I listened to a really good sermon two weeks ago. The preacher described this old kitchen table that had been in his family for years and that had supported the various family members who had used it, passing it on from one to another. Though I listened intently, I was also writing this blog in my head at the same time.
I can remember the tables of my life, fairly well. As a little girl, I remember the rectangular maple table in the kitchen of our Brooklyn project apartment. It had four chairs with swirly wooden cutouts on the back and cushioned seats. There were four of us, and four chairs. Made sense. The table did have a leaf when needed so when my grandparents came, we inserted the leaf and added two folding chairs. That table sustained many glasses of spilled water and tomato juice. It supported my mother’s head, down on the table sobbing from depression that overtook us all. I put together my award winning science fair projects on it and with some newspaper underneath, I produced oil paintings that I felt worthy of displaying in Greenwich Village art fairs. At that table, my sweet and loving grandmother wept desperate tears as my mother’s cruelty to her spewed forth uncontrollably. My father downed “boiler-makers” at night after work, which consisted of a shot of whiskey followed by a beer, all at that table.
My grandparents had a more formal apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but their dining room table, really consisted of a card table in the middle of the living room, with a piece of round wood on top to make it larger. That was then covered with a lace tablecloth underneath some “plastic protection.” Mostly, my grandparents ate in the kitchen at the white enameled table there, with the red painted chairs. But, we ate in their living room for holidays and I loved it. I felt loved at that table under the adoring eyes of my grandmother. Although my grandfather’s brain deteriorated and they fought frequently, it still seemed like a kind and loving place.
When I left home at 16 and rented an apartment in Richmond Hill, Queens, I bought myself a table and chairs in Times Square Stores. It was an odd choice for a young, hip college student, but nevertheless, I did choose a Formica table with sides that folded down when not needed, a bench seat and two plastic cushioned chairs. I’m not sure if I was hoping to be filmed in an episode of “Lassie Comes Home” or what, but in retrospect, I do wonder what I was thinking. However, this table served me well, holding my head through many, lonely tearful nights. It held my overflowing ashtray of cigarette buts, my glass of Mateus wine, and my attempts at home made dinners. That table was where I served my father dinner when he visited each Thursday, lying to my mother that he was at a Bingo game, in order to visit me, which was prohibited by her. It was where he poured his heart out to me about the hell he was living with as my mother became more and more evil. Though, it was inappropriate for my father to use his daughter as his psychotherapist, I do realize he really didn’t have too many choices. It was also where I dined with the Catholic priest I had become close friends with and who visited regularly bringing me wine and flowers (refrain from conclusions!). At that table, I also tried to detox a boyfriend tripping on LSD, threatening suicide. My best friend Lucia and I sat at that table, smoking cigarettes and planning our lives for more hours than I can remember and my co-workers from JFK Airport partied at that table frequently. It was a refuge place to dine for my sister, who six years younger than me, remained at home in hell, but stayed with me when she needed some relief.
In my next apartment in Woodside, Queens , I was on a yellow mission. I had found an icon named, Debbie Owen who I wanted to emulate in every way. I worked for Debbie in a boutique on Jobs Lane in Southampton and her favorite colors were green and yellow, so I figured they should be mine as well. I purchased a round glass table with yellow PVC base and surround. It was quite something along with my bright yellow and gold wallpapered walls. It was there that I began cooking better meals, and drinking red wine and smoking cigarettes with my friend, Deirdre long into the night, as well as preparing food for the various men in my life. I had some long relationships and some short, but each man I dated was quite taken with the boldness of my apartment and in particular this table. I can remember sitting there alone though on a Saturday morning, looking out onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, wondering how to plan my day. It was there that I cried and cried when my boyfriend of two years ended our relationship. It was at that table that I made a fine pork chop dinner for my Jersey shore friend, George who had a wild crush on me that was not mutual. He has recently taken his life and I always feel so sad that I never contacted him over all these years. It was at that table that I gazed into my boyfriend, Shep’s eyes knowing that I wanted to know him forever. The table was glass, so it was not warm and would not be passed down for generations, though my mother wound up using it for her plants in later years.
When Shep and I married and moved to a tiny Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, we could only fit a small drop leaf wooden table that his father had made. We bought French chairs in The Door Store and sat at our little table eating dinner and planning our lives together. It was at that table that we wept after being burglarized and losing all of my jewelry and some of our wedding gifts. And when we moved to a more luxurious Upper East Side apartment with a mirrored lobby, a doorman and concierge with four elevators, it was at that small table that we entertained two friends who would have tremendous impact on our lives. I knew Mickey Melton from working at New York Hospital and her husband, Buck, was Vice President at WR Grace Inc. Shep and I meticulously planned a fish dinner followed by Chocolate Mousse for dessert. Shep was seeking a better job and Buck might be able to offer just that. In our bright orange kitchen, we watched the fish completely disintegrate before we could plate it. It was basically fish morsels by the time it was served and we were mortified. But, it did get worse. Buck was a big man and as he spoke, we watched him shrinking downwards. Right before disaster, we realized that our French chairs were giving way with legs spreading and heading for the floor. We grabbed Buck, just before that moment and gave him another chair avoiding a complete disaster. The dinner did continue down hill, when I took the mousse out of the refrigerator only to find that in the fancy wine glasses I had chilled it in, it had shrunk down to about ¼ inch high. We can laugh about it now, but at the time, we were both so close to tears. However, Buck DID offer Shep a job, WR Grace relocated him to San Antonio, Texas and the rest is history.
