Being :: At The Table

January 10, 2013

Being: Conscious, mortal existence; life.

Every month we welcome two families, two people, two voices to share their stories in whatever way they choose. We hope that you find joy in their daily lives, and their simple habit of just being. 

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Two weeks before my oldest left for college for the first time—don’t fear, I won’t get maudlin like I did last week—a photographer came to our house for a family photo shoot. We posed for photographs all over the house and yard, letting her direct us to where the light glowed softest, where the backgrounds colored best. There was one particular shot that I wanted, that I’d requested ahead of time: a photo of our family eating a meal around the kitchen table.

It was an unusual request, apparently. The photographer had never taken photos of a staged meal for a family photo shoot. To me, though, there was no question of where a photo of our family should be set. Around the kitchen table. There’s no place that we are a family more.

When we built our house, the table came first. Not the actual table, but the thought of the table. Before anything else, I imagined a long, farmhouse table, and a kitchen rising up around it. The rest of the house fell into being from there.

I did not want my table to serve as a kitchen island. I didn’t want to clutter it with cooktop or sink. I wanted it to be an old-fashioned table: a place where an Italian grandmother (or I) might roll out pasta dough, and later gather the family to eat it. We commissioned the three-and-and-a-half-by-seven-foot tabletop from a local company that builds tables from the pine floorboards of 19th century English factories. It felt right to bring some history into a house so new. For one end we chose tall, turned legs, which I stained in gold and green and blue and black, inspired by a favorite wooden salt and pepper set. At the other end, the one beside the window, beside the sink, we placed a cabinet with shelves and a slot for a mammoth cutting board. That’s where my husband and I stand to chop the onions and garlic that begin most every dinner.

It’s a comfortable place to stand and chop, since the table is high, like a bar. Five tall chairs form a semi-circle at the opposite end. That’s where we sit for dinner. Also for breakfast: buttermilk pancakes made by Daddy every Saturday. It’s where for fifteen years I have I grilled up sandwiches or tacos for lunch, maybe peanut butter on apple slices for a snack. Sourdough pizza every Friday night dinner. It’s where the boys tip their chairs, balancing them on a single leg and making their mother crazy. Where we say a prayer and then we eat, laughing and spilling and shouting and forgetting to use our napkins, speaking of our days and our world and maybe superheroes, and watching the youngest stand on his chair, because sometimes it’s the only way he can attain our attention. It’s where we sometimes cry, throwing down our napkins, severing the circle and stomping from the room.

When guests visit, they find a spot at the table soon after they’ve dropped off their coats. And they stay there. Parties always wind up in kitchens and that’s certainly true of ours. On occasion we dress the table in a white cloth to be fancy, but folks seem just as happy to sit at our naked table, eating nothing fancier than crackers from a can. A few years back we bought a blue velvet couch for our family room. Few guests have sat on it. They would rather be at the table. It has some irresistible draw.

A big table is a good place to work. A good place to sliver tangerines for marmalade, to ooze harvested honey into bottles, to make a grand Spanish spread of tapas, with potato tortilla made by a husband with Spanish blood. A good place for two teenage girls to make four-dozen cupcakes, in four different flavors, with four different frostings, when they are bored on a summer day. A good place to construct birthday cakes—so many birthday cakes—and to blow out their candles and wish.

It’s also a good place to do work unrelated to food. I’ve always despised that old homeschooling cliché: kids gathered around the kitchen table with mom, bent over worksheets and textbooks. As homeschoolers, we rarely use worksheets or textbooks; still we find ourselves at the table every day: reading poetry aloud, layering planet models in flour paste, sketching comics, carving soap, testing the alkalinity of cabbage and carrots.  The eleven-year-old, resident artist, has stained his spot at the table for eternity, with ink and paint that have run through paper, off the edges of paper, without regard for paper at all. I rub out the marks as best I can and glaze over them with wax. I’ve tried, in vain, to encourage other learning spaces in our home: desks in the kids’ bedrooms, a chunky worktable in our office, the wool carpet in our family room. Why do we invariably find ourselves back at the kitchen table? Is it the way the sun slants across it from the backyard every morning? The proximity to snacks and hot water for tea? All I know is that my children’s homeschool memories will be as embedded with our kitchen table as the art stains are in the table itself.

