I grew up in a big family—mom, dad, four kids, two grandparents who lived with us, assorted foreign exchange students. Our days and nights were a blur of school and work and chores and extracurriculars and PTA and bridge club and League of Women Voters. But every evening, pretty much without fail, we all gathered at the dining room table for dinner, where we told jokes and argued and laughed and debated—and ate. We had a kitchen table too, but that was for peeling potatoes and changing the water in the guppies’ bowl. The dining room table was the centerpiece of our domestic life.
Three decades ago, when I moved in with my husband, we didn’t have a dining room table. We had a piano instead—a baby grand that had been there when Doug and his roommate moved into their little Center City rowhouse and which Doug took with him when he and I moved out. Our next house, in South Philly, still had the piano instead of a dining room table. So did the one after that—the house where we live now. Doug was working as a musician and teaching, and he played the piano every day. Our kids grew up eating in the kitchen, which I always secretly thought of as déclassé. The situation also meant I never got to host holiday meals for my siblings and their families, since they all had dining room tables and not pianos in their dining rooms. Come Christmas and Thanksgiving, I’d listen jealously as friends and co-workers spoke of the feasts they’d be preparing for their loved ones. I, too, longed to enter the exotic world of table runners and linen napkins and gilded chargers and seasonal centerpieces, all of which seemed like overkill on a dinky little kitchen table.
But the thing about life is, it changes. A few years back, Doug realized nobody was hiring live musicians anymore. All the ones he knew were calling each other and asking: “Hey, got any work?” And the answer was always no. So he went back to college for a new career in health care, and promptly became so busily employed that he never touched the piano anymore, not to mention the three trombones and the tuba and the two electric keyboards and the music stands and hand truck and boxes of old business records and piles of sheet music that were also cluttering up the “dining room.”
I might have been content to let all that crap sit there indefinitely except for one thing: Five years ago, when my dad died, I took possession of the family dining room table—the one where all of us had gathered back in our younger days. I had a dining room table (and the chairs, to boot). What I didn’t have was anyplace to put it. And I started to get … itchy. Oh, I wanted to be nice. I wasn’t about to haul Doug’s stuff out to the trash. But I didn’t see why it had to continue to occupy the dining room, since it never got used.
I confided in our daughter, who’s studying to be a social worker. “It must be really hard for him to give all that up,” she said social-workerly.
“You know what’s hard? What’s hard is having a perfectly good dining room table sitting in the garage,” I shot back. “I could make an offer for Thanksgiving this November—or maybe even Christmas. I could have candlesticks and finger bowls. I could be Martha Stewart. I just need a chance.”
She’s a woman. She gets the nesting thing. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
A few weeks later, on the long car ride out to share a holiday meal with Doug’s parents—they have a dining room—she trained her social-worker sights on her dad. “Why do you think you’re still so attached to your instruments?” she gently probed. “Is the attachment emotional, or is it more habitual?” The very next day, he began listing his stuff for sale on eBay. I was awed. That degree is going to be worth every penny she pays.