Illustration of table set correctly for four. Photo: Cornell University Library
I have a theory about social class that goes like this: No matter how much money you make, you are upper class if you spend less than you earn, and you are lower class if you spend more than you earn. And if you spend exactly what you earn, give or take a hundred bucks or so a month, then you are anxious class.
My wife and I belonged to the anxious class while we were bringing up our kids. We worked hard and spent our monthly checks. The mortgage got paid, and bread was on the table. A pre-owned car was always parked on the steep driveway of our hillside house, presumably ready to head for campus or take kids to soccer. But ideas like buying a new car or taking a hotel vacation were out of the question.
Buying decent furniture was also well beyond our means. But lumber was cheap, so I started building tables. I designed an oak baby-changing table that was never used as such but came in handy for filling space. I designed a coffee table and an end table and had them assembled by the experts at a local wood shop called the Eugene Planing Mill.
Have I since become a famous furniture designer with merchandise for sale at Skymall.com
? Not quite. But those tables taught me something. I realized that by designing them I had turned impoverishment into enterprise. I had transcended my own inhibiting academic world and briefly explored the material presences of daily life. I had freed my eyes and hands to converse with varieties of shape and substance. I had engaged my little world and changed it. For these reasons, there is something special for me about the practice of design.
My tables brightened up the living room and had a generally civilizing influence on the house. But we still had no dining table, and at a dining table I drew the line. My design talents did not extend to the gracious and the festive.
That’s where Bill and Duffy Baker came in. They lived very near us in a big red house which, with its equally imposing red barn, sprawled over two acres at ridge top. They owned a few retail businesses in the campus village, including Duffy’s, the saloon of choice for fraternities and varsity athletes. Bill had a thing about furniture. His house was crowded with antiques and handmade pieces, including a classy four-poster bed. His barn was full of old stuff in various stages of restoration or decay.
A gala garage sale at the Baker barn in the late 1970s coincided, as it happened, with my peaking anxious-class frustration and semiannual lust to start making mischief with a piece of wood. When I told Bill that I needed a good dining table but could not pay much, he said, “Bob, I’ve got just the thing for you!” and led me back into the darkly stacked reaches of the Baker Barn, on the way trying to sell me his spare four-poster bed. A ray of sunlight in back caught the object of Bill’s search, and soon I stood looking at the massive oak table that would become, more than I thought possible for an inanimate object, our family icon for the next quarter-century.
The table was a daunting prospect. Most of the original finish was missing, exposing wood that was alternately dried out or stained; patches of foggy shellac still clung to other areas. The five spiral-turned heavy legs (one to hold up extra leaves in the middle) looked solid enough but would require hours of cleaning up and staining. There were no extra leaves, and one of the dowels, which was supposed to slide into holes as the table was closed, was broken off. But worst of all was the veneer tabletop. Thumbnail-sized bits were missing altogether. Large areas of veneer, frayed at the edges and completely desiccated, had parted from the surface and curled inches into the air, as though in defiance of anyone brash enough to attempt a repair.
I said to Bill that it looked like a tough fix.
“Piece of cake, Bob. I’ll talk you through it,” he said, taking my hundred dollars.
For the next two months the table stood in my garage, getting attention. After much advice from Baker, my friend Bill Rockett, and others, I turned to the job of compelling the rampant veneer to sit down where it belonged. I moisturized the ancient sheet of wood until it was pliant but not soaked. Then I wiped off the liquid residue and pressed the veneer down in place on a bed of glue. I stabilized it with plywood, braced the job with a large cinder block, and left it overnight. This worked. When I removed the block and plywood the next morning, the thing in the garage looked like a table again.
That afternoon I picked up a small package of oak veneer and an Exacto knife at the Planing Mill, lined up grain with grain, and cut tiny pieces in the shape of each damaged portion of the surface. Once in place, these were also glued and braced.
Over the next few weekends, cutting a dowel, bleaching stains, removing old varnish, sanding, applying red oak finish, sanding again, finishing, sanding, finishing, I completed the restoration. No boredom in that job. Often at work I was suffused with quiet joy. The table was becoming a thing of beauty. I was bringing it back to itself.