At that same small table, I invited Shep’s sister, Holly and cousin, Lauren to dinner one evening when Shep was out of town on a business trip. For any member of Shep’s family to venture into NYC, requires no less than an act of Congress and a passport, but for some reason they agreed to come in. Right before I served dinner, I remembered that I needed a tablecloth and then remembered that it was in the hamper! I knew it was simply “used” but probably not dirty, so I retrieved it. Well, apparently, they saw me doing this and were both horrified enough to have never have forgotten it. I made a poor and indelible first impression on Shep’s family.
I believe we still used that small table when we moved to San Antonio and so there, the table held my firstborn son in his bouncy seat while I cooked dinner. And, it was at that table that I mastered breastfeeding my baby, (not knowing that helping others do the same, would become my life long career. ) It was there that I cried and cried when my father left my mother once again for the tenth time and then returned to her again, responding to her repeated threats of suicide. This was the usual scenario and I cried even more when I learned that the endearing letters I had been mailing to my father offering both support and validation, had all been forwarded to my deranged mother! The tears I shed were as much out of terror than of sadness.
When we moved to Hampton Bays with our then, six month old, I set out to find a new family table. We made do for a while, with garage sale scores, but when I spied an old pine farm table in a field in Water Mill, it was love at first sight. Despite having my two year old with me and despite being some seven plus months pregnant, I waited around all day for that auction to catch up to the table. And when it did, I won it, paid for it and dragged it and my two year old all the way across that potato field, hoisted it into my brown Volvo station wagon and took it home. For the next 14 years or so, that beautiful, worn pine table would hold it all. Its wood would separate and spread in the winter and swell and reconnect in the summer.
That table moved with us to East Quogue, where I leaned on it with bouts of sciatica and asthma through my pregnancy and also through labor pains when at 42weeks gestation, my baby finally felt he was ready. It held the bouncy seat of baby number three and all of my friends who had been in attendance at his birth. It would hold visits from our dearest friends and neighbors, Bea and Greg Bardacke as well as their daughters. They became surrogate grandparents to my children, as my own parents continued to struggle with their own pathology.
At that table would be birthday parties for children and adults, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners, Christenings, Communions and Confirmations. That table graced the beautiful home we built in Southampton and it supported the hands and head of my ailing father when he came to live with us for some time. I was finally “allowed” to talk to my father but he had lost his voice to Parkinson’s and Dementia. It was too late. The nuns from East End Healthcare met with me at that table to plan his future. La Leche League mamas and babies met around while it caught drool and breastmilk. When Nicholas was five and had pneumonia, that table held the wood from which we made an entire Nativity scene that I still have. We played Triomonos and Chinese Checkers at that table and when Backgammon was the rage we chose between long games of Monopoly, Crossfire, Mousetrap, Stretch Out Sam, or Scrabble for Juniors. That table held my head when I sobbed following an incident with a local doctor who wanted Peter to be admitted to a hospital immediately, despite being a healthy two day old who had been born at home. And, it would be that table where I met with Social Services when they showed up to “investigate.” I needed to convince them that all was well and I did.
And again, when I labored in January 1993, I leaned hard on that pine table for support. The midwives in attendance, made themselves some food and my friend, Joan made treats for the older boys, while I struggled through labor. When I came down for breakfast the next day, I literally laid my ferociously beautiful new baby on that table to simply stare into his blue eyes and 10 ½ pounds of sweetness! Shep made us all eggs and toast and we were a big family of six around a beautiful table that would hold us all.
At that pine table, Shep would face the fact that he no longer had a job or an income, but we did have a brand new house, two children and a new baby. At that table, we also realized we would need to move to a less costly part of the country and at that table, we fought a lot over the options. We served our bed and breakfast guests scones and jam when we tried to earn income renting out our bedrooms on weekends. We planned our schedules working for caterers, driving a school bus and delivering organic produce to keep afloat, discussing and planning at the table. Everyone did their homework there, drew pictures and played with Ninja Turtles figures standing up in a row. We ate pasta and broccoli, chicken soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and learned to roll sushi at that table.
