On Thanksgiving Eve, Husband took our dining room table to task for its creaking and shifting. While I quartered fennel and peeled turnips, he presided over the upturned table: drilling, cursing, and leaning into its legs. Several trips and two hardware stores later, not only had he beaten the squeak and reinforced the girders, but he’d also found inspiration to build the leaves missing from our table for fifteen years—fifteen years of dining and relationship wear and tear, service and sacrifice, love and neglect.
My parents’ marriage lasted fifteen years. One of my only memories of my family-of-origin consists of the five of us—my parents, my older brother and sister and me, age 5—gathered around the dinner table as they broke the news of their divorce. We’ve dined at so many holiday tables over the decades, in endless configurations. Once a typical vertical/horizontal family tree, my family genogram has metamorphosed into a spider’s web, due to divorce, re-marriage, death, and all manner of estrangements.
Our first furniture purchase as boyfriend and girlfriend (drummer and actress), the solid maple table cost $150 and came from a Chicago resale shop. The table—clearly built to expand– had a clean split down the middle, but didn’t include any leaves. Regardless, the table felt like a solid investment in our future, and the need to extend the table felt foreign and remote—especially given that my boyfriend’s bandmates considered a 40-ounce beer a “dish to pass.”
Hoisting the table into our one-bedroom love-nest under the El tracks proved a challenge. Before we could even introduce ourselves, our neighbor found himself wedged in our door, heaving under the table’s unwieldy girth. I don’t think I ever learned his name. Probably because we never heard from him again.
Two years later, Husband and his 6 foot 7 inch little brother moved the table into our newly-purchased vintage condo. Engaged and in career limbo, I’d grown weary of the unemployed actor hustle, and Husband had enough of hauling his drum set through subzero Chicago winters. We prioritized losing ourselves in coupledom over the unappealing task of finding ourselves as individuals. Husband stained the unfinished table a deep mahogany to match the dark floors and resplendent 1920s woodwork. The hard maple didn’t absorb the stain easily, but he persisted, transforming raw potential into something more polished and refined.
Soon after, Husband applied for graduate school in industrial design. In meeting with the admissions adviser, he described a case he fashioned for his electronic drum accessories out of an old suitcase and foam core. He regaled his trials with the 1959 BMW motorcycle he was restoring, and mentioned the dining table he refinished that would soon have a high chair next to it. His DIY habit—including our table—got him into the master’s program and launched him on a fulfilling career path capitalizing on his creative ingenuity.
Three years later in 2006, we moved to my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin—back to my loving minefield of a family–with our two-year-old son, and expecting his brother. Hired movers dismantled the table, traversed it across state lines, and reassembled it in our new house. The table no longer felt secure; it whined and shifted whenever someone scooted their chair. Husband traveled constantly for work and traveled constantly when home, triaging needs of the diaper, laundry, and exhausted wife variety. Our once-solid partnership groaned and swayed alongside the table, articulating one more demand on our non-existent time. The split in our table now served as a mocking reminder of the long list of unmet personal, household, and relationship needs—unmade beds, unmade plans, unmade leaves.
This Thanksgiving, fifteen years after our second-hand store coup, the table became whole at last: pegs meeting holes, boards flush to boards– bridging the split sides of the original wood and extending its reach to new lengths. Our boys (now Six and Eight), Husband’s family, and my step-mother–newly and suddenly estranged from my father—gathered around it. Our table didn’t moan or lean when people got up for yet more mashed potatoes, and the boys and their cousins conversed with minimal potty-talk.
Within a three-mile radius of our home, my side of the family alone required three separate holiday dinners. My family-of-origin genogram has shape-shifted again, adding not leaves, but entirely new tables in entirely different homes—my 70-year-old father now sits at the head of a family dinner table among people I hardly know.
Perhaps at this very moment a young couple in a thrift shop counts their bar-tending tips, considering an investment in a split-open and leafless dining table in the mid-century modern section. Maybe that table once belonged to my parents. Quite possibly, the couple will sit on mismatched chairs and rest their feet on it while sharing a 40-ounce beer. Maybe the young couple will even make it whole again—if only for the brief moment of a far-away holiday dinner.