Glenn Arbery on a Table of Plenty

When you have eight children, the quest for a table large enough to accommodate the family can take on epic proportions.

Photography by Dave Shafer

Table of Plenty

When we got married, my wife and I made an informal pledge that we would always honor the dinner table. Both of us grew up in families that always ate together, and we wanted to continue that tradition of shared meals and conversation. What we didn’t anticipate was exactly who else was going to be joining us. Put it this way: We chose not to be planners with what seemed to us the best of gifts—eight children, as it turned out (seven of them girls).

Needless to say, honoring the dinner table became an issue after the first few years. When we were in New Hampshire teaching at a small liberal arts college, we found a trestle table on sale. Big and simple, hard to damage, it looked like a picnic table that had gotten a slight promotion, which was great as long as we had small children knocking into things and guests willing to ignore the mild chaos of it all.

Later, as the older girls became young women, we went to a furniture store and picked out a “real table” big enough to accommodate da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”—and with stray college students always turning up at Thanksgiving and Easter with our daughters, it needed to be. But this thing didn’t have the necessary fortitude. On Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, someone leaned an elbow on it, there was a sharp crack, and the turkey on one end of the table got to know the sweet potatoes on the other. The “groaning board” indeed, as one friend quipped.

We propped it up and made do with it for a while, but it was irreparable. Back came the trestle, this time after being used as a work station by our artist daughter and sitting out on the screen porch, summer and winter, for five years. Not good. We thumbed listlessly through catalogs and ads. Nothing struck us. Then last spring my wife happened to be driving back from a doctor’s visit past The Salvation Army thrift store on Harry Hines Boulevard. She thought about our son needing khakis (without ink and green marker on them) and a white shirt (ditto) for the closing ceremonies at his school, so she went in to see if it had anything that might fit him. As soon as she walked in she forgot all about the clothes. There before her was a simple, mahogany, Duncan Phyfe dinner table, probably a century old and big enough to seat our entire family and several more besides, without looking enormous. So what was the matter with it? She stooped down and peered under it for cracks. An old man in a wheelchair sitting nearby noticed her. “A lady friend of mine,” he said, “always told me that you could either shop at Neiman Marcus, or you could wait a little while and get the same thing at The Salvation Army.” Like Hermes, guide of souls (and god of thieves), he looked under the table with her and pronounced it good. She bought it on the spot. It felt like a gift.
My wife came home and told me about it, and I was happy just to have the problem solved to her satisfaction. When the men brought the table to our house a day or two later, I saw for myself what had moved her. The surface was a plane of beautiful, gleaming wood that suddenly gathered everything in our house like a pond in the woods. My wife set a vase with a single white flower in the center of the table. It quieted everything. We wondered who had given it to The Salvation Army and how we happened upon it in such a serendipitous way, just when we needed a new dining room table. If we had simply gone out and picked one, we would have ruined what it intended, or what was intended in it. The legs, for example, exactly matched those on a Duncan Phyfe sofa we’d inherited from my wife’s parents.

It’s hard to explain exactly the effect it had, but neither of us would let anybody eat on it for about the first three weeks we had it. Then one night when we went out, our children made dinner and ate there, which broke the spell. That’s where we gather now, when everybody comes home. I’m still a little hushed by it. It makes me think how strange it is that you can become, not so much an owner of things, as the guest of the gifts you receive.

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