Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dining Room Table

Pretty much everything about my life is great, except our dining room table.

We don't really have a dining room, just a space where our long living room runs into the kitchen, where the wall color changes from "Wilted Spinach" to "Fake Blood." Here, a laminate-pasted particle board and aluminum rectangle mocks my only real family value.

When I was growing up, we didn't sing together or go to church, and early efforts at family meetings by my stepdad were quickly abandoned; but we ate together every night. The only way to get out of eating with the family was to be eating with someone else's family -- it wasn't enough to simply have food, it had to be an intergenerational experience involving food cooked in a kitchen. I mostly hated the obligation, until one day a good friend who had (I imagined) a perfect family told me he only ate with his brother and parents on holidays and stuff -- most nights, his mom left tacos or something in the kitchen of their three-story, planned community house, and they ate on their own. Alone, I guess. And suddenly dinner together, across from each other, represented the kind of solid, stable, supportive structure I'd always yearned for. I still hurried from the table, but sometimes not so quickly.

And so it makes sense to me now that even though we were poor, my mom spent $200 on a heavy, dark table at a garage sale, shortly after marrying my stepdad. We were only four, but there was room for six at the least and 10 or 12 when both leaves were put in, for holidays or birthday parties. The chairs had high, carved backs, and the table legs curved down to heavy canine feet. Someone once put a pan down with nothing but a thin tablecloth underneath, so now there's a white moon burned into the top -- something painful at the time, now with a sort of sweet history.

I think when I moved out before junior year of high school, my family stopped eating together. My mom was a vegetarian anyway, my stepdad all meat and potatoes, and he and my sister never got along anyway. Without me as some sort of equalizer, I guess the structure seemed too flimsy. Even with the heavy, dark table.

We don't exactly have a dining room, and we're not really a family, but Brian and I still eat, often together. Like my mom, I think it's not enough to just have food -- dinner should be a communal experience. I want placemats and place settings, and a pan burning a crescent into the wood. I want to clear the table before dinner, not just shove clean a space for my cereal in the morning. It's not the 22 minutes spent sitting, or the pasta, but the feeling of being with friends at a bar, or at church, if you believe, or even reading a book - just being connected to some other human presence in a specific moment.

So I've been looking on craigslist for a big, heavy wooden table, something dark, no mid-90s oak with padded wheeled chairs, nothing "Scandinavian" or minimalist, and definitely no metal and glass structures. It might be misguided to imagine a carved wooden rectangle will bring with it the gravitas of family, but it will be something -- at the least, it will help define the space between giant TV and kitchen.

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