We moved our pine table to our apartment in North Carolina and used it in the kitchen eating area where it fit nicely. At that table in our new home, our fourth son, Gregory celebrated his second birthday with our friends from our playgroup. I always felt he was odd and pensive that day and unlike a two year old. His photos reveal the same. Unbeknownst to me, I suspect he knew it would be his last birthday. It would be that table that would bear witness to the deepest and darkest place of our lives, when our dear son died at 27 months old. There were days when I rarely picked up my head from the table, so overcome with grief, longing and despair and trying hard to drink enough alcohol to drown my own heart. I could never quite drink enough to numb myself before I would feel too sick or too tired to continue. It was at that table that our friend, Peggy would come and pick my head up and hold me while I wept and other friends who did the same. It was at that table that our priest and friend, Diane would plan the funeral with us and help us choose a small pottery cup to hold his sacred ashes.
After the twins were born, we moved to a larger house in Raleigh. The original owners were achildless couple with a red, formal dining room including a mahogany dining room set. I of course, wanted to copy that and so we did. We probably only sat at that fancy set a dozen times or so over the years, and I would say, that formal table probably did not hold very many stories. It was too serious and too slick to do so. Instead, we found a red Formica round table for $10 at a yard sale and it was then, that I fell in love with round tables. I know I have become a kind of nuisance over the years about this, always requesting round tables in restaurants and the like, but really, it makes all the difference in the world. Everyone can see and hear each other and it makes for intimate and lively and loving conversations. So, our red table contained us for several years. We fed our twins in their baby seats there, and had big dinners for all the family. One son announced he had won a scholarship to college there. One son began exhibiting odd behavior where he always head to leave for his apartment at a certain time and it was at that table that he announced he as having a problem managing his life. It was at that table that over the years, each of our sons would reveal similar tortures and at that table that Shep and I would beat ourselves up for missing the cues and for not seeking help sooner. We would sit at that table clenched with such fear for their lives that we could barely make any sense. We prayed many heartfelt prayers of “please help” at that table.
So, when the red Formica began to peel, we realized we needed a new table. As well, our family was growing with a new daughter-in-law at the time, and various girlfriends. The new in-laws were met at that table. The rehearsal dinner was planned at that table and years later, the separation and end of the marriage was announced at that table. I knew I would settle for nothing less than a big round table. My friend, Elizabeth Edwards, had recently opened a furniture store in Chapel Hill and so I began asking her if she had a really big, round table for me to buy. She said that she might, but after she died, we ventured out to her furniture warehouse in Hillsborough. There it was! A huge, round table fashioned out of old, repurposed wood, with a large sturdy base that would last forever and for generations to come.
We also spotted a kitchen island that I fell in love with. It is painted a mustard color with huge veggies adorning it. So, when the deliverymen came with the table and the island, they told stories of John and Elizabeth and their daughter Cate. Elizabeth had chosen the island for Cate’s DC apartment. These two guys loved Elizabeth Edwards but they described how manic she could be about furniture and how they would go with her to the High Point furniture market. She would just point and pay and they would schlepp all this stuff into trucks to bring back to Raleigh. So, they carried this island to Cate’s apartment and it did not fit into her kitchen and thus, back it went. They shared how they hadmoved all of “Senator Edward’s” stuff out of the house in Chapel Hill and into his Raleigh apartment only to have him change apartments and move it all again. Then, one guy said, “Mrs. Edward’s stomach looked very swollen after Thanksgiving and I asked her if she’d eaten too much turkey, but I knew in my heart this was a bad sign.” “Fuckin’ cancer” she said, “God damned cancer!” She died on December 8, 2010. She loved these big round tables I was told. And so, I am deeply honored to house Elizbeth’s table and the island intended for her daughter. History lay in these two pieces before we ever even began to add our own.
So, for the few years we have now had this table, (which I believe is the last one we will own), it has met our needs in every way and proven to be as strong or stronger than its predecessors. It has held our son, Peter through four years of agony and tears as he fought Lyme disease and endless pain. It has supported us both when we argued and fought over attitudes and hopelessness. It has held Shep’s laptop night after night when he searches for old BMW convertibles that he can’t afford. It has held my textbooks studying and reviewing all and any lactation information that comes about. It holds glorious dinners with all of us around the table and it bears witness to my tears of joy as I observe the eyes and the faces of all these men I love with all my heart. It holds the eggs and toast on weekend mornings as Shep and I plan our day and it held the floor plans for the house we aimed to build this year but couldn’t when this house didn’t sell.
The table has been as much a part of our lives as the people around it. It supports us and listens and most of all, it bears witness to the living of lives, the good, the bad, the joyful, the heartbreaking. It is there always and forever, to support. Recently, a friend of mine asked if one knew one only had a very short time to live, what would one most want to do. For her the answer was to run a marathon with her father. For me, it was simple. I would want nothing more than to sit at my table and gaze at the ones I hold so dear while we share in a meal that we are more than blessed to have. It is Christmas eve, 2013 so in a little while I will get to do just that and then tomorrow, I will once again. To all the kitchen tables in our lives, thank you for their support and witness.