[This piece is intended as an introduction to a series of stories based in family memories shared over the years.]
If our kitchen table could talk, oh the stories we’d hear. Growing up, our home revolved around the kitchen table. It was at the top of the steps coming in from the garage, a step from the phone, and a few steps from the coffee pot.
This is where we shared our meals, both everyday and holiday. It is where we read the morning paper and opened the mail and struggled with our homework. It is where we left notes telling where we were, who we were with, and when we’d be home. It is where neighbor women would come when they needed a word of advice or encouragement from my mother who, although just a few years their senior, had a lifetime of wisdom and friendship ready to dispense over a cup of coffee. It is where my dad told and retold stories about fishing and flying. It is where we ate rice with food coloring every night when the cupboard was bare and the pocketbook thin. It is where we held family conferences to share good news and bad–and to make the big and not-so-big decisions. It is where my mother sat rubbing her forehead as she paid the bills. It is where my father now plays endless hours of solitaire—the kids all grown and his wife too soon in heaven.
The oak table is over a century old, handmade, and the color of honey. It came with our family from our farm in west central Minnesota to our home in the suburbs when I was just eleven years old. It bore the scares from notches accidentally hacked into the edge from its first life when it was used as a surface to butcher chickens and pigs.
Not long after Minnesota became the 32nd state and the Civil War wounds were still fresh, our kitchen table was the center of my mother’s paternal grandparent’s farm life. When Grandpa Tody’s parents were first married, I imagine the table was used for meals, canning, sewing, repairs, reading, and a myriad of family projects, laced with the rich conversation that goes along with busy hands. As the years passed, the sturdy oak table was used as a surface to butcher livestock and repair harnesses. Over decades of daily use, it became covered with too many thick coats of varnish and soiled with the blood, sweat, and tears associated with the relentless rigors of Midwestern farm life. By the time it came to my folks, it was brownish-gray and dull.
World War II was raging across the sea, and in 1944, the year of their engagement, my parents painstakingly toiled evenings and weekends, stripping and sanding that table. Soon they discovered their hunch was right. This was a beautiful piece of workmanship with scrolled beaded legs and hand-hewed sliders enabling the table to seat up to 14 guests. By the time they were finished, they had a solid and attractive piece of furniture to begin their household and their life together.
Since that day, our family has depended on that kitchen table and taken it for granted, admired its beauty and misused it, relied on its function, and taken care of it–just as we have regarded one another.
Some of my fondest memories involve gathering around our kitchen table after school or work, scarfing cinnamon toast, and telling stories of our day or gossip we had heard while out in the world. My mother would often preface a story by saying, “Now girls, this is kitchen talk. You don’t have to tell everything you know.” This was her way of saying that the kitchen table was sanctuary – a safe house for sharing. The telling and retelling and analyzing of these events turned out to be our classroom, exploring ideas and forming values as we laughed and cried.
If our kitchen table could talk, oh the stories we’d hear.