Monday, December 22, 2008

The Kitchen Table

A kitchen table is a magnet for memories. Especially a table that's grown old while the family grows up. Our family's maple table served through a lot of our lives. I remember it first in our kitchen at the Callahan House. It must have weighed a couple of hundred pounds. It was huge, oval, long enough for a big man to lay on top and still not have his feet dangle. It was a table that made a room seem small, a table that the whole family sat at through a thousand meals.

I see that table in your house today. The drop leaf sides are folded so it can fit against the stair well. The table is too big for your house now, and you are thinking about getting rid of it.

I run my hand over the surface. Like everything, the top is clean and well waxed. The window light catches the surface just right and I can see through the polish to the dents and dips that speak of a lifetime's use. The whole family grew up around this table. Here are the thousand nicks and gouges of growing up, dropped plates, pencils pushed through homework papers, perhaps these two dents were caused by Paul's kiddy seat. He used to reign from the center of the table back when we called him the fat man, and you couldn't talk to him direct.

This is the spot on the table where I wrote my times tables. I see the tracings of my pencil, faint veins sketched forever in the surface. It's easy to remember sitting at this table, 10 years old, copying over the awful 9 tables. 9x1=9, 9x2=18, 9x3=27, over and over again, drilling and drilling. I'm preparing for the quiz that dad will give me when he gets home from work.

Mom's cooking fills the kitchen with dinner's almost ready odors. I'm trying to lock the numbers into my mind. The times tables are a sing©song chant. I think I know them, then they fade.

Dad drilled me on the times tables endlessly. We used flash cards bought in a teacher's supply store. He prompted and I recited. We quizzed out of sequence and in order.

Up the ladder, "9x1=9, 9x2=18, 9x3=27"

Down the ladder, "9x9=81, 9x8=72, 9x7=63".

I'd pass my school test, usually missing one or two, and promptly forget them all until the next drill session. Dad was very patient, explaining, (like I now do to my kids and students) the importance of having the times tables down pat.

Too bad it never really stuck; I've never been much with rote learning. To this day I only remember the states and capitals and times tables while I'm drilling my classes. The unit changes and it all fades away.

This table that's too big for just the two of you, is also the table where we set up the electric trains that Christmas at the Callahan house. The layout was fastened to a half sheet of plywood, it covered most of the center of the table. In the middle was a snow topped mountain with tunnels. We glued down flock grass, and painted a mirror blue to create a pond. The H/O gauge track was pinned to the board with small brass nails. Spongy green lichens were glued in clumps like real shrubs. There were houses and a train station. Some of the houses had lights that really worked.

The railroad on the kitchen table was powered by a big black transformer with red handles. Cranking on the power the transformer hummed and vibrated, throwing off electrons and sweating ozone. I had a red and silver diesel, the Santa Fe Express, with a head light that flashed through the mountain tunnels. John had a black locomotive. A few drops of mystery liquid in the smoke stack and the thing would huff its way around the track, belching tiny puffs of smoke, giving the air an oily tinge.

The layout stayed on the kitchen table all through Christmas vacation. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner seated at the edges of a miniature universe. It was the essence of Christmas to see the trains all over the kitchen table every morning. I'd have my bacon, peanut butter toast, and milk not far from the tracks. I sat there to chew, swallow, and watch the trains go round and round.

There was lots of room at the big maple table for a special guest the night Mr. Brown, my grade school teacher, came to dinner. I was proud and amazed that my teacher was going to come to my house and have dinner. The kids at school didn't really believe that the teacher would actually be there." No way, you're making it up!" Maybe inviting the teacher to dinner was old fashioned even then.

Mr. Brown was a tall, lean man. He always had a dark tan. I was sure it had something to do with his name. He looked a little like Gary Cooper did in Sergeant York. Mr. Brown wore a corduroy coat with leather arm patches to dinner that night. He even had on a tie. He was honoring my family by wearing a tie, he never did that in class. It seemed fantastic, unreal, that my teacher was actually out of school and in my house.

But there he was sitting at the big maple table with me, my Mom and Dad and my little brother John. Mr. Brown was smiling and making polite conversation. I was mostly quiet and listening. I worked hard at my manners, taking small bites, using the napkin, trying to be mature.

I wasn't adolescent enough yet to be embarrassed by my family, I just felt proud. It was a great night. Even John was good. Mr. Brown talked about his summer job as a Park Ranger. It was easy to imagine him in a ranger's uniform and now I knew the origin of that tan. Mr. Brown got sun burnt every summer and his tan lasted the whole school year. For the rest of the 6th grade Mr. Brown had a special smile for me when ever our eyes met.

Understanding a little piece of Mr. Brown's life gave me my first thought of becoming a teacher. Summers off to be in the woods, and free meals. It looked pretty good from my side of the table.

Twenty years later Gavin, one of my students, stood at my desk, and looked me in the eye "My Mom and I would like you to come to our house for dinner." I accepted immediately. In 15 years of teaching this was the only time I'd been invited to dinner. That invitation was very special to me. It made me think of Mr. Brown. Was our dinner invitation the only one Mr. Brown's ever received?

Now, I sit at another dinner table. I'm wearing a corduroy coat with elbow patches. I have a tie on. The kids stare at me with big eyes, amazed I'm at their table, in their house. I smile, make polite conversation, watch my table manners and enjoy this rare evening. I had a special smile for Gavin for the rest of the year.

Turning the tables helps me remember that kids don't believe teachers are real people, with lives outside the classroom. No, teachers are different than other adults. They live at school and only think about the subjects they teach. Kids know that teachers spend every evening preparing tests and grading papers. Students are sure that teachers believe absolutely in the impeccable recall of times tables, have a perfect knowledge of the parts of speech, and never misspell a word. It is too high a standard.

The marks, dents, gouges and chips have been polished smooth. But I still can read the big maple table like a map. It hasn't changed that much, but we have.

It must be lonely, just the two of you, having a meal at this vast, well worn table. I know the table really doesn't fit your house now. You could find something half the size that would serve better. It makes perfect sense to get rid of it.

But I hope you don't. I hope you keep the table. Put a fresh coat of wax on it and make some more memories. Written 1990.


The table is in my house now. Both my parents are gone, but the memories scribed in the table remain. It's almost Christmas, and most of my family will sit around the big maple table in just a few days.

~ December 2008

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