The kitchen table. It’s one of those ordinary items in our homes. Seldom do we appreciate how much of our personal history, our family history, took place around it.
Joy Harjo writes about the humble kitchen table:
“Babies teethe at the corners.…
“It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.…
“We have … prepared our parents for burial here.
“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray for suffering and remorse. We give thanks.…” (from “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, by Joy Harjo)
When I ran across Joy’s poem recently, my thoughts flashed to an old piece I wrote, Vera Bachman’s Table. It’s among stories I’ve written for my grandchildren, and a few years ago it was published in an anthology for Women’s History Month at U. of Central Missouri. I’ll share it with you here (and I welcome your critique in the comments section below):
Vera Bachman’s Table
When I was in seventh grade, on the night of May 6, 1960, my mother told my two little brothers and me that the next day our father was moving out and that they would file for a divorce. I was twelve years old, Doug was ten, and little Davey was just six. We felt traumatized to the cores of our young beings. On May 7, our father moved out, and the next day was my mother’s 38th birthday.
My mother had earned her teaching credential in Canada and she was a teacher in every cell of her body. Now, living in Seattle, she turned to teaching to support her three little children.
However, Washington State would not recognize Mom’s Canadian credential so she had to return to college. She turned first to the University of Washington but it would not recognize any of her Canadian college credits. Seattle Pacific College honored half of her Canadian credits so, even though SPC was a lot more expensive than the UW, she enrolled at SPC. I suspect she had to take out a loan to pay for tuition and books. Mom found enormous support from everyone at SPC because they showed their Christianity in tangible ways: they recognized her desperation, her heartache over the divorce, and her need to care for her children. They understood her need for financial aid and to get her degree as soon as possible so she could earn a living. They bent over backward to help her: at times they gave Mom permission to take 24 credits per term in order to push ahead rapidly.
In those days the Visa Card and Master Card had not been invented, however, gas stations had begun issuing credit cards. I remember that our pastor and his wife, themselves living on a tight budget, gave Mom their Chevron credit card to help pay for our family’s gas.
At the same time, the Seattle School District granted Mom an emergency teaching certificate and hired her to work half-time as a Kindergarten teacher at Northgate Elementary School, conveniently located between SPC and our home north of Seattle.
I don’t know how Mom endured her exhausting schedule as a teacher, a more-than-full-time student, and a mother, and I don’t know how we kept putting food on the table. We ate sparsely and we wore hand-me-down clothes and worn shoes. I remember that my saddle shoes had completely worn out: the soles had broken away from the upper leather, and the sole flapped underneath my foot with every step. One day my teacher put a rubber band around the toe of my shoe and under the sole so it wouldn’t flap.
I said I don’t know how Mom did it, but I often spotted her on her knees beside her bed in prayer. God extended His loving provision through Mom’s church friends, SPC friends, and the Seattle School District.
And through people like Vera Bachman.
Mom tells me she was terribly afraid during those years of her life—afraid of constantly living on the edge of financial disaster and physical exhaustion. Surely her faith was stretched. Yet God provided people like Vera Bachman, a teacher at Northgate Elementary School. Recently widowed, she had some understanding of my mother’s heartache and ever-present needs. Vera was the best kind of a friend: she understood and quietly reached out. Sometimes Mom would arrive at her classroom to find a note from Vera asking if Mom needed cash. Another time Vera gave us a sofa and an old dining room table.
Even now, when my mother recalls Vera's friendship, she gets tears in her eyes thinking about Vera’s sensitivity, her generosity, and the way God worked through her to answer Mom’s prayers. The Bible tells us that God will care for us, but it does not tell us He will knock on our door and hand us a check to cover the house payment. He does not place a roasted chicken on the dinner table. No, almost always God uses other people in the process of helping us. He knows how comforting and encouraging it is to look into someone’s eyes and see kindness and concern. He knows how good a hug feels, and how cheering a friendly face can be. So, He gives us each other. God provided Vera for my mother’s encouragement and help in real ways. The old sofa is long gone but that old dining room table is still in the family, a tangible reminder of how God meets our needs.
