My home is filled with special secondhand furniture. Much of it once belonged to other family members, from our coffee table and china cabinet from my mother-in law’s home to our sofa sleeper from my husband’s paternal grandparents’ home. One of my favorite family heirlooms – and something that gets daily use – is our large dining room table that came from my paternal grandparents’ home.
Keeping Family Heirlooms in the Family
My grandfather passed away last June, and six months before that, he and my grandmother had moved into a small apartment in an assisted living facility. They had no room for their large table, and I said I’d be happy to give it a home and keep it in the family heirlooms.
I knew my grandparents’ table would be an upgrade over our inexpensive, small table from my husband’s apartment-dwelling bachelor days. Our family of four filled our old table, and often I served dinner buffet style with everyone filling plates at the stove top because there was no room for the food on the table. When we had company, we hauled metal folding chairs up from the basement and everyone squeezed around the tiny table.
People lived dangerously when they sat at our old dining set. The horizontal crossbars that stabilized the chair legs repeatedly popped out and we would glue them back together. Shortly after I expressed interest in my grandparents’ table, my oldest daughter crashed to the floor when one of the chairs we had neglected to promptly glue completely fell apart while she was sitting in it. Even worse, it happened while we were celebrating her sixth birthday. My husband remarked it was a sign we were ready for a new table.
We’ve had my grandparents’ table for a few months now. It fits nicely with our décor and existing furniture, like my mother-in law’s china cabinet. It has room for all my serving dishes during meals. It has six chairs instead of four like our old table, so we can accommodate a few guests without having to bring out folding chairs. With all the leaves in, there is enough room for my first grader to do homework at one end while my husband sets up his work laptop and grades student papers at the other end, and my 3-year-old works on art projects in the middle. Also, our guests don’t worry about wobbly chairs dumping them on the floor. Our new-to-us table is practical in many ways, but mostly, I appreciate the memories this family heirlooms holds.
That table is where my extended family gathered every year the weekend after Christmas to share a holiday meal. Grandpa made his signature dish – chop suey – almost every year. After we ate our meal and cleared and washed the dishes, grandma set out an array of homemade desserts – Jell-O Jiggler squares, a dessert made with Cool Whip and pistachio pudding, and stained glass cookies.
That table is where my cousins would lay their instrument cases while they played flute or clarinet for the family. My grandparents always asked all the grandchildren to perform a little something during the holidays. One year I set a tape player on the table and sang along with a track to Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven – perfect for girls who sing in the alto range.
That table is also where my parents and aunts and uncles sat late into the night and played the board game Wheel of Fortune. My dad’s youngest sister usually beat everyone soundly.
When I was 13, a younger cousin and I spent a few days together at our grandparents’ house before the rest of the extended family arrived. I have vivid memories of going sledding with grandpa and coming down with chicken pox that week, but I also fondly remember sharing a Totino’s Party Pizza around that table with my grandma and cousin.
During the summer, my grandmother’s sun tea was a staple at the table. She served her tea in a silver metal pitcher and garnished it with a sprig of mint. For breakfast, grandma set the table with boxes of generic Toasted O’s or flaky cereal, jugs of milk and orange juice, and bunches of bananas.
During more recent years when my husband and daughters and I visited my grandparents’ home, they loved serving us home cooked dinners at their table. Grandma made chicken and noodles with chicken from her nephew’s farm – Polyface Farms – that was featured in the movie Food Inc. Grandpa made mashed potatoes from scratch to go with that meal, informing us that he had carefully blended the potatoes to get all the lumps out. Grandma served us soups and casseroles; scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy; and ice cream. Even as she approached her 80s, she took pleasure in hosting us and cooking.
I like to think about who has been seated at that table over the years. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, great-aunts and great-uncles, and people from my grandparents’ church (grandpa was a retired pastor). Last year when the extended family gathered for the holidays, I asked my grandma where they got their dining room table. She said they bought it through a classified ad in the newspaper years ago. I’m not sure when they bought it, but the table was in their home as far back as I can remember, nearly 30 years. It apparently has a history that goes beyond my own family.
These days, my grandparents’ table leads a different life. My husband and I and our daughters eat our meals there every day. I read a short story aloud from a children’s Bible every morning while my daughters eat breakfast. My daughters also sit at the table and make Play Dough ice cream and use plastic scissors to cut the hair of little Play Dough people. We carved our jack-o-lantern at the table this fall, and my girls arrange the chairs and drape blankets over them to make tents. They drag the chairs up to the kitchen counter to help me mix up banana chocolate chip muffins.
Our table sees a lot of life. I’ve discovered its little quirks, like how the leaves perpetually tend to slide away from each other during normal use or whenever the table gets bumped, leaving small gaps on the surface of the table top. Several times a day I push the leaves back together. Sometimes I feel bad about the messes my young family makes on the table. I wipe and dust the surface and clean the chairs where little hands have smeared spaghetti sauce. My grandmother meticulously kept her table clean and polished, so I want to continue to take care of it for her.
As the years go by, I have become more aware of the passing of time, and the fact that nothing in life ever stays the same. When my grandfather passed away six months ago, our table, part of our family heirlooms, became even more meaningful to me because of the connections it holds. I sometimes pause simply to touch the back of a chair and think about my grandfather. I think about the thousands of times he sat at that table and how it was part of his daily life for so many years. Life may always be changing, but at least I can hold on to some physical family heirloom memories. Our table is something I’m happy to keep in the family.
What’s one of your favorite family heirlooms?
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Tags: antique furniture