A Table of One’s Own

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Last Christmas: Everyone scrunched around the old dining table.

Now that I’m at home with four children in a climate that sometimes keeps us housebound, I’m grateful every day for our house. When Erick and I worked with Habitat for Humanity in Tanzania, their motto was: “Nyuma ni Mama,” which is Swahili for “A house is a mother.” I never really thought about what that meant until I became a mother and bought a house in Vermont; now I realize that our house performs much the same functions for our family as I do: it shelters us, and by its very layout it guides our activities and helps shape our family culture.

If a house is a mother, I think that the beating heart of that house is the dining table.

All of which is a wordy and roundabout way of getting to this point: We have a new dining table!!

In Chinese culture, it’s typical to get generous amounts of cash as wedding gifts. After Erick and I were married, we took our wedding cash over to Macy’s and used it to buy two things: an oversized armchair and a dining set. Both purchases were made quickly; we just needed a place to sit and a place to eat in our new apartment. We had no vision of a future in which we’d live in a house and have children, so we took neither scenario into account when making our selections.

The dining table we chose seemed absurdly large: It came with six upholstered chairs. It wasn’t exactly “real” wood, but had a dark cherry finish. Eleven years later, the seat cushions bore crusty stains from our girls’ daily spills, the dark finish showed every fork gouge, and six chairs were only enough to seat our immediate family.

Remember that oversized armchair that we bought at the same time as the dining table? Eleven years later it, too, wasn’t looking its best. I even wrote about it here. The cat we’d had when we were first married had scratched up its base, Gracie the dog lay across its top whenever we left the house, our children had contributed numerous food and marker stains, and both arms were ripped and spilling stuffing.

That was liveable. Then I cut Gracie’s nails.

(Okay, clearly this whole post is going to be kind of wordy and roundabout. Brace yourselves.)

I cut Gracie’s nails because they had gotten so long that whenever she walked within six inches of one of our girls, they’d collapse on the floor wailing, “Gracie scratched me!” (We raise ’em tough around here). I don’t cut her nails often (obviously), so I failed to realize that cutting a dog’s nails is very different from cutting a cat’s nails. When we had a cat, I’d pin her down and chop away. Dogs’ nails have capillaries running through all but the very tip. So I cut Gracie’s nails  — not too short, in my opinion — and she seemed fine and went about her business. But then I noticed pools of blood on the floor.

I’d cut one of her nails too short, and it was bleeding profusely. (Almost like when I cut baby Georgia’s fingernails and took a little skin from the tip of her finger, too. Apparently I’m the Sweeney Todd of manicurists).

I mopped up the floor and Gracie, and then rushed off to pick up one of the girls from school. Another failure: I should have also bandaged Gracie’s paw. When we returned home, it looked like somebody had been murdered in our armchair: blood everywhere. Gracie had laid across the top, as is her habit, and licked at her cut nail until it opened up again.

Thankfully, my mother was visiting that weekend. If you know my mother, then you know that she can clean anything. (If she’d been alive back in MacBeth’s day, that play would have had a very different ending because Lady MacBeth wouldn’t have gotten all hung up over any “damn’d spot.”)

So, my mother worked her magic and got the blood out of the upholstery. Then she said, in her tactful Mom way, “Isn’t there somewhere we could go to look for a new armchair?”

In most places in the U.S., that would be a simple question to answer. But remember, we live in Vermont. There are no Ikeas or Crate & Barrels in this state. (And the few times I’ve attempted to order Ikea furniture online, the shipping costs exceeded the price of the furniture). There are furniture stores in Vermont, but to reach most of them I’d have to drive at least 45 minutes, at which point I’d just have to sit down and feed the baby. And even if I found a replacement armchair, I’d probably have to spend a lot of money to buy it and have it delivered 45 minutes away.

But then I remembered that a friend had told me about a used furniture store the next town over. I looked it up on Google, searching under “Vermont used furniture.” I was not at all hopeful, but there it was. Turns out its name is “Vermont Used Furniture,” it was a 15 minute drive away, and it was open right then.

Still not particularly hopeful, I agreed to check out Vermont Used Furniture, mostly because I love my mom.

We pulled up at the “store,” which is more like a hangar in the front yard of the couple that owns and operates it. We walked in, and there was the armchair — the same dimensions as our old armchair, but a little fancier and without the rips and dog blood — priced at approximately 1/4 of what we spend on groceries each week.

I walked a little farther into the hangar, and there was the dining table. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was our table. It was a slab of solid pine, and it glowed. It was large enough to easily seat 8 (possibly 10), which meant it could accommodate our whole family, plus a couple of guests. I wasn’t even looking for a dining table, but it was priced so that, together with the armchair and a set of (uncushioned!) dining chairs, it cost us less than a new slipcover for the old armchair. The guy from Vermont Used Furniture delivered them both to our house for free, and even bought our old dining table off of us.

So, we have a new dining table, and it’s made both Erick and me happier than you might imagine. Remember what I wrote way back, about a dining table being a house’s beating heart? That’s because we all sit at the dining table together at least twice a day. It’s the only space in our house that seats all of us, and it forces us to look at each other. We share food and conversation at this table, both of which keep our family healthy. During non-mealtimes, Erick and I often work at the table, the girls have snack at the table, Fiona does her “homework” at the table, we read books around the table.

The new table!

The new table!

I look at this dining table, and I see what I want our family to be. Sometimes (okay, MOST times) it’s still a struggle to keep all the girls seated for an entire meal, or to keep conversations from devolving into potty talk. But I look at our new table and imagine all of the life that will happen around it; it’s solid enough to be our table for the rest of our family’s time together. It’s not perfect; the wood has some knotholes and cracks, and pine is soft enough to show the inevitable marks that we’ll put in it. All of which is fine by me, because that’s also how I want our family to be: solid, but not perfect.

Shortly after we installed our wonderful new table, I sat across from the girls during dinner and said, “Girls, here’s a little advice for you: Someday you’ll probably settle down with families of your own. And when you do, the most important thing is to invest in a dining table that you LOVE.”

My daughters stared at me for a moment, and then they said:

“I need a tissue!”

“More milk, please!”

“My toe hurts!”

Which is why I write a blog.

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