Old Table Has a Special Place in a Family's Traditions

By Carol J. Binkowski
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 24, 2008

A meal of frozen pizza and cheap wine, served atop a frayed blanket, remains a vivid recollection of our first apartment as a couple. The revving of bus engines some 20 floors below and the occasional slam of a door produced the soundtrack for our leisurely conversation, punctuated by companionable silences to meditate on the twinkle of nearby evening lights against our windowpanes. It was romantic, but we also had a practical reason for dining on the floor -- we did not yet have a table.

Dining tables had been an integral part of our formative years. My own family ate most meals together at a smallish, square 1950s model, sharing personal stories, gossip and debates, while watching my grandmother try to unobtrusively lob pot roast under the table for the dog. My husband's family kept the perimeter of their formal, deep mahogany table jammed with amiably chatting relatives at sumptuous meals on assorted weekends and holidays, the sturdy panels of its surface supporting the requisite minimum three main courses and bottomless Eastern European side dishes.

These were serious traditions to uphold, and we needed to find the perfect table to re-create similar scenes in our own home.

As a stopgap measure, we unearthed from my in-laws' basement a circa-1940s kitchen table, its gray Formica top framed in bright red trim and supported by strong stainless steel legs.

Studying the tabletop while sitting down on one of its four companion chairs -- which emitted an adolescent sound from the red plastic seat -- I wondered about the hole in the surface.

A cigarette burn, my husband said, offering to try to patch it. No need. The only free work space in our functional living quarters, the table was quickly obliterated by an overpopulation of papers and books. We dined in a cramped fashion on spaghetti and meatballs but could then move easily to discussing the mail of the day. When papers and books gobbled up Old Formica's total space, our living room became cuisine central with the unpacking of four nesting TV tables, a wedding shower gift. We dined on chicken and rice at our individual tables, transfixed by the evening news. We were still eating at a table together -- sort of.

When next-door neighbor Wendie bought a formal dining table, we eagerly purchased her previous model -- gargantuan in comparison to Old Formica. Solid with a thick, practical, brown matte surface, it was accompanied by six beige and gold plastic-covered chairs that sealed the deal. Gleefully moving it into our place, we agreed it was the best $125 we could have spent. Old Formica was temporarily stored.

Junk covered only a third of the Wendie table's expansive surface. We dined on the remainder, enjoying the antics of our growing baby in her nearby seat as she jettisoned liquid bananas in our direction. When guests visited, we scarfed snacks from the TV tables, dug into help-yourself lasagna from the Wendie table and played with baby. The Wendie table turned into the perfect work space for designing Play-Doh sculptures and finger-painted wall hangings. When eating dinner, we found it necessary to chew carefully to ferret out small chunks of artwork gone awry.

Additional tables arrived when we moved into our new house. Now would have been the time to carefully study the market for that perfect table and to get going on continuing those traditions, but a family friend was trading up and offered us her cheerful set done in a smooth walnut wood finish. The table's surface was flawless -- so much so that we hated to cover it up with a tablecloth -- or even touch it. It stood polished, beautiful and admired. "I'm almost afraid to use it," I admitted to my husband one day as we viewed the table in hushed awe.

Meanwhile, Old Formica was back in action in the kitchen. It was a fabulous surface for carving pumpkins, decorating Easter eggs and building an entire fort with ice cream sticks for a social studies project.

In the basement, the Wendie table came in handy for completing thousand-piece puzzles, building Lego roller coasters and fixing small appliances. It served as a buffet for kids' cake-and-ice-cream parties and informal casserole get-togethers where the young could watch videos and the adults enjoy some carefree talk. We were eating. We were together. We were just not at "the" table, which we still had yet to obtain.

When we inherited my in-laws' beautiful mahogany set with fully leafed table and six chairs, we were overwhelmed. It sparked the still-cherished hope of re-creating those large dinners of my husband's youth and the organized daily meals of my own recollection. Maybe this was "the" table. Practicality intervened as our daughter asked where we were going to put all of this furniture.

We rented one of the newly popular self-storage spaces and moved the mahogany table and chairs into it. At worst, we could always have dinner there, I decided. Three years later, I concocted an inspired plan to apportion all of the tables throughout the house, honoring my in-laws' mahogany set with the treasured dining room spot.

By this time our tables had multiplied like the sorcerer's broom in "Fantasia." Tables began to swim in my head like some demented screen saver. We did not eat together any more frequently with each acquisition. We did not entertain more often or in traditional ways. We just owned more tables. Re-creating the traditions of our youth seemed more remote with each addition.

One day I spied Old Formica on the back porch. It had many happy memories, as did all of our tables. They just weren't the duplicate memories of our families. We had different traditions, our own way of doing things, and that was okay. Then I knew: We had kept searching for the perfect table, but we had it all along.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company