the museum of americana

a literary review

Something Wooden—Nonfiction by Terry Barr

Our first breakfast room table was round and wooden, with a crease between individual boards that caught years of crumbs. Sometimes I’d try to wedge out the debris, as if doing my mother some great favor. It wasn’t my messiness that accounted for all this spillage, just most of it, from crusty breadcrumbs to saltine soup crackers to stray bits of beans and peas. 

Our first breakfast table, aside from being round, was built of light, yet sturdy wood. I’d name the tree that provided it, but I can’t. Anyone who would remember it is gone now, except my brother, and while he remembers the table and where we all sat, he cannot remember the exact wood.

“Was it pine?” he asked me recently.

“It looked too dark for pine,” I said. “It could have been cherry but definitely not oak or mahogany.”

My brother was no older than six when we replaced our first breakfast room table with another: a glossy hard-plastic-topped table with extra leaves so it could accommodate more than the five of us on those holidays occasions when  Dad’s family or my grandmother’s friends would join us. I’d help Dad pull it apart, glad that he could depend on me; more glad that he called on me and trusted me to help. At ten years old, I didn’t hate the new table, though I think my mother did. Dad procured it at a steep discount from Standard Furniture, a downtown Birmingham store that sold cheapo stuff designed for the modern working class family. Dad’s boss knew Standard’s boss, and so a discount was arranged, and an ugly but functional table born to us.

Knowing all this, and comparing our two breakfast room tables, I hate the second one now, for it replaced what I saw as a piece of art, a table I wish I still had.

The table was light brown with reddish hints. I can see the wood grain clearly and still feel the ridges of that wood, so smooth and soothing to the touch. Unlike the rough table my wife and I have owned for over twenty years, my family’s first breakfast table never gave splinters, or left a resinous residue on papers left lying there—not that my mother would have ever allowed papers to be left lying on her table. In my OCD family, any stray item left anywhere out of place for longer than five minutes might find itself trashed. I lost countless baseball cards before I learned to store them properly and immediately.

I don’t remember the chairs of our table, but knowing my mother and grandmother’s eye for antiques, I’m sure they matched. Nor can I say whether that  first table predated my parents’ marriage, if, in 1952, they picked it out together as a token of their new lives, or whether it was a gift from my grandmother or some other relative. My mother was raised in the house, and Dad moved into after they married, and their wedding took place in that house, too. So for all I know, our first breakfast table might have been my mother’s for the nineteen years she had lived there before her marriage to Dad. 

My grandmother dealt in antiques long before I was born, traveling throughout the country on buying trips to New York, Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis. If I had to guess, it was she who found the table— one  that could have been 50 or 100 years old by the time my parents married. In the years I was growing up, my grandmother sat at one end—the one nearest the kitchen. Dad sat at the other, and for much of my childhood, I figured his place was the head. I feel the tension between them even now, and I wonder how they saw things at the table? This was, after all, my grandmother’s house, and when Dad moved in, its mortgage had long since been paid. Who came first? Who really owned our first breakfast table?

My grandmother died when I was fifteen, though she lived long enough to see that first table replaced. She couldn’t have appreciated its replacement, though she maintained her customary seat at one end. A deal is a deal, and I don’t know if she or my mother agreed to that second table. 

I don’t know if they were consulted at all. 

Still, the table sat in our breakfast room for the next twenty-five years, collecting its periodic crumbs.

The  first table might have been a treasure, but if so, what happened once it fell from grace? I suppose we sold it or gave it to someone else who wanted or needed it. But maybe we put it down by the alley for any alley-dweller to find and take. Which is worse: that my parents unceremoniously removed this haunting wooden table from our midst so, or that I have no definite memory of how it vanished? 

While I’ve never forgotten that  first table, in fact, in the last fifty years, it hadn’t been in my conscious thought—until my therapist raised a question in a recent session.

I was telling him of the clear visions I’d been having of my mother, whose death had taken place one year before. In these visions I saw her walking in the house she and Dad moved to after a series of drive-by Sunday afternoon shootings led them to flee our old neighborhood. She walked into the kitchen—a kitchen unlike the one in our old house, a long space, where the familiar table stood wedged into a corner.

“Tell me about the kitchen table,” my therapist urged.

