A brief history of surfaces

Lacy Cunningham | A brief history of surfaces | Raising Mothers

now

The new table is glowing. It’s a warm, maple-red rectangle flanked by four identical chairs with tall backs like spires. Or maybe the metaphor isn’t architectural; maybe the chairs are sentinels guarding a family heirloom.

We don’t yet recognize its value.

My in-laws drove it in pieces from New York to Colorado as a gift to us. This is where my husband ate his childhood meals. His mother has given the table a makeover; imperfections were buffed and a glossy finish signaled its rebirth as the family table for another family.

I’m imagining a rainbow of glazed bowls holding catalog-ready produce. Maybe fresh avocado slices next to speckled strawberries next to smooth curls of hummus. I would take a picture.

then

Our furniture is largely functional, persistent echoes of the years after college when we adopted Ikea orphans and crossed our fingers that the weight of our book collection wouldn’t strain the flimsy brackets.

Once upon a time, our babies were $2 paperbacks and reclaimed library editions.

now

The expanse of the tabletop is intimidating. It looks like a picture of a wheat field at sunset on a postcard from Kansas. It’s sturdy and rustic with wood grain reminding us that it once held firmly to its roots.

It’s a status symbol for a status I haven’t achieved.

Our son’s red vinyl high chair is wildly out of place.

then

We bought one, finally. It was a blank, beige square from Ikea with two black chairs and it seated approximately 1.75 people. The warehouse didn’t have an all-black chair and table set, and I didn’t want to come back, so we took it home.

The table looked ready to live. The unvarnished surface begged to be finished. I didn’t know how to tell the Ikea table that it was only a place to rest a dish or piles of unopened mail, and that I didn’t have the time or money to make it pretty and useful at the same time.

I didn’t tell it anything, because it didn’t really beg. It managed gravity the way it was intended.

I draped it with an ill-fitting striped tablecloth and our plates and glasses clinked and clamored for space. But it was new, and it was ours.

now

My husband removes the legs of the Ikea table and sets the chairs on the deck. In the sunlight I can see claw marks along the edges of the seats from cats whose indifferent yawns I still miss. He puts the deconstructed table in storage. It takes five minutes.

this very moment

“Please sit in your chair.”

“Emmanuel, butt in chair.”

“Please sit in your chair or you have to go on the floor.”

Politeness is wasted on a boy on the cusp of his second birthday, joyfully taking advantage of his freedom from the high chair. Dinner is a ritual we barely hold together most evenings. The countdown begins as soon as we sit him in his “regga-ler chair” in front of his Mickey Mouse placemat and neon green plastic plate with little oval wells to separate his cheese from his grapes from his mustard. The abandoned high chair looks on quietly from the other end of the table. It looks like an empty spaceship. I suspect it might return to Mars soon.

His father and I are prepared. This is a carefully choreographed performance and the players are always the same. The monologues are wearing thin and thinner.

We rush to put food on his plate and then hide the condiments behind something else on the table. For the last few weeks, it’s been a cracked glass pitcher of pale purple asters, now starting to wilt sleepily. We entice him with offers of cheese to increase the chances he’ll sit willingly. We let him start to climb the chair, and one of us will lift him lightly into the seat when he asks for help.

His father and I eat with one eye toward the small blonde child, shifting and shoving fistfuls of cheese into his mouth and throwing his pink-handled fork at the dog. I know he’ll pick at the chicken, and after tasting a green bean he will pull the green mush out of his mouth and set it on the table. The script is reliable.

(I wonder: should I cover that end of the table with a cloth? Get a more robust placemat? Do I dare disturb the carefree joy of a child who is jamming the tines of his fork into tiny cracks? When he’s older and no longer pounding wooden toys into all the wooden furniture, should I try to smooth the dents and pretend they’ve never met living, breathing children and that the tables themselves don’t breathe?)

We have about ten minutes of rising action before he begins the test. First, the crouch. Then the slow slide onto the table, but only from the waist up. I can see his knees pushing the table edge and I know he wants to throw himself full-throttle onto the tabletop like a performing sea lion gliding out of the water for expectant crowds. He’d only be disappointed by the absence of applause.

When he’s had enough of decorum, my son will launch to his feet with a mad grin and a special full-body tremble he reserves just for those moments when he’s gone completely rogue.

“That’s it. You’re done. Standing on the chair is not safe.”

His father gently grabs him under his arms and plants his small feet on the floor. Our roles diverge. I chime in cheerily (with a hint of weariness), “Are you ready for your bubble bath?” and hope that’s all it takes to stop his screaming. I loudly repeat BUBBLE BATH several times and run the water while throwing colorful rubber toys in the tub. My lines are the same. My son is all improv.

Bath, books, bed.

tonight

I used to think silence was the absence of sound; now I know it’s the existence of space and air. No little boy voice asks for cocoa or games or Curious George after 8:30pm. I take a deep breath, hold it, exhale slowly, and it is still quiet. No one interrupted my breathing. I am thankful.

My husband cleared the table and washed the dishes, but the evidence remains: a crumpled placemat, pieces of shredded cheese, a smear of yogurt. If I get too close I can see how poorly we care for the table. There’s a dull sheen in the shape of a fan that persists despite the efforts of a sponge. Little cracks in the rustic planks are speckled inside with unrecognizable crumbs.

This table has bones and breath. It’s a monument to the truths of time, a counterpoint to childhoods documented in carefully composed pictures where no children are crying for cookies and no mothers are sighing over wasted blueberries smushed into the soft, woven rope of the chair’s seat. It holds its stories close and doesn’t apologize for daring to speak the truth of small children making their mark on the world.

Maybe we aren’t ready for the responsibility of quality furniture, or maybe our family dinners are remaking the table in our image. Our rituals are tense and messy, but punctuated with little belly laughs and fingerprints made of applesauce. My husband and I learn new ways to communicate with words and without. Our son learns that chairs are meant for sitting and spoons for yogurt. The dog learns to wait under the smallest human’s chair because he is the most generous.

days to come

In twenty years, the dog will be gone. My son won’t remember the red high chair or the plastic placemat with characters he didn’t recognize. He’ll use adult utensils and plates and cups, and maybe wash them himself.

I will remember the food in the cracks, the watching and waiting for a cue, and baths to scrub the pink strawberry stains out of his fingernails. I will remember the 6pm dinner ritual: the players placed, the scene set, my son’s appetite and patience the only variable. I won’t remember the food. I’ll remember the quiet, stately table weaving itself into my family’s history, the stage for our drama to play out, a document where we write our hearts into the spaces where each red board meets.


Lacy Cunningham is a sometimes-vagabond and full-time bleeding heart living in Broomfield, CO. Publications include The Hospital Papers through Stamped Books Press, as well as poems/essays in :lexicon, Ophelia Street, Pear Noir!, Springgun Press and Raising Mothers. She takes poetry seriously, but not herself.

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