Table tales

Of course, the dining room furniture had to be imposing. The huge dining room was next to a thirty- by forty-foot living room with a fourteen-foot ceiling adorned by a striking crystal chandelier. Are we hearing a little snicker already? Looking good was important to my family.

My grandmother and a friend got on a train to St. Louis to find the right furniture. The table, more narrow than some, boasted five leaves so twelve people could easily be seated. The chairs were extremely heavy and added elegance. The sideboard was around seven feet long. A pretty matching console was chosen. Completing the set was a tall china cabinet, with solid doors embellished with a chinoiserie motif in green.

Mary Lee writes | Table tales

Chinoiserie for the china cabinet

I must back up. My grandparents, Mary Emma and Eugene Barton, purchased this house in Jonesboro, Arkansas, around 1924. My mother, Dorothy Barton Rebsamen, was single and living at home. The family had lived on West Washington until this home, located on twenty-two wooded acres and modeled on a Mississippi country club, was purchased. My mother married my dad, Lloyd Rebsamen, in 1930, and the couple moved in with my grandparents as my grandfather told them they couldn’t marry unless they promised to live with them. I was born in 1936 into that weirdness.

As I grew up in this situation, I formed a relationship with this table. The early years were torture for a child, as I was expected to sit at the table until the adults were ready to move to another room. There was an old man called Uncle Levi of whom I have only hazy memories from interminable meals, quietly listening to him “preach.” I think he may have been a retired Baptist preacher.  My grandmother always sat at one end of the table so her foot could reach the button under the rug to summon the server. The dining room had a swinging door to a hallway which then opened to the kitchen. It was not all that easy, carrying trays, clearing the plates, serving dessert. However, I don’t recall a thing ever being dropped or spilled.

When I was nine, it was decided that the house needed to be renovated. My parents bought a place nearer the center of town, on South Main, and we all, my parents, grandparents, and I, moved and lived there for about three years. That was the first of several moves for the dining room table. Once the work was completed on the house, we all traipsed back in, though I have always thought my parents would have liked to stay in their own place on Main Street. The dining table returned to its place of honor, fulfilling its obligation.

Covered with freshly ironed linen cloths, the table witnessed many bridal teas, ladies luncheons, DAR State Convention teas–just about any occasion, as we certainly had the space. The prettiest table that I remember was arranged by Faye Kenward for my friend Jane Fietz Stepka’s engagement announcement party. The centerpiece was a birdcage painted yellow festooned with yellow daisies and a canary that looked almost real.

Mary Lee Writes | Table tales

Ready for nearly any occasion

My grandmother died while I was at a girl’s camp in Texas in 1950. Upon returning home, I walked into the living room to see her casket and many chairs set up for her funeral. I was totally unprepared for this, as I had only been told she was very ill. The refreshments were served on the dining room table.

My grandfather lived with us until 1954, when he attended a party in another city accompanied by an RN. While there, he met a woman younger than my mother, whom he married. He bought another house in Jonesboro where they lived until he died at the age of 84.

In 1960, my parents decided to move, and built their own new house next door.  My husband John bought the old homeplace, and we moved there with our children. We had lots of good times around that table shared with good friends. The table served many needs. One day, I entertained a bridge group and the man who helped me at the time asked what to do with the vacuum cleaner just as everyone was arriving. The closet where I kept it was in the room where we were gathering to play. I commented “just hide it someplace.” As the girls were leaving, one asked to see the house. She walked into the dining room and immediately commented, “what a unique place to store a vacuum.”  He had carefully put it under the table!

The furniture had a home for a while in Memphis, where Johnny and Mary Kathryn were in school, then it traveled to three more residences back in Jonesboro.

We hosted many dinner parties while living on Harrisburg Road and one evening, as I was checking the table before serving, I spotted a man’s wallet at the head of the table. Thinking someone had mistakenly put their wallet down, I asked around. One of the men claimed it, saying “isn’t it like a lady using a purse to reserve a seat?” At a dinner party?

The next move was to a house on Martinbrook Drive, where we did the most informal entertaining. My warmest, though saddest, memory is the night of my husband John’s memorial service. About ten very close friends and family gathered and reminisced until about one in the morning. Talk about warm and cozy!

Mary Lee Writes | Table tales

The side piece

Some months later I decided to downsize, and learned a nearby condo was coming on the market with a big dining room. I was so excited because I could keep my grandmother’s dining room furniture, as I had come to treasure it over the years as a reminder of her.

About a year later I made another hasty decision. My daughter had moved to Little Rock and a new home was nearing completion  just a block from her house. I bought it and downsized again, this time finally saying goodbye to my grandmother’s furniture, the dining room in this house being of more practical size. And, you know, it wasn’t hard at all. Material things are just that –  stuff that is not important. Less is good.