If you wanted to find my family on a Friday night, you need not look any further than my grandmother’s kitchen. No one could pinpoint exactly how we started this tradition, but every Friday, rain or shine, snow or sun, we’d find our way to my dad’s mom’s house and gather in the kitchen.
It was usually Grandma, Dad, my aunt, me, my cousin and maybe Dad’s little brother, who was still living at home at the time. Some of my uncle’s friends would drop by from time to time and occasionally Mom would poke her head in for an hour or so.
Dad would drink beer, the women would drink cheap champagne and my cousin and I were constantly dispatched to the basement fridge for beverage reinforcements.
We could have spent the night on the comfortable couches in the living room, where the TV and record player resided. Instead, we gathered around the kitchen table, where we told and retold stories of people who were long gone and events that still made us laugh. Grandma would ask if we were hungry and we always said no. Still, somehow she would quietly place a tin of nuts, a bowl of popcorn, a bag of chips and a pan of brownies in front of us and eventually we would be eating without thinking about it.
Food and family. Liquor and laughter.
The time has long passed since then. Grandma is gone and buried almost 10 years. The house was sold and the children have scattered as have the grandchildren.
And the strangest thing still sits in my head: the kitchen table.
It wasn’t anything particularly fancy. It was a bluish-woodgrain Formica top that was shaped like a pill caplet. The legs were stainless steel pipes that curled out of the top and planted firmly onto the ground. The chairs were the same ugly blue, but in a paisley. We always seemed to fight over who got to sit in “the good chair” as opposed to the ones that wobbled like hell.
We played cards on that table.
We ate Easter dinner on that table.
We laughed and we cried and we shared on that table.
After Grandma died, it was sold for less than $50. I never knew where it went.
At my mom’s mom’s house, the table was also Formica, but it was wood-grained simple. The table was simple and direct with one post in the middle supporting the oblong slab. The piece was rectangular with the corners cut off and rounded. It was like a misshapen stop sign.
My Grandma and Harry, her second husband, would sit there and drink coffee and smoke cigarette after cigarette and watch the birds through the back door. When I came to visit, I’d come around the back of the house and enter through that door and take the chair opposite my grandmother and talk about anything.
Hours would become minutes as she would share things with me, some of which I wish I never learned. It was there I found out how her marriage to my grandfather ended, why she didn’t have more children and how she found her way out of the bottle.
It was also there where my life changed drastically. When The Missus and I were dating, she wanted to run away with me back to Missouri. My folks were gone, I had to leave and she was a mess.
I went to Grandma’s, slipped in the back door and told her and Harry the story.
“Call her,” Grandma said, gesturing to a plastic shell phone that was yellowed with age and smoke. “Tell her you’re coming for her. Take her with you.”
I worried about the blowback from her parents and mine. I worried about what would happen if she suddenly changed her mind on Missouri or me.
As I nervously picked at the crud that had lodged itself in the center crevice of the table, Grandma said something that stuck with me:
“Trust yourself. You’re in love and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t take her with you.”
She was right. We were married two years later. She died a month after that.
The parents weren’t thrilled at our Thelma and Louise act, but eventually they came around.
For our wedding gift, The Missus’s mom gave us a kitchen table.
Somewhere around Year Three of our marriage, one of us (not me, but she swears it wasn’t her) put a wok with a wet bottom on the table. A nasty green ring grew from the metal and water combination.
By the time we moved back to Wisconsin, the ring had gotten uglier with age and we contemplated a new table. The Missus was adamant about keeping what we had, but we both agreed something needed to be done.
I was fully in furniture refinishing mode at that point and told her, “Look, I’ll give it a shot, but it’s a risk. If I screw up the table or it can’t be saved, you can’t hold it against me.”
She agreed and I managed to make it look respectable. Today, you can’t tell that the ring was there before. I also layered on about six coats of a sealant that is supposed to be impenetrable. Between the Fourth of July drinking, the birthday parties and the kids in the neighborhood, the table has hosted dozens of people with no sign of it being worse for wear.
To me, the kitchen table has been where the business of family comes to bear. It’s where we share and laugh and cry and more. Whenever my parents needed to dole out a punishment or explain something important, they did it at the kitchen table. Whenever we wanted to play a game or share a story at grandma’s, we did it at the kitchen table. Whenever the Midget has homework or we want to share some family time, we do it at the kitchen table.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, although the trend seems to be away from gathering and toward individualism. I found an amazing hardwood kitchen table at a rummage sale, an item as out of place as a turd in the holy water fountain. When I asked about it, the people told me they never used it. The kids eat on the run, the parents didn’t have time to sit down and whenever they did get together, it was in front of the big screen.
If it’s true, it’s sad. If it’s a trend, it’s worse.
Still, I have an affection for old tables like the one I refinished for my mother-in-law that was a wedding gift for her parents or the one I found a few weeks back at an estate sale.
The table was oak with a thin veneer finish. The table top was rough from years of use and probably a few incidents where the husband used it as a cutting board or a workbench. The legs were marred with pockmarks, which were nothing compared to the rungs of the chairs. They were all mangled and several looked like something had chewed through them.
“My parents had a dog,” the woman explained. “He would bite and yank on the chairs when they were playing cards at the table and didn’t pay enough attention to him.”
The price for this set of dog toys? $8
I took it home and began the restoration process. Why? Who knows. It just felt like the right thing to do.
When I told Mom about my find, she mentioned it to a young family who lived next door to them. They offered to buy it if I was willing to sell. Apparently, the giant glass table they had was great when they didn’t have kids. Now, with three of them, none older than six, it was impossible to keep clean. The kids loved climbing under it and making monkey faces on the glass.
I brought it with me and sold it to them for what it cost to refinish it.
The way I see it, the world is better with one more kitchen table in it.