Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The scars on the table top

When Captain Midnight and I were first married, we didn't have a lot of fine furniture.  Our first sofa was a garish '70s model picked up from a sidewalk sale, and our first dining table was an octagonal glass-and-brass special with four chairs, one of which broke.  But we decided early that when it came to buying furnishings, we'd do what my mother and CM's parents had done: rather than go into debt to obtain the look of instant luxury, we'd save up our money and buy things we really wanted only as we could afford them.

Our current dining room table has been around for about eight years now.  It's a solid wood table and chairs, with simple, graceful lines.  CM picked it up new while we were living in Eugene; he paid cash for it and took it home triumphantly.  At first we didn't need to use all the leaves of the table or all six of the chairs, but over time the table has grown to play host to daily dinners, friends and family, neighbors and missionaries, and the Nerd Brigade.  We pile groceries and mail on the table, pack outbound parcels on it, and usually set up Miss V's sewing machine at the far end.  It still looks great although it's seen a lot of use.

Recently CM and I discovered some new, thin parallel scars in the wood at one end of the table.  We're not sure exactly what happened to cause them.  Maybe Miss V's sewing machine got dragged across the tabletop.  Maybe one of the gamers got a little too exuberant with his drink cup one Saturday afternoon.  Maybe CM or I carelessly scraped it up ourselves without noticing what we were doing.  In any case, we picked the table up and turned it around so that the end with the scars is less visible.  Yeah, we'd prefer not to have the scars, but it's no biggie; I understand things don't stay perfect forever.

I guess to some extent I'm haunted by the memory of another table top.

When my maternal grandparents passed away, our family went through the house to decide how their things were to be divided up.  One of the items was Grandma's dining room table.  I remember eating several home-cooked breakfasts and the occasional Thanksgiving dinner around this table while I was growing up.  The table and eight chairs were made of solid maple, and the table top was completely pristine -- as new and unblemished as the day it was purchased.  Because in the many decades that table was in the family, my grandparents never exposed the wooden top to the light of day.  It was always covered with a heavy custom-made pad and tablecloth, the better to preserve the table against the kinds of chips and dings and scrapes that usually show up in a large household.  My grandmother was obsessed with keeping her furniture perfect for some future eventuality, so she never actually allowed it to be used in the here and now because it might be damaged.  I didn't realize how beautiful that dining room table really was until both she and my grandfather were dead.

My great-grandmother had much the same ways.  She raised a family during the worst years of the Great Depression, when so many household items were irreplaceable.  Many people whose sensibilities were formed by the privations of that era grew up with a mentality of scarcity.  They tended to protect their investments of good china and furniture by not using them, or keeping their nice things in storage for some indeterminate "company" that never seemed to show up.  I doubt my great-grandmother would have broken out the good china even if Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had suddenly arrived on her doorstep.

What is the point of keeping things perfect for a rainy day that never comes?  What better use for the good china than to use it on your family?  Why not show off and enjoy the tabletop, and put it to the service it was made to be used for -- even if you thereby expose it to the dangers of damage and ruin?

The last time I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I got lost in the rooms full of 18th-century furniture.  These furnishings were rich with fine detail, masterfully designed and built.  I am glad they're still around for us to observe the beauty of their craftsmanship.  And yet there's also something inexpressibly sad about these rooms full of objects forever corralled behind roped-off enclosures and overseen by silent, watchful guards in dark blazers.  In these touch-me-not rooms, no one will be allowed to grasp the beautifully turned pull of a desk drawer, to collapse gratefully into the gracious lap of a chair, to climb up into the drowsy plush comfort of a four-poster bed for a good night's sleep, ever again.  It's sad because these objects were created to be used.  The French craftsman who poured so much of himself into the whorls and turns of an elegant armchair did so because he was creating something for people to sit in and enjoy; I'm pretty sure he never intended for it to become an artifact that people merely stared at from a respectable distance.

All physical things -- everything from houses to furnishings to our own bodies -- eventually wear out, no matter how well they're made.  Scars and other damage are an inescapable part of the experience.  Somewhere between the unreasonable ideal of keeping things completely pristine and the equally unreasonable tendency to trash them is a happy medium where we care for objects and for ourselves in a thoughtful manner, with the understanding that despite the best care, some day all these things will give out.  But when they do, they will have served the purpose for which they were created.  We will have worn out the dining tables and the good china with eating and celebrating, our chairs with sitting, our desks with writing, and our bodies with living.  And in the process we will have given ourselves numerous opportunities to enlarge the eternal materials of our souls.

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