Not that it wasn’t also bringing things back to me. Restoring beautiful and useful things of the past — particularly items of family use — is about as close as we can get to restoring the past itself. The feedback is little short of spiritual. As I lavished care on the table I was taken back into the world of my earliest memories, when, in my grandparents’ dining room on Hewes Street in Brooklyn, my head had gained enough altitude for me to notice that the big cherry-wood dining table was covered with a layer of glass. Occasionally this glass was lifted to allow for the insertion of some new piece of national history, clipped from a morning paper, the last of which was the shocking notice, complete with photograph, that President Roosevelt had died suddenly in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.
It was at this glass-covered table, my legs dangling from the seat of a claw-foot chair, that I first took note of design and invention, when my grandfather Julius Carlson announced to me, in his high-pitched monotone, that he had invented the adjustable cap. He explained to me that he was a hat designer, told me what a hat designer did, and said that he worked for a hat factory and that there was some question about whether the factory owned rights to the invention or whether he did. Over the years that followed, Julius lost out in the legal wrangling, but until his death at ninety-one he had not the slightest doubt that he had been in the right, and for some years after hearing his story I could not look at an adjustable cap without a mixture of pride and regret.
What finally became of my grandfather’s glass-topped cherry-wood table? As I stroked on a second coat of shellac, I supposed that I could track it down, but to what good? Restoring my own table had brought me to see it with the eyes of the past, as only a child can see it, and now that image would be mine forever.
A few days later, when the finish had cured out, we carried Bill Baker’s table out of the garage and set it down in the dining area, which looked east toward the kitchen counter and west toward a stand of Douglas firs. It was splendid. It completed the house as a family domain. And it stood in that spot for the next twenty-five years offering food and cheer as three boys grew up and three cycles of dogs, stretched out on a nearby carpet, listened to our friendly chatter as soothing music or were troubled by sudden stridencies. In my journal I describe a scene from the mid-1980s, when Ted, our youngest, was four years old and sitting at the oak table:
. . . Troubles with A & N vanished in the magic of the 15th & Onyx parting,
but T opened a new canto by refusing to go to his daycare. “Boring.” I
dragged him there via indirect routes, including an elevator. I bet he’s right.
At his frenetic pace of growth, he has outgrown himself and needs some
new challenge. After squabble #1 this morning, he asked me over the Cream
of Wheat, “What is the future? Can I see it?” Told him only his mind could
see it, that he had to close his eyes. So he did, and I began trying to drum
up Anthony as a big man, Nick as a big man, Teddy as paterfamilias with
kids and beloved wife.
In those days the oak table, situated as it was at the hub of our indoor activities, had become the center and symbol of family communication and sharing. It attracted and hosted the disorderly Grudin version of the tea ceremony. Its broad square surface and rich brown texture created a human space that was always inviting, always available. Its waterproof skin accommodated hot cups and chilled glasses alike. Its ample center almost cried out for a turkey or birthday cake or major salad bowl. It certainly was in part the inspiration for the scores of richly glazed cups, plates, and bowls that my wife, and soon Nick, too, turned out on the potter’s wheel on the deck and fired at a local kiln. It gracefully fulfilled the purpose of all dining-room furniture: facilitating and enriching human dialogue.
But the 1990s saw a slow but inevitable family exodus. By 1996 the boys were all away at school and college, and my wife was commuting weekly to her work at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. The finish of the oak table was clouding up and softening, as though to express the irreparable encroachment of time. I stripped it and refinished it, feeling more than a bit nostalgic. I knew that it would soon be time to move on.
My adventures with furniture did not end when we sold the Eugene house and began dividing our time between Hawaii and Portland in the late 1990s. I almost killed myself during our move in 1998, when the dining-room chair I was trying to throw into the city dump bounced off a guard cable and klopped me on the head. Later that year I scoured the country shops of Multnomah and Clackamas Counties for more comfortable chairs, restoring and refinishing each that I found.
In 2004 we left the Portland house, and now, after a few years in storage, the Bakers’ table sits in our dining room in Berkeley. Almost thirty-five years down the line, it still carries with it, and is ready to re-create in memory, the life and times of a young family. Excerpted from Design and Truth, by Robert Grudin. Copyright © 2010 by Robert Grudin. Published Yale University Press. For more information visit www.yalebooks.com. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.