Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Holland Redux: a Table for the Ages

I love the table in my aunt’s house for how solid it is. At some point, a man in need of a table simply pounded together a set of floor slats, passed on the varnish and affixed a set of thick legs; I imagine that he promptly ate off its naked back after setting it upright. Years of footsteps followed by years of dining have lithographed the surface with grooves that hint at heavy, scraping pots and tossed-about silverware; coffee stains and burn marks set off the grey-brown with a deeper brown and brown verging on ashy black. 

Such a purely functional eating platform. What could be more inviting come mealtime? It's as sure a sign as any that the real attraction is the food. My aunt emerges from the kitchen laden with a platter or a pan of something spattering and clops it onto the table with a deep thud; no fear, you could airdrop munitions onto this thing and the dust would clear to reveal it standing, proud and intact still. A metal pail full of slush and chilled bottles leaves a ring of condensation near the eastwards end; crumbs pile up in the hidden hollows that once sourced branches for another generation’s forest. Priorities. No frills, no unnecessary decorative elements (apart from a false drawer, but this only reiterates its patchwork origins). Just the Platonic idea of support, realized in the air above the dining room floor. And the food does not disappoint. 

I sit at this table in the light of the morning sun and see time, spread out, trapped in the frozen flows of the wood grain. An Ikea table wipes clean; it can be restored to an impeccable state within minutes of a meal. My aunt’s table—well, in the first place, there’s not an impeccable state to which it can, in principle, be restored. It was born old, wizened from a former life of soft beatings under the soles of its owners’ shoes. Its history intertwines with that of the family in the signs of a weathering that has affected every square inch. Nothing is left untouched by its own duration, after all. 

The moment it was first lifted up and ringed with chairs, this table began its work of acquiring tell-tale marks, pointers to its history as a communal object of specific uses. The rings convey this most clearly; nicks and smaller stains gesture at moments lost to memory. The whole surface has certainly faded and made it impossible to tell its original color from its present one. Devoid of the sharp angles of new furniture, its worn, rounded corners conform to whichever new hands would hoist this table during a repositioning. This table does not resist; it will outlast your celebration, your snacks for the game, your lifetime.

Such a table can undergo a thumping. Slapping the wood next to one’s plate mid-laugh, pounding it while gesturing with the opposite hand like a dictator, even bringing down two fists in a memorable rage—each of these is a matter of indifference to the enabling piece of furniture. Your humor and your anger will both subside, someday with an unmistakable finality. Such a table will not bend a leg for the event of your expiration. On the eventual day of my death, my aunt’s table will remain upright, austere, imperturbably resigned. The end of the world will elicit no reaction from it. You may as well be serving a noon brunch, for all this table cares. 

So yeah, that's why I like my aunt's table. 


  1. My grandmother has the coffee table equivalent of this. It's actually a door from a boat, turned on its side. It is massive and heavy and pockmarked, but it has withstood my grandmother's 5 kids and her 5 grandkids with their spilled coffee and juice and feet on the table. It is the best coffee table.

    1. Three cheers for solid and trustworthy furniture!