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Just dropping by...Scratches in the old table

Yevet Tenney Published on 17 August 2010

Sandra Silverstone’s fingers skated over the dusty top of the mahogany dining room table. She watched the letters of her name appear on the beautiful wood. How did Bart convince her to sell it? She sighed. Bart liked things in order. Anything that hadn’t been used in the last six months must be discarded. He was right, of course. They hadn’t used the table for several years. The beanbags and the easy chairs facing the huge wide screen T.V. didn’t match the antique French provincial dining room set.

She picked up a cloth and made a swipe over the table. Modern families didn’t eat around tables anymore. It was inefficient. To set the table and clean up the mess would be a monumental task. She dusted more quickly.

The cloth revealed a scratch on the table. She stopped dusting and ran her fingers gently over the furrow in the polished surface. Bart wanted to fix it, but she insisted it was a sentimental scratch and shouldn’t be removed.

“A scratch with a story behind it,” he said scornfully.

It did have a story behind it, a beautiful tender story that as a child she had never tired of hearing. The scratch was made when the table was taken apart to be hoisted up a thirty-foot cliff along with the pieces to Great Grandpa and Grandma Understar’s covered wagon. Though a wedding present, Grandpa wanted to leave it there.

“The table takes up too much room,” Grandpa insisted.

Grandma, a fiery Scottish woman, put her foot down. “The table makes the house a real home! I’m not about to let some Indian squaw use it for fire wood!” Grandma blazed. “A table is civilization; a place where a family can sit down and face each other and have a decent meal together, and have a bit of decent conversation. We’re not going to be savages!”

Grandma Understar ended up carrying it piece by piece the last 15 miles to the tent where they spent the winter. When the house was built, the table was carried in first.

That night Grandma took out the tattered linen tablecloth, the wooden dishes and the tallow candles. Tears slid down her face as she lit the candles. Grandpa Understar thought she was sad because they only had milk noodles to eat.

He hugged her and said, “It’s going to be better, Milly, come fall after the crops come in, I promise.”

Grandma looked up at him, smiling through her tears. “I wasn’t crying for sadness, James. I was thinking how things can’t be better. We have each other and we have a home that’s civilized. That’s all we need.”

That’s all they needed. Times are different. People don’t get by anymore with each other and civilization. Sandra wondered how long it had been since she had faced her family around something pleasant. How long had it been since she had a bit of decent conversation with anyone?

She sent loads of e-mail, but no conversation. She even wished she had e-mail to replace memos on the refrigerator for the family.

Sandra felt a sudden heaviness in her chest. How long had it been since she had really talked to the members of her family? Bart and she talked. Well, not really, she admitted. Not the kind of talks where you share feelings. Their conversations resembled an itemized grocery list of things to make and do.

Marcella, the oldest, was 17, a senior in high school. With cheerleading camp, gymnastics camp, speech tournaments, and Fred (her newest boyfriend), Marcella was seldom home. Sandra closed her eyes. What did Marcella look like? Images of yellow satin came to mind, fields of elegant lace and the delicate stitching of prom dress. It cost $150. Her brown hair was tied with yellow flowers. She had blue eyes. Yes, they were blue. She remembered from Marcella’s birth certificate, but a sinking feeling crept over her as she realized she couldn’t quite conjure up a mental image of Marcella’s face.

Was it the same with all her children? Jerry, 15, had a bleached blond Mohawk. They’d fought about it. He’d won temporarily. There wasn’t much she could do until it grew out. He had freckles as a child, and red hair with a rooster tail. Were his freckles gone? Did he have peach fuzz like some boys at 15? She felt sick inside. Where had the years gone? What had happened to her?

Her thoughts turned to Brandi, the youngest. Brandi wore her hair short like a boy and loved to dress in blue jeans and a t-shirt with a snappy message like, “Eat Rocks Save the Vegetables.” Sandra breathed a sigh of relief. Brandi’s image was clear. Her tight blond curls, shiny green eyes, pink complexion, her half-grown front teeth and crooked smile.

Sandra drew a crooked smiley face in the dust on the table. She spent time with Brandi. Mrs. Francis, her first-grade teacher, insisted Brandi needed help with reading. Sandra spent hours listening to the monotone drone of Brandi’s voice as she read.

Sandra frowned. They hadn’t read together for almost a year. As a child, Sandra’s mother read to them every afternoon. The girls loved to lean on the table and listen to Mom’s dramatic rendition of the classics.

Tears burned Sandra’s eyelids as she caught the mental image of all her sisters sitting around the table, their eyes shining, with their chins in their palms, listening. Meg with unkempt braids and dimpled chin; Susan with her pouty lips and turned-up nose; Sara with giant brown eyes and crooked smile; and Mother’s thin face that had never worn makeup, her wire-framed glasses, her gingham dress and apron.

Tears slid down Sandra’s cheeks as she wiped the last bit of dust from the old table. A tear splashed on the polished surface.

Mother had been gone for a long time . . . three years . . . four years . . . How long ago? She didn’t remember. She was so busy. Her career took so much time. A thousand people in the A.T.A. Corporation depended on her for decisions. She wiped the tear away that had splashed on the table. She cherished the beautiful memories of her mother.

Sandra stiffened. What would her children remember about her? Would they remember the tall slender well-manicured business woman who left at the crack of dawn and returned after dark? Would they remember she sacrificed for them? Would they know she was efficient and organized, and how hard it was to climb to the top? Her reflection stared back at her as a dark stranger. Would they remember her at all?

Sandra sank into the high back chair and let her head fall to her arms. The answer was clear.

She heard the drone of the television. Brandi was watching re-runs of “M*A*S*H.” The doorbell rang. There were muffled voices and footsteps coming up the stairs. Before Sandra had time to wipe her eyes, Brandi burst through the door.

Sandra looked at Brandi as if seeing her for the first time. She was taller. Her hair was down to her shoulders and her teeth were not different lengths.

“Mom, you okay?”

“I’m fine. I just got some dust in my eyes.”

“Those men are downstairs. They want that old table.”

The way Brandi said “old table” hurt somehow. Sandra bit her tongue to keep from scolding. It was just an old table to Brandi. She had never sat beside it and listened to her mother read. She never ate a formal meal with her family, looking at each other, talking and laughing with each other. She never washed, dusted or set it with a linen tablecloth and fine china. How could she understand that the scratch had sentimental value? How could she know? She hadn’t spent time with it. It was just an old table.

“Brandi.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“How would you like to have this attic for a TV room and take this table down to the dining room?”

“Do we have to, Mom? It’s icky up here.”

Sandra tried to control her voice. “Yes, we have to. I want to see the eyes of my family as we eat.”

“You mean, we have to look at each other?” Brandi wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“Yes, we get to look at each other. Now go tell those men I’ll be down in a minute.”

Brandi was still frowning when she closed the door. Sandra smiled at her reflection. She didn’t know what Bart would say about the change in plans or how she was going to work out the details, but she knew that if Grandma Understar could carry it across the prairie, she could carry it downstairs and serve some meals on it. She took the cloth and began to polish her reflection in the old table. She felt warm and comfortable for the first time in a long, long time.  end_mark


Yevet Tenney for Progressive Cattleman

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