Leaves could be added to the table to seat sixteen people comfortably and I never saw any of the leaves ever removed. Grandma taught me how to set the table properly – to set out forks, knives and spoons even if all the utensils wouldn’t be needed for the meal and to set out cloth napkins instead of one communal towel. My favorite tablecloth was one grandma embroidered with lazy daisy stitched flowers. As a child, it was more difficult to put a clean tablecloth on the long table than it was to make a bed. On Sundays during the summer the table was always full of relatives and the table was usually laden with garden produce - ceramic bowls of creamed peas and potatoes, corn on the cob, cole slaw, sliced tomatoes, home made rolls, Aunt Marie’s sweet pickles and pickled beets, and a platter of carved up and well done beef roast or burnt hamburgers that looked like lumps of coal. Dad said grandma never could learn how to cook after they took away her wood stove and gave her gas. There was usually cake for dessert and the adults then drank coffee, except for grandma who poured herself tea from her pink and gray mottled tea pot. But if the priest came to dinner she would use her gold trimmed white tea set- the one that now sets on the shelf above my kitchen window. Meals at the table always began with “Bless us O Lord and these Thy gifts…” and ended with “May I please be excused”.
One time at the table Aunt Burnette, grandma’s sister, demonstrated her napkin folding skills and folded her napkin into various shapes. The grand finale was a bra that she held up to her chest. All of the adults laughed except for grandma who had a horrified look on her face that I will never forget. I think I had a look of embarrassment since I had just begun wearing a bra. Another time Uncle Leo played a trick on Aunt Burnette and served hot dogs for lunch on a Friday back when it was a sin for Catholics to eat meat on Fridays. He let all of us know the hot dogs were made of fish before she arrived and told us to keep the secret. She watched us all eat our hot dogs while she made every excuse to abstain, never once reminding us it was Friday. When it was time for dessert the secret of the fish hot dogs was revealed and Aunt Burnette and everyone laughed. It was fun and I was honored to be in on the joke. Everyone in the family enjoyed jokes and tricks except for grandma.
The adults often played dominoes at the table but if they played bridge they got out the card tables. Uncle Leo taught me to play Pyramid, Clock and Klondike Solitaire at the table. Occasionally Aunt Marie would make mints for a wedding and cover the table with green and white sugar coated leaf shapes that tasted like toothpaste. At the table Grandma showed me how to lay out turquoise broadcloth and pin to it pieces of a Simplicity jumper pattern, matching arrows to the straight of grain. And after it was all cut out she set up the sewing machine at the end of the table, showed me how to thread it and watched me sew.
One day the table burned in a house fire and it was never replaced.
When I bought my own house I bought a used dining room table with one leaf and four chairs that swiveled and rotated until the kids twirled each other in them one too many times. Then I bought some old rusty restaurant chairs, sanded and painted them with Rustoleum and covered the seats and backs with maroon upholstery fabric that was cheap but didn’t match anything else in the house.
In the early days most of the food served at our table was made of pasta or rice – a variety of different meals made from recipes I copied from library cookbooks. We didn’t eat these things because we were vegetarians or thought they led to a healthy lifestyle. We ate them because that’s all we could afford to feed our family of five. Sometimes I would add turkey I had picked from boiled “39c per lb.” turkey legs. If it was summer we supplemented our meals with sugar snap peas, green beans or tomatoes from our tiny garden. Our favorite summer meal was sweet corn dripping with butter and sliced tomatoes.
The kids rolled, pounded and cut homemade playdo at the table and little pieces would drop, harden and hide in the shag carpet below their chairs if not vacuumed or picked up right away. At the table we played Candyland, Crazy Eights or Uno with the kids and after they went to bed my husband and I would sometimes play Canasta or Cribbage. When the kids were older they played one game of Monopoly that lasted several days and left the board set up at the end of the table. Other times there would be a partially assembled jigsaw puzzle at the end of the table and everyone, including visitors, could not walk by and resist the urge to try to add at least one piece to the puzzle. When there were big get-togethers of relatives the games that lasted into the wee hours of the morning were poker or euchre or Trivial Pursuit and the following morning the table would be filled with empty beer bottles and full ashtrays.
I worked on reading exercises with a dyslexic son at the table, grew impatient with a daughter who couldn’t understand math homework at the table and watched a son with a lot of energy run around and around the table like a dog chasing his tail. I did my homework at the table while the kids tapped my shoulder endlessly for a snack, a drink or because “Johnny is bothering me”. Over the years at the table we have blown out birthday candles, colored Easter eggs and laid out chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven on newspapers to cool. One time my son spilled a pitcher of lemonade on a table full of Christmas cookies but we ate some of them anyway after they dried. Sometimes we covered the table with blankets and made a tent below where we fell asleep while we all listened to scary old radio shows on the cassette recorder.
After the kids left home I started collecting ‘50s tablecloths and cabbage rose pattern depression glass dishes and would buy all the nice cloth napkins I found at the thrift store. After the granddaughters were born and old enough to reach the table they would help me set a fancy and proper table even if there was no special occasion. Once when a friend and her mother and granddaughter came to visit and the table was all set for brunch, one of my four-year-old granddaughters greeted the visitors with “be careful at grandma’s table so you don’t break the dishes”. And so, no dishes were broken.
Next week my granddaughters will help me make and ice a cake. Later in the day my grandson will be seated at the table on a booster chair and be presented with a cake with two candles as we all sing “Happy Birthday”. Then we may play some games that include all the kids or we may just talk at the table while the kids run around.
I’ve been thinking I’d like to get a new dining room set since I have ordered a new couch and love seat for the living room. I’ve been thinking I’d like a bigger table, a table and chairs that match, an actual "set". But the old restaurant chairs with the maroon seats have held up remarkably well. And I don't think I'd feel comfortable letting the grandkids fingerpaint, color, use glue and scissors, or play with clay at a new table.