It is a delightful rainy day, and I sit at my kitchen table writing this post… at a table rich with history, and my own story.
Tables have lost much of their importance in our culture. We come; we go – often heading in a million different directions, but rarely taking the time to sit around a table together. For most of human history, though, sharing a meal and gathering around a table was one of the most basic of human interactions.
This kitchen table has been in my family for many years. Of no particular style, this was no fancy dining room table, but was a solid maple table built for working class people.
Last year I had retrieved the table from the hayloft of my parent’s barn after they passed away. Originally it had belonged to my grand parents, and they had used it for many years, before my mother inherited it. She used it for many more years as well, patching it back together over and over, before finally relegating it to the hayloft, and the harsh elements of upstate New York.
When I discovered it in a state of ruin among the piles of discarded things there, I was filled with bittersweet emotions to once again see this bearer of so many memories. The fact that it had survived in those conditions is nothing short of a miracle. I knew at that moment that it would travel across the country with me when I returned home.
Once home, the table was put away for a while. Then I finally found someone to repair and refinish it, and they began the long laborious process of restoring it. (I am thankful to have photos of it throughout this process, which are found here.)
My grandparents were the original owners, and had probably gotten it in the 1950’s; one of the few new pieces of furniture they ever bought. They were wanderers, and never stayed in one place long enough to collect furniture or other things that many people do. (I attribute my wanderlust to them.) Finally they bought some land in in the early 60’s and were there for the rest of their years together. For me this table was the center of that place.
For various reasons, I spent much of my childhood with my grandparents. When I wasn’t wandering alone through the woods and fields, or working outside with my grandfather, you could almost always find me at that table with my grandmother listening to stories, or sharing meals with both of them. Although I heard most of the stories my grandmother shared, over and over, I never tired of them.
Hers was a remarkable life that left her with an extraordinary (and often complex) character. My grandmother had been born in 1917 on the wrong side of the tracks to a mother who already had many children. She was unwanted and was given to her mother’s cousin to raise. Years later when the Great Depression struck, she was torn from the only true family she ever knew, and returned to her mother. Her mother and adult sisters were neither welcoming nor loving; she was just another mouth to feed in a world of grinding poverty where women without men to care for them fought hard to survive. This awkward, skinny girl with large soulful eyes then became little more than a servant to them, since she had no other way to earn her keep.
As she began to bloom into womanhood, the dangers of the world she lived in began closing in on her. At fourteen, she decided to flee, and the woman who raised her helped her get a bus ticket, and she struck out alone from New York to California with one sandwich and no extra money for the weeklong journey.
On the trip a woman tried to entice her to get off with her, but she remained steadfast to her goal of getting as far away from home as she could. When she finally arrived in Los Angeles, two men took her by the arms when she got off the bus, and started walking away with her. Thankfully with the help of a kind Latino woman she escaped the ill that they had planned for her. (During the Depression there were nearly a quarter of a million children wandering the country looking for food and a better life, and they often fell prey to those taking advantage of their youth and the brutal poverty they faced.)
The woman who rescued her fed her and took her in for a short time; with no agenda other than helping a young girl in need. With this respite and an alias name, she was able to finally get on her own two feet. Eventually my grandmother became a housekeeper for a famous Hollywood director and his family. (I often remember her pointing out old movies that came on TV that he had directed – although now I do not remember his name.) He and his family showed her love and it was there that she grew into a beautiful, sophisticated woman, and there she was able to enter adulthood with her independence.
Still she was often homesick. Sometimes she wrote to her best friend, who had lived down the road from her family. She remembered, too, the day that they had been walking together, and she had seen a handsome young teenager with white-blond hair plowing a field. She had laughingly told her friend that some day she was going to marry him, not realizing that it was her friend’s brother.
Years later when she returned to New York for good, she was asked out on date by her friend’s brother, the one that she had seen in the field, only now he was a man. It wasn’t long before they fell in love, and within just a few months they married. This was just the beginning of a lifelong love they shared for each other.
I never tired of these stories, and many of the others I heard around their table. Apparently she never tired of sharing them either.
Today I share meals and life at this same table. To me it seems that the memories and the stories from the past have been absorbed into its very wood. Though some of these stories are now a hundred years old, they feel very near to me. So now… I will sit at the table sharing my own stories; stories that hopefully will also be absorbed into the wood for someone in the future.