My Place at the Table

A personal history is traced through the humblest piece of furniture.

“COME TO THE TABLE,” my mother would say, stepping out of the kitchen still wearing her apron and holding a wooden spoon. And our numerous aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends would eagerly assemble in her dining room for whatever holiday meal was laid out.

The table in question is a 42-inch round oak model that my mother’s parents bought in the early part of the 20th century. It features an octagonal pedestal base and a machine-age device to accommodate three expanding leaves. It was, and remains, sturdy and practical, much like my grandparents.

The table lived first in the railroad flat above grandfather’s Brooklyn pickle shop. This is where Grandmother served all the family meals and chopped horseradish every Tuesday for her husband and her brother (who lived downstairs). In 1950, after my grandparents died, the table went with my parents to their Levittown-style home on Long Island, where it became the hub of all activity.

It’s where aunts gathered for home-perm marathons; where Mother and her canasta friends sat, flashing their charm bracelets and Fire and Ice nail polish; where Swedish butter cookies cooled while I impatiently waited. It’s where Christmas gifts were carefully wrapped and hastily unwrapped. It’s where I did my homework (hell, it’s where my mother did her homework).

At some point in the ’60s, my father, grandfather, and I refinished the table, stripping off those hard-knock Brooklyn years and revealing the stunning oak beneath the vaguely purple kitchen grease. Despite our restoration efforts, my mother decided she wanted new furniture, and Grandmother’s heirloom went to live in the basement.

Until the ’70s, that is, when round oak tables experienced something of a revival. That’s when I rescued it from the cellar and brought it with me to New Haven for grad school. Over the next 25 years it came everywhere with me, from New Haven to Los Angeles, then back east again, and finally to my Greenwich Village apartment, where it once again doubles as both a table and desk.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve coveted plenty of other tables during my years editing the now-defunct Metropolitan Home or writing books about posh home furnishings. Occasionally I’ve thought of replacing it with something sleek and modern or classically midcentury. But I can’t. Not only does the old table seem to have another 100 years of life left in it, but it’s also an anomaly in the digital age. IKEA furniture can be assembled, but it can’t really be taken apart without a sledgehammer. And I wouldn’t trust any contemporary furniture company that claimed its goods could withstand multiple moves the way my table has.

So even though the old oak piece isn’t glamorous and probably wouldn’t be worthy of a magazine cameo; even though it’s not modern, shiny, or upmarket; even though it’s about as humble and functional as a form can be; I love it. It’s shabby without being chic. For that (and all the delicious memories), I’ll keep coming back to my table.