Friday, April 03, 2009

Then



The dining room table was made of smooth dark polished wood, its corners rounded. It sat on curved legs, each of which ended in a wooden carved claw clutching a wooden carved ball, a feature that my father pointed out to me privately in his Hungarian accent as an indicator of a proper antique. He admitted that it wasn’t a real antique, but an excellent reproduction.

The table consisted of two halves that were supposed to cleave together seamlessly, but the seam was always falling apart, just enough for us to keep pushing it together, pushing from each end so that the little wooden pegs slipped snugly into the little holes – and there, for a moment, it held, until the moment we released and then it sagged again, the two halves letting go of each other.

On top of the two wooden halves of the table were two protective glass halves. I wished we could get rid of the glass. That’s what really ruined it for me.

My father had bought the table and the six matching chairs that surrounded it. He bought them when we lived in England and crammed them into the tiny dining room of the rented house there. He bought them, he said, as a birthday present for my mother. I knew he bought them for himself. It was obvious. My mother never would have chosen them, but she packed them up and brought them back with us to the States when we returned.

We only sat at this table on weekends, the only time during my high school years that all five of us came together in one room.

My father sat at the end of the table farthest from the kitchen. The room didn’t hold much more than the table and its chairs. A small glossy piano fitted into the corner. We had brought it back from England too. My piano teacher, Daphne Spotiswood, a woman with an English accent who felt she was meant for better things, came to lunch on a Sunday once with her husband. With pride that we had an instrument, my father invited her with a flourish to play. She sat at our piano and played Mozart and Beethoven, music that our piano had never heard before. “It has a frightful sound,” said Ms. Spotiswood when she stood up, “not a good instrument at all.” We couldn’t tell. And even if we could we would not have said so.

My mother sat at the end of the table closest to the swinging kitchen door. I did most of the carrying back and forth. My mother had done the cooking. Now it was my turn. I wore jeans I had bleached in the bathtub, hoping they would come out differently than they did, patched with pieces of cloth left over from sewing projects that also never came out the way they should. Things I made did not come out the way I wanted them to. I did not know how to make things that satisfied. They fell short. I knew they always would. Just like my mother’s cooking and her sewing and her driving. She didn’t do things well and I knew I didn’t either. Not things I had to do with my hands.

My father initiated most of the conversation with false cheer, a smile on his face, a brightness that I knew was battling back blackness. We must all battle it back. “And what have my daughters been doing this morning?” His questions that I never ever wanted to answer, questions that instantly criticized whatever it was I had been doing – listening to a long-haired boy on the radio who sang about hitchhiking. I answer with as short an answer as possible. If it is too short it will draw attention. No, just enough to keep the scene going as it is.

“Your salads are always delicious, Joan,” my father says. It is one of the good things he has come up with to say to her. My mother doesn’t accept the compliment, doesn’t believe in it any more than I do. The salad is lettuce, tomato, oil, lemon and a little sugar. It always tastes the same. And yes, I like it too, but that has nothing to do with it.

The easiest moment is when my mother asks my father, or he asks her, “Did you see the joke in the New Yorker?” and they share a small moment of humor. They like the same cartoons.

When we are done I clear the table and do the dishes. My father retires to the couch, my mother goes up to her room, my sisters to theirs. I go upstairs too, to my attic room. And then there is quiet.

1 comment:

Heather said...

Oh how I remember that same table and chairs. We didn't have a table like that at home - my parents taste in furniture was always for clean cut contemporary designs. But I've seen your table in different people's houses in different settings and in different decades.