Sunday, May 23, 2010


My wife restored a table today. It's very old but solid with sentimental value and varnish that turned to dust with a touch of low-grit sandpaper. That's the short version. The long one follows; those with an eye for detail are welcome to left-click the photos to enlarge them.

The table is a old rickety thing built by my two eldest uncles on my father's side. My uncle George is still alive; my uncle Moody passed away a few years ago and my aunt recently sent a box of his books home to me. Most of them were my books originally, albeit briefly: a paperback copy of Dune which I'd given him when I was fourteen or so, some reprints of L'il Abner comics that I'd sent over a decade ago, VHS copies of Red October and The Rocketeer and others. She thought I'd want to have them. She's almost right. There's something almost endearing about having presents returned to me: she believes they mattered to him, perhaps they'll matter to me now. Maybe the knowledge that he enjoyed them will fill some of the space left in his absence.

The table, built by George and Moody in 1932, sat between my father's and Moody's bed for most of the 1940's and probably into the 50's. (the date above is written on the inside of the drawer in what looks to me like ballpoint pen, which wouldn't have been around in the 30's...maybe it was in pencil at one point and filled in by a well-meaning relative or maybe I just don't know ballpoint from ink from marker). The bottom rack was deep enough to hold a small radio (a crystal set, I believe) that the two of them could listen to through headphones when the rest of the household was sleeping. There's little to do in a small town after dusk, the radio must have been a comfort or a secret for two brothers and I wish I had an idea of its shape, appearance, sound. But Moody's gone and my father is gone longer and nobody left on this earth could explain this to me. All of that is gone. I have nothing left of that story but the table itself, which sat in the attic of my uncle's house for as long as I could remember.

It was given to me a few years after my father died, along with a 1920's dresser manufactured in Hanover, Ontario, from the same factory that at least one of my uncles worked at before and during the Second World War. I have a dining table, bought at random on Craigslist, from that same factory.

This probably stems more from my taste in furniture and the availability of antiques in Southern Ontario than from any spiritual message, but there are things that come built in with meaning and comfort: a long dining table bought from a stranger and a rickety piece built out of crates from a general store in Neustadt Ontario, circa 1932. I'd always heard that it was built out of orange crates: the faded stickers list Carnation which suggests evaporated milk but the word VALENCIAS is stamped in barely legible ink above it. The sides of the base show a label for a brand of apples.

The sticker on the side wasn't put there in my lifetime; I'll assume it was up in the 40's or 50's, an evangelical tract that would have been popular in my baptist family. The tract was sanded off this afternoon; the other labels were on the bottom of the table and remain. The photo here is the last I'll know of the old varnish and the tract and the idea of the table, built small and tall and of scrap by necessity during the Great Depression. I'm not sentimental about the way it looked but it's something of my father and uncle and it's mine. It's something that's not gone and knowing it's there helps me sleep at night.

A heirloom.
My dad's piece.
My uncle's piece.
An old table from the old store.
Something that, unlike people and businesses hasn't gone away.

Sanded, washed down with mineral spirit, painted black and topped off with a $20.00 piece of marble from a Craigslist purchase, it sits in my dining room and holds spare change, a wallet, cellphone, sunglasses and keys between outside jaunts. Jet black and nondescript with some old labels on the underside. I'll send the photos and recount the story to my aunt and my uncle George, the only two remaining of that family of five children. It's only fifteen pieces of very old scrap lumber, augmented with paint and a slab of stone. But it hasn't gone away. A few weeks ago I wrote about burning select old letters from a box in my basement from time to time, suggesting that entropy always wins. In a longer scheme of things, yes. In the relatively shorter run, sometimes you catch a break. This table should have been reduced to kindling at some point over the last 78 years, but for reasons I can't fathom it's found its way into my 1920's house in Toronto.

There's something gentle and hopeful in that, even if it's grasping at straws or sentimental. Unrepentantly, I hope that somewhere my father and uncle are smiling. I'm doing all I can from this end.

May 2010


Anonymous said...

A kitchen table that sat in my mothers house. She remembers it covered with an oil cloth and used for everyday things and as a kitchen work surface. Sat in the cottage basement forever and had paint can circles on it. A sander, some stain and several coats of varnish and it came back to life. The label said "Simpson's" on the underside I think circa 1935. She to is now gone and no one can help with more details. We live life on similar paths...

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