That old dining room table—ah, if only it could talk! I don’t know what stories that table would tell about living in Vera’s home, but it was already old when she gave it to us, and over several decades that table has made the rounds in our family. For years, Mom and my brothers and I used it in our home. It was delicately designed, with curves and turned legs, in dark-stained wood. It had a number of leaves, and opened up to a grand size for entertaining lots of people.
A few years after Dave and I got married Mom purchased, with enormous delight, a maple dining room table in the American Colonial style—a long-term dream come true for her. Thus, Dave and I became the owners of Vera’s table. It was the first table Matt and Karen sat up to when they were babies—originally in our rental home in north Seattle, when Matt was born, and later on East Sanson in Spokane when Karen was born. We entertained countless friends and relatives around that table over the years.
When Karen was almost a year old, we bought an old house on Thorpe Road southwest of Spokane, and there the kids and I sat around Vera’s table and drew pictures, assembled model airplanes, crafted artificial flowers, and made Christmas decorations. I used it as a place to set up my sewing machine and I sewed clothes for the kids and for myself, and curtains for our windows, and tablecloths and napkins for our dinners around Vera’s table. I sat at that table to write letters to my Grandma Mac and to my mother and to Dave’s parents, and to address our Christmas cards every year. When the kids got older, they sat around that table to do their homework.
Years later, in Port Angeles, when Dave and I could afford to buy our own dining room table, Vera’s table became my desk. The creator of that table brilliantly designed it so that, with several leaves, it became a large dining table, or, with all the leaves removed, it became a small table perfect for a desk. I used that old table as a desk for all the years I served as a BSF Teaching Leader. I spread out all my books and papers on that table, I prayed sitting at that table, I learned to use a computer on that table, and pounded out my 24-page lectures every week for five years.
In 1993, Dave and I moved to Africa and Karen became a first-year teacher in Port Angeles. She bought her little house on Caroline Street and put Vera’s table in her kitchen. Many a morning it served as Karen’s meeting place with God. Friends and Young Life kids ate around that table. Another Young Life leader once got ambitious and sanded the old finish off the top of the table, but never got around to re-finishing it. A good tablecloth took care of that problem.
When Karen moved to California to teach in Pacific Palisades, we loaded the old table into a U-Haul and unloaded it in her newly rented apartment in Brentwood. There it served as her dining room table, and no doubt a place to plan her students’ lessons and grade their papers.
When she and Brian got married, it became their dining room table. A couple of years later, they moved into a 600 square foot guesthouse on Zumirez Drive in Malibu, California, and their little Chase ate his first meals at Vera’s table. Maybe Finn did, too; I’m not sure because at some point, Karen and Brian received a gift from a family friend, a sturdier dining room table that matched their chunky rustic bench and armoire, and they moved Vera’s table to Brian’s classroom in Pacific Palisades. Today, students use that table. Since both Vera and my mother were teachers, I’m sure they’d smile to know where that table is today.
Now Brian, Karen, and the boys are moving to a larger home, and I do hope they have a special little place for Vera’s table. It’s an enduring reminder of God’s provision for our family—several generations of our family.
When Chase, Finn, and Kade are old enough to understand, I hope Karen will tell them the story of Vera’s table. Perhaps it will remind them to do what their great-grandmother did: to pray and trust God to provide for them when they find themselves in desperate need. I hope it will also inspire them to be like Vera Bachman—to notice when others are in need and, with God’s help, lend a hand in tangible ways.
Now it’s your turn. If your kitchen table (or your parents’ or grandparents’ table) could talk, what stories would it tell? Perhaps generations of kids received lessons on how to be men and women of honor. Who sat around that table? What were their hopes and dreams? Did your family welcome the homeless and strangers to your table? Did your family entertain someone famous at your table? Who said prayers to bless food and heal heartache? Maybe at that table, a young woman received—or refused—an engagement ring, and that action set the course for generations to come. Perchance a letter written on the distant war front was read around that table and the news forever changed your family.
Have you written a story about a dinner table for your memoir?
If so, let us know in the comments below.
If not, what stories do you need to write? They don’t have to be about kitchen tables. Maybe you have stories about some other piece of furniture, or a house, a hat, a car, or pet. I have a hunch your kids and grandkids would love to know those stories.