- Kitchen Table c. 1970
When I think of the house where I grew up, in England, it’s the kitchen table that stands in my mind, half a lifetime later, an ocean and a continent away, for our family’s endurance. It was a workhorse pine table, the kind that is never polished but wiped with a dripping sponge instead, a solid rectangular piece that easily accommodated all six of us. It was the kind of table you could put your elbows on, and we did. It had come from an auction sale in Overton, a village across the border in Wales, bought by my mother in her auction sale phase, before pine became fashionable and expensive. She had an eye for furniture, and although she was terrified of accidentally buying something she couldn’t afford by raising her eyebrow or scratching her nose at the wrong moment, she regularly braved the cryptic world of auction rooms: the conversations in Welsh, the men in their peaked tweed caps and weathered faces, and the auctioneers jabbering at breakneck speed, their intonation rising rhythmically like soccer commentators when the ball approaches goal.
One day she came home elated, having purchased the table in a job lot for three pounds, along with a butter churn and a tall pine cabinet with a broken drawer. All three had come from a farm in North Wales. The table was rough to the touch, thanks to decades of vigorous scrubbing by the farmer’s wife. My parents could not afford to have it professionally finished, so they set to with heavy-duty sanding disks, and my mother varnished it in between writing assignments for her Open University degree and running a household with four children under ten.
The table became my mother’s domestic command center. At any given time, in between meals, it might hold onions on a broken chopping board; kitchen knives that had been sharpened so many times the blades were wafer thin; newspapers, shopping lists, and bills; cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and runner beans from the garden being soaked and sliced; saucepans full of potatoes ready to be peeled; the family wicker basket loaded with tins and packages [End Page 200] from the shops down in the town; white paper bags with the day’s Welsh wholemeal or granary loaf; letters; bottles of milk; marmalade- or chutney-making paraphernalia; Victoria sponge cakes cooling from the oven in shallow tins lined with grease-proof paper; and piles of washing, either wet and ready to be pegged on the clothes line outside or dry and waiting to be ironed. In September there would be buckets of blackberries and damsons waiting to be made into jam. No matter what time of day, there would be half-drunk mugs of tea or coffee, and sometimes both at the same time.
There was a constant hubbub as my mother prepared meals, refereed disputes, shouted at the dog, answered the phone, listened to the radio, issued instructions, and chatted with friends who dropped in to see her. In the background one of the kids would be practicing a musical instrument—the piano, the viola, the clarinet, or the cello. Meals in our house often lasted for hours, they were so entwined with conversation, plans, and arguments about people, books, and politics. I enjoyed being part of a big family and taking part in the animated talk and discussions that went on all the time.
But the table wasn’t only my mother’s province—it was used by all of us. My brother and I sat there to do our homework; my little sisters daubed sheets of construction paper with primary colors, dipping their paintbrushes into jam jars full of gray water; my Dad would bury himself behind the Guardian over breakfast and sit up late writing student reports in his tiny, cramped handwriting with his signature black Biro, or letters to the Shropshire Wildlife Trust; often he would pore over Ordnance Survey maps, planning our next family hike in the Welsh mountains. On rainy weekends and holidays we played Monopoly or Cluedo. At the table I learned to cook, starting with sponge cakes. I would...