine. I was about twelve years old and the wine was diluted with a splash of water. My mother took some pleasure in seeing the ominous uncharacteristic mildly twisted smile that spread across my face. And at that age I learned how to serve and clear a table, making sure not drop anything, and but how to move silently around a table. This came surprisingly easily to me and I rather enjoyed participating in the process. I am grateful that the table witnessed and experienced my newly acquired abilities.
My sister and I usually ate early and alone at the large table where we would discuss our day at school, how we were going to avoid our mother’s idiosyncratic behavior and how much fun our father would be when he came home from work. We always loved it when he came home and the table was always watching our hundreds of hugs and kisses.
We grew up at that table. We became adolescents and then one day that table was gone. Through the ravages of life, divorces, new houses and blended families, the table needed to find a new home. A museum benefitted from its departure. It was sold as an original Duncan Phyfe, which it was, and is now gracing the dining room of another unknown family. It will always remember what it heard while in our care, much as it did in the care of countless previous families and even while resting under the paint cans and cobwebs.
I hope it retains the peace and comfort it afforded us as children. After all, dining room tables overhear some of the most meaningful conversations families have.