Inspired by the prompt Echos of a Wooden Table.
The foggy cloud wafted around her, hands a flurry of motion on the counter. Smack, roll, pound, twist, smack, roll, pound, twist, her body barely moving as arms pummeled the bread dough. I brushed a kiss on her wrinkled cheek as I moved past her, coughing slightly in the warm, moist flour-dust filled air.
“Don’t forget to run the water first.” How many years had she repeated this warning to me.
“Well still giving you problems? I thought Dad’d fixed it again.” Orange-red water sputtered from the silver tap into the well-worn and stained porcelain sink like blood from a cut. She didn’t need to answer. The evidence was clear, or rather not clear. Even so, a long sigh from the woman next to me puffed more flour into the air.
I reached overhead into the open cupboard for a glass cup, scratched and foggy with use and hard water stains, waited for the water to run clear, then filled it to the brim. While the rust in the old pipes was frustrating, and the old pump groaned at the request, the water that finally came through was clean and sweet, if you ignored the odd bit of dirt that floated to the bottom once in a while.
With a slap of hands again the well-washed apron covering her thighs, she stepped back to admire the loaf she’d shaped from the mixture of water, salt, flour, honey, and yeast.
“It’s the rains not the well.”
“Flooding is bad this year.” I took a long sip and gazed longingly at the white loaf. I knew the coming wait. I’d waited it for all of my life, through the heating of the oven, the baked warmth wafting through the house, the melt of the first warm slice without butter as an occasional treat, then doused in creamy butter during evening dinner. It was worth the wait.
“Making up for lost time.” She reached for the loaf pan, already greased and lightly floured. The process of moving the loaf into the pan was an art form I’d not perfected, twisting, smashing, or dropping more than succeeding. Fifty years of baking bread several times a week, to her it was natural like waving a hand good-bye.
“Drought was bad this summer.”
“Summer,” she sniffed, the loaf whispering into the pan. “We’d barely a half inch of rain from Spring to Fall. Come all at once now.”
I slipped into the old wooden chair, smooth from years of our jeans shifting back and forth across its seat. The heat of the oven next to it warmed my backside. I was still drying out from an early morning walk down to the creek. I’d found the creek overflowing its banks by over a foot, the brown water cutting deep into the embankment. Our life on the farm was dictated by the rains as much as the sun. The harvest of fruit had been good but root and plant vegetables had been nearly decimated by the lack of water. We’d done what we could from the weak and paltry well, skipping baths and laundry to keep the garden alive. The small creek at the bottom of the hill dried up by the first of July, losing our secondary backup supply of water. It also saved my back as I’d not had to haul great buckets of water up the hill to the garden all summer.
“Sometimes I think it is all or nothing around here.”
Coffee cup in hand, she joined me at the table, dust-covered long fingers stroking the old wooden table, scarred with the stories of our lives.
“Some days.” Those two words were a comment for her, other days a short story. “You gonna take the table when you go?”
Ah, it was time for that talk, one we’d avoided for months as we’d battled the heat and struggled with the harvest. I’d be getting married soon to the young man who lived down on the corner, a teacher at the local school. We’d be moving to his family’s home, an elegant newer home with a lovely ornamental garden and tiny cook’s garden. Ma wanted me to take the table. They had a fine table, newer, shinier, polished so bright I could see myself in its surface.
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“It’s your history.”
Indeed it was. The history of all of us.
The table and stove had been brought with them from the “old country,” their name for their place of birth. That wasn’t where the table came from. It came from the “original country” and traveled a longer and further journey older than their years.
Born and raised in the Canadian Rockies in a mining and logging town, the childhood sweethearts had married and left Canada to find new adventures across the border south, getting only as far as Marysville, Washington, just 200 miles south of the border. Their plans were to reach the wealth and warmth of California. The old car broke down here in this sleepy town fifty years ago, a town divided by the local white farmers and loggers and the Native Americans dragged from their tribal lands and piled into the neighboring Tulalip Indian Reservation along Port Gardner Bay and the San Juan Islands. Here they stayed. It’d taken a while and many jobs to buy this piece of property on the Sunnyside hillside in the lowest foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and even longer to clear it for an orchard and berries. Together, along with help from the neighbors and church, they’d build the three story home by hand, beginning with the basement. It took ten years to expand to the third floor where their children grew up, my brother, sister, and me. On one of the first trips back home to Canada, the table and stove had returned with them, bouncing along in a rickety old truck, leaving a scar across one end of the table’s top where it had slid against the stove when a tire blew near Penticton.
Before that trip, the table’s first trip was 60 years earlier beginning on a great ship pitching and heaving across the stormy Atlantic Ocean from Sweden, then dragged across Canada in an old wagon. My great, great, grandfather had hand carved the table out of birch. Once a rich, light tone, almost white, it was now darkened with age and many a spilled meal.
I’d crawled under this table and hid among the giant carved lion’s paws, tracing my tiny fingers along the flowing fur and claws. I’d learned to walk holding onto the chairs then the table’s solid and thick edge. When walking and life was just too much work, I’d slip down and crawl below the dark canopy forest under the table, my safe hiding place. I’d drawn my crayon along the curves supporting the table top, writing my name for the first time underneath. The markings on the legs had been cleaned away, but my signature in red remained hidden from visiting eyes.