When the photographer came that day, I made a meal that we didn’t plan to eat. It was 4:00 on an August afternoon, when the light was best, and we weren’t hungry. I’d picked lettuce from the garden for salad, made a Friday night pizza on a Tuesday and had my husband uncork a bottle of wine. We couldn’t really eat the food, even if we had been hungry, because who wants a photograph of a family with mouths full of food? The photograph wasn’t really about the food anyway. It was about the five of us sitting in one of our favorite places, smiling and talking and laughing together.

photo by Mary McHenry

Maybe the magic of a kitchen table is never really about the food. Sure, coming together to nourish our bodies, to share the sensory pleasure of food is an extraordinary act. But maybe we overlook the importance of our arrangement when we sit together at a table. Think about it. Rarely, except at the table, do we sit so close, in a circle, orienting eyes, ears and attention towards each other. The physical array reminds us what matters: the people beside us, across from us. Our hearts beat toward each other, and I can’t help but think that there’s a very real force in all that heart power. Could any other place be the heart of a home? Could any other place matter as much?

This month we happily welcome Patricia Zaballos to the Being series.  Patricia is a writer, homeschooling parent, knitter and urban bee keeper.  Patricia writes about kid-centered learning and raising children to be writers on her blog, Wonder Farm, and recently published her first book, Workshops Work! A Parent’s Guide to Facilitating Writer’s Workshops for Kids.

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Rhythm of the Home is an online magazine for families that focuses on creating with children, nature explorations, seasonal celebrations, conscious parenting, and mindfulness in all that we do.   To learn more about us, please visit us on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

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{ 2 comments }

dawn January 11, 2013 at 4:41 pm

i feel so similarly to our dining room table. the very first one we had (as a couple, over 20 years ago) was the one my husband’s parents had in their kitchen. it’s where i had my first meals with his family when we started dating, where i learned how to play pinochle and painted my nails with my to-be-mother-in-law.

the table and chairs we bought on our own were selected with great deliberation, too. we knew we wanted to have children, and we knew we wanted to be able to expand it to offer space to anyone who wanted to join us. we found just the right one, with rounded edges (because i’m always bumping into corners) and pedestal feet (because i’m always slamming my toes into things). we love the graininess of it, the feel that only solid wood can offer, the texture and pattern that can incorporate water stains, sharpie marker, and dents.

with the leaves in (or out of) it, we can fit it to almost any space or fit any need. we eat there, we craft there, we read there – aloud to each other or each of us silently to ourselves. we write there, we build there, we compose our art there. it is the home of our nature basket, gifts of flowers or fruit, and objects of current interest. it is the focal point for our gatherings, either as a family or with others. it is our science lab table, our game table, our finger-food-friday and formal-sunday-dinner table. it is the place we sit around, stand around, run around.

our table is not just a thing; it’s a place, a presence. to me it makes perfect sense to want to have your family photo there. it’s where you do your living, your being.

come to the table – come as you are – share what you have and take what you need. you are one of us when you take a place at our table. no, no other place matters as much as our table, either. :)

patricia January 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Oh Dawn, *that* comment was worth the wait! Thank you for sharing the story of your tables. The details of playing pinochle and painting your fingernails with your future mother-in-law are quirky and universal at the same time. And reading about all you do at your current table is like peeking through a chink into your life. (Love that you remembered to mention running around the table! Of course!)

“You are one of us when you take a place at our table.” I think I will find a way to hang that line in my kitchen. Beautiful.

Thank you, Dawn. You made my day.

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