“Oh, her breakfast room table? We gave her that, my wife and I. It was a Christmas gift. Nothing great, just a pine table we bought raw and had finished. But wait, let me tell you about our first breakfast room table!”

 

*

I know that breakfast tables tend toward the utilitarian—that average American families use them two to three times a day, 730 to 1095 times a year—or at least did back when I was a child. When these tables begin to falter or wear down—one leg perhaps more fragile than its mates—we put our family tables away. We forget them. Their end is lost to us, and the process of remembering must be intentional, or in my case the result of being asked.

Memory intersects culture in fascinating ways.

My first married breakfast table was built by my wife’s father out of medium grade pine, its surface set with gray ceramic tile. Modeled after a table we loved at Pier One Imports, the table my father-in-law spent the entire Christmas holiday constructing was built by hand, using whatever tools he had acquired upon his immigration from Iran and permanent asylum in the US. My wife and I were away, enjoying the holidays with my side of the family, and so he built our first breakfast room table in our freezing apartment, a room in an old Victorian house on Clinch Avenue in Knoxville. That house is gutted now, gone, existing only in memory. We used the table my father-in-law built as our primary dining table for over a decade. And when we bought our larger, rough and resinous antique pine table and placed it in our dining room, we didn’t discard our first table, but moved it into the kitchen as a place where we could breakfast each morning or keep company with whoever was preparing the next meal. It held our daily mail, too, until we could sort it, and was a repository for my wife’s business papers. When we remodeled a few years ago, the breakfast room table my father-in-law built no longer fit. We didn’t discard it or give it away. Instead, we moved it into the finished workroom of our basement, where it holds various supplies of a Christmas sort.

In my wife’s culture, you simply don’t discard lovingly created pieces.

Though that table’s tiled crevices also gathered crumbs from zwiebacks, melba toast and French baguettes, and turned from putty white to gray over the years, we vowed to keep it until we die, at which point, surely, our more sentimental daughter will claim it for her own. She’ll likely store it in her basement or attic, or perhaps use it in her own kitchen, though we, of course, won’t be in any position to know or judge.

As I am now judging us all for the unknown fate of my biological family’s first breakfast room table.

When I became old enough to sit in my own place at our first breakfast table, my seat was closest to the room’s windows. One of these had an old padlock fastened around the window handle. It had been painted over numerous times, and as I sat waiting to be dismissed from supper, I’d try my best to wrangle it off. I kept thinking I could, not understanding why it was permanently fixed, why it was placed on that handle in the first place. My brother remembers this lock, too, and he says that my mother fastened it on the handle when she was a little girl, misplacing or never quite knowing where its key was. 

That old house in Bessemer—my first house, the house my mother married in—still stands. I used to drive past it, but I don’t anymore, as the current owners do not keep the place up as my parents did. Yet, I imagine that if I were to stop and ask to be allowed in, I’d find the lock still fastened on that window handle, the owners having no clue why or what to do. 

My regular journeys back to my hometown, Bessemer, have ended, though. I know no one who lives in the town except one dear friend. She and her husband are in their eighties, and I’m wondering now about the story of their breakfast room table, surely a different one from the one my brother and I dined at last summer after our mother died. Our friend served a supper of fresh vegetables—creamed corn, pink-eyed peas, lima beans–so like the meals my mother prepared at all our breakfast room tables.

Like the ones I prepare for us now at ours.

As a boy, seated near that padlocked window, my mother and little brother sat on the opposite side—he in his high chair, and she attempting to feed him and herself, suffering food explosions from his mouth or little hands. On the table, a red-checkered cloth like the ones so common in Italian restaurants. Without fail, and usually twice a week, one of us would spill tea or milk on that tablecloth, and my parents would explode in anger, dismay, and utter confusion. I’d spill on cotton or plastic placemats, too. Sometimes I’d hide bits of my pan-charred steak under my plate. Along with my grandmother’s coffee rings, the stray ashes from her and my mother’s chain smoking, the story of our first breakfast room table is a stained one, a strikingly disordered one.

A very normal one.

That wooden table would be replaced by an ugly plastic-veneer object from Standard Furniture, and once my brother escaped his high chair, we upturned the seating arrangements. My brother moved to my side and we sat together, not always without shoving elbows or claiming being slighted in portions. 