How many discussions had been shared across this table? I’d learned to read and write at this table. My fingernail found one of the marks I’d made in the table top when I pitched the pen at the table frustrated with a homework assignment. We’d shared many a piece of fresh baked bread at this table. Every lunch, my father would read the morning paper at this table over his meal, laughing at the funnies and cursing local politicians. We’d shared every holiday meal at this table with friends, neighbors, family, and anyone passing by in need of some help and a place to sleep and eat.
I’d learned about the birds and bees and life sitting here asking my mother too many questions as she pounded the bread over the years. A year ago we’d sat here in joyful tears as I announced my engagement, Paul standing behind me. Ten years before we’d cried together over the death of Grandmother Kelly in Canada, tears soaking the letter scattered across the table with the news. A few months later, her last will and testament was read at that table, the family gathered around to learn that they’d been left some antique furniture and a precious five thousand dollars. For months my parents debated over the money, adding coffee stains to its surface as they talked late into the night. The money went into a college fund for me, the oldest of the three children, which changed my life. Degree in hand, future job as a teacher beside my soon-to-be husband, that money had grown with interest into enough to cover most of my tuition at the local college. Without that unexpected windfall, income from our fruit and the many odds and ends jobs I’d taken picking berries, babysitting, and tutoring neighborhood children would have mean only a two year degree not a four year teaching degree. Sweating over my college text books on this table, I’d promised myself that my future job would help to support my younger brother and sister if they chose to continue with their studies in a couple years.
If the family stories were right, my mother was born on this table in the middle of a snow storm, delivered by her father. My father had proposed to her late one evening across a corner after her parents had gone to bed, even though they were really listening in from the top of the stairs. My great Uncle Sven had stopped by a couple weeks later to congratulate the new couple and had a heart attack and died in this very chair, if the legend was true. Dad would tease the young men who’d come to call during my teenage years if they sat down in this chair, a dark stain marking its seat. “Yep, Uncle Sven died right there!” They’d jump up in fear, see the stain, and never sit in that chair again if they dared to return.
Yes, it was my history, and I didn’t want it.
To turn it down was a crime in this family. For many years my mother promised, “Someday this will be yours. Passed down through the ages, it is your heritage.” How could I tell her I didn’t want it? It was old. It was scarred. It was stained. It wasn’t shiny. It wasn’t new. It wasn’t classy.
My new family had money. They’d been educators, published writers, teaching at the college and even speaking at church and the library on their experiences traveling and studying around the world. Their home was filled with new things and old things, but the old things were from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Their home was a museum, and while old, this wasn’t a museum piece. It was an old wooden table that meant nothing to anyone except my family.
I took my mother’s hand, flour, wrinkles, and all. It was still hot from the kneading. “It is too soon.” Tears came to my eyes. I couldn’t say more.
“Ah, yes,” she stroked my hand on hers. “You are right. Dad and I are still young. We need the table more than you do.”
She always read me like a book. Eyes twinkling, she leaned forward and whispered, “I’ll let you in on a little secret. I hate this table.”
I sat back and laughed. Soon we were holding onto each other, gasping for breath through hoarse giggles, tears running down our faces, hers making tracks in the flour dust.
Slowly the secret was revealed. The table had been forced upon them by her mother. It seemed that her mother had hated the table as well and couldn’t wait to get rid of it. “Your great grandmother would come to visit and inspect the table. My mother would polish it for hours to ensure it was beautiful and ready for inspection, hating every moment of the task. When I got married, she told me before I walked down the aisle that she was giving me the table. I told her I didn’t want it. She told me that it was my history, my legacy.” She pulled a soft cotton handkerchief out of the apron pocket and wiped her face. “I was thrilled when we left it behind, and furious when your father agreed to bring it back. I fought with him the whole way home. Told him I would never polish it for anyone ever.”
She ran her hands across the pockmarked surface. “Yet every time my mother would visit, there I would be, working through the night, to ensure it shone for the inspection. I hated this table.” She pounded the surface with a fist. The sound echoed against the rain-splattered windows.
“After she died, the legacy she left made me feel guilty about the table. We didn’t want her money, and we knew that it had to go to you, for your future, but this table…” she sighed and grasped the edges as if to shove it out the window, took a deep breath, then pulled her hands into her lap, composed again. “Here is what we are going to do. Your father and I are going to strip this table down to its roots. We will sand it down and take out our family’s history worn into its surface. We will stain and polish a new life back into it.” She caught my hand. “If you want it then, it is yours. If not, we will sell it and give you the money to save for your child’s education. Education is worth more than this old table.”
Tears flowed down my face. I looked at the table with fresh eyes. To each of the women entrusted with the care of this family heirloom, they’d hated it. It had been a burden. An obligation. A commitment. After grandmother died, we’d stopped polishing the table. It took the brunt of what we had to give and did its job without question. It no longer had to serve a greater purpose. It was now just a table.
I squeezed her hand. “No. You will not change this table.”
I surprised myself. I’d decided. And it was a new decision. “Paul and I will accept the table gratefully. In fact, with my first pay check, I will buy you a new table. Will you accept it?”
“Oh, yes, I will.” Her bright blue eyes brimmed with tears and she smiled. The oven timer rang.
“Ready for the first slice of bread?”