Two days before my fifteenth birthday, my grandmother died in the nursing home where she spent her last months, the victim of a series of strokes. I wasn’t allowed to visit her during her last few weeks there. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her. 

After her death, my mother moved to her place at the table, and I switched sides. In OCD families, this was a miracle. And so we dined together, the four of us at a table no one particularly liked. A replacement table my mother endured for over twenty years until my wife and I intervened.

 

*

One Christmas, my parents, my wife, and I tried something unusual: we chose a foreign film to sustain us after turkey: Babette’s Feast. My mother raved about the cinematic meals Babette prepared, incredibly simple yet elegant French food, served outside on an enormous country pine table. In my memory, that table had to be fifteen feet long. Because my mother couldn’t quit obsessing over the film and especially that table, my wife and I decided that for my parents, another Christmas gift was in order: a new breakfast room table.

We found an unfinished furniture store in Birmingham, selected what we could afford—a six-foot pine—had the wood  stained a natural finish–rendering it unreturnable in doing so—and presented it to my parents before we left town. This new breakfast room table sat accommodated six people comfortably, and, of course, had no extended leaf. They seemed to love it, or at least I thought so. I wondered then, and still do: was that the table my mother would have picked had she the choice? Was it anything close to what her choice might have been? I think we were generous and thoughtful; yet, is it really generous and thoughtful to pick out someone else’s breakfast table and present it to them cold? Was our decision overly personal? Did it cross a boundary?

I told myself that Mom’s hesitation, the level of enthusiasm that hovered just below “I love it,” was due to our inability  to afford the accompanying chairs, and it well might have been. My father shelled out as much, if not more, money for the chairs than we did for the table, which at least explained his muted thanks to us.

Once, I broached our possible transgression with my mother, and her reassurance—No, no that’s all right—was enough to stop me from speaking about it again. Speaking, but not thinking.

We set my parents’ new breakfast room table in its place, and my Dad and I transported that old table from Standard Furniture down to the basement.

“Good riddance,” my mother said.

When I returned to Bessemer next, it was gone. I didn’t ask where.

In some ways, then, my parents had returned to the life they had at  the start, as by this time, my brother and I had left home. At this new rectangular table, they sat at opposite ends with the length of pine between them, such distance being their norm.

When they moved across town, that pine table followed, and there it served the family through my father’s death in December 2000, and until my mother’s death a year ago. 

My wife and I saved almost every piece of my mother’s furniture: sideboards, lamps, chests of drawers, and stored the rest in our basement until my brother and our daughters are ready to take their share. 

Two items we didn’t take but gave to my mother’s church to distribute to those in need: the sleeper sofa in her den.

Along with the pine breakfast room table. 

The table where every morning after my Dad died, my mother would sit in the same seat, far left, drinking her Hershey’s chocolate milk, reading the morning Birmingham News, and talking on the phone to her best friend, Jane Mulkin, whose table my brother Mike and I dined at after my mother passed. I can see my mother sitting at her last breakfast table, blue linen placemat beneath her plate, talking over Good Morning America as it blared from the TV in the adjoining den. And at lunch and supper, the same place, same time, same shows accompanying her meal.

She always wiped the table clean after, too, that pine breakfast room table we gave her. It looked as new thirty years later as it did on the day we brought it home.

It’s not that we didn’t want it, but we had our own pine table, that rough one we found at a Birmingham antique shop long ago. We had no place for my mother’s table, even though ours sits in our informal dining room (I never refer to it as our dining table), and no table occupies our kitchen.

I think of all my family’s breakfast tables now, not knowing where they are. I am not by nature a religious person. I don’t know what happens to us after we’re gone from this place, but I believe we keep living in the minds and hearts of those things we leave behind, like the breakfast room table lives in mine.

We don’t think of the fate of people, or things, as often as we should. So here and now I offer words of atonement to my first breakfast room table for letting it recede from my memory for so long; for not honoring it as I should have while we had it; for not loving it while it served us, as it still might be serving, living, in some other place–some upper room of an antique shop, some unknown breakfast room just off a family’s kitchen. 

 

~~~

Terry Barr‘s essays have been published in Under the Sun, storySouth, Cleaning Up Glitter, Call Me [Brackets], Eclectica, The Raven’s Perch, The New Southern Fugitives, and EMRYS Journal. He blogs for The Weekly Knob at Medium.com, and lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his family