G.K. Chesterton

All that We Can’t Leave Behind

Our dining room table is a salvaged antique store find. It is worn and old, weighty and substantial, and in need of a good refinishing job. Vintage mid-century, its peculiarity is a pair of oak leaves that don’t detach; instead, they slide out from under the middle section, transforming a thick, square table for two into easy accommodation for guests. A draw leaf table. Its solid round legs are heavily footed and connected by a wide board, good for resting heels (or chin, in the case of our short dog).

Photo by Barrie Humphries.

We like old things, my husband and I. And the best way to acquire them is, of course, in the twenty minutes before the antique store closes. At the last minute, we’d had to return a borrowed dining table to friends. So at 4:40 on a Saturday afternoon, we zoomed down to Christiansburg’s Antiques on Main and speedily narrowed our options to three tables. Then two. The clock kept ticking, and in the end, the sliding leaves and unique base charmed us. Who knows what family owned this table before us? Whoever they were, we would add our own years of eating to the table’s silent history. We departed a couple hundred dollars lighter and one beautifully scratched table richer. We’ve added our own scrapes, crumbs, and watermarks in the two years since.

We had both been acquiring items of ages past well before we met: my vintage 1960s dishes, his root beer bottle collection, my grandmother’s paintings and embroidered pillow cases. The two of us, coming from our separate backgrounds and distinct inheritances, intersect at the desire to own things of quality and substance. Things of value. For us, that value lies in meaning, and meaning lies in history. So we pick up pieces here, acquire them there, and save them through the years.

I sometimes cast a glance around our house and wonder what it means that some of our furniture was crafted by skilled Mennonite hands decades ago, and some of it comes from Grand Home Furnishings. I think about the culture of home and what we are creating as we accumulate things — well-loved tables, vintage plates, artisan pottery, a new-bought sofa. At times, the latent Target-shopping suburbanite within chafes against the old dishes, the chipped furniture, the mismatched wine glasses in the china cabinet. I have moments of wanting continuity, order, clean lines. In other moments, I take a near-rapturous delight in the bookshelves my husband is making, and I find myself peering up from the computer, or book, or baby, to appreciate the arrangement of my belongings, old and new, around me.

Last September, an article in the The Independent touched on the modernism of the mid-twentieth century, the prevailing idea that technology, machines, and industry would save culture, would save us all. I had never before considered the way the mass production of the Space Race era, from commercial art to the everyday home item, reflected that thought. The ideology was in the design.

The dishes that sit on my draw leaf oak table came out of that very time and ideology. They are crisp-white and clean-lined, with playful gold Jetson-esque starbursts across them: 1960s Star Glow dinnerware. I bought them from a friend, an antiquer down in Asheville, at a time when I was just beginning to think about homebuilding. They were the first full set of dishes I ever purchased. Though the other decor in my house leans toward the farmhouse rustic, the comfortably-used, the grandmotherly antique, here sit my dinner plates, my teacups, my cereal bowls with their space-age swoosh hiding the crumbs my daughter has mashed into the ridge between the table leaves. Those dishes were designed for a different time. They were born out of a progressive mindset that saw women less in the kitchen, and perhaps less nested. I never considered the modernist message they were proclaiming.

I recently decided to sell the dishes on eBay. I’d like a newer, fuller, matching set that’s safe to use in the microwave. I wrote up descriptions, determined prices, uploaded pictures. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. It’s not because I elevate these plates above their place as material items. It certainly isn’t because I buy into the last century’s idea that progress will save us. My Star Glow dishes bear the message, not of space travel and smart machines, but of their recent origin in my own life. They are symbols of my first foray into choosing my own home items. They are memory pieces of dear friends and a poignant time in life.

Our culture has developed its own particular ideology these days, one of intensive nesting. There are blogs, books, and television shows devoted to craftily creating a finished home, piece by domestic piece, room by DIY room. This movement appeals to me, but it also implies a sly confidence that the home environment can achieve perfection, might be everlasting. Rebecca Parker talked about this several months ago in The Curator: “modern American womanhood — a life lauded for our opportunity for independence — is yet contrarily bound by expectations to be completely nested at a very young age.”

Too true. We are all lives in-process, and our homemaking should reflect that process. It should tell our personal stories as we live them day by day, year by year. I consider my dinner table: a compilation of wedding gift dishes, discount ceramics, and, most sentimental, the retro plates. I look further, at the bookcases built by my husband, at the china cabinet constructed by a distant family member we never knew. That cabinet contains our wine glasses, half-new, half-mismatched from vineyard wine tastings. Good memories there. We may someday or may never replace them with a full, new set. I hope to sand and refinish that dining room table after the years of infant crumb-mashing have passed. Or perhaps we’ll keep paying more attention to our daughter than to our desire for a sleek and shiny furniture piece. Here we are in this place, right now, amongst things that mean something to us, and with people who should mean much more.

My little girl eats at the dining room table, christening the cracks between the leaves with gusto. I consider her place in our conglomeration of items, the material evidence of Us between our four walls. What kind of habitat has she been born into? What items and artifacts surround her in this, the beginning of the wild adventure that will be her life? We surround her with love and with care and with story. And we surround her with tangible pieces that contain some of that story. The table chimes in with its part of the tale; you look at it, and you know who has spent her days eating there — an eleven-month-old and parents too busy to clean up the mess.

In an eclectically-filled home like ours, the messages are many. A home full of newly bought, perfectly matching items would tell a static tale. Instead, we acquire these items here, are given those there. Some break, some are replaced by better, some are old and shabby and so full of meaning I hope never to lose them till the end, when I lose all things. It is a largely accepted concept: you can’t take it with you. This, also, is true. Or is it? That some of our items, like the 60s dishes, tell an unintended tale is merely interesting to me. That they came by way of dear friends is what’s meaningful. They’ll stay. That so many of our possessions are infused with memory and knowledge of people in other places and people long-gone makes me wonder if, in some way, we do take these things with us when we go. What if, in the ways of memory and meaning, of love and hospitality, the items in our home are sacred? Perhaps there is something of lasting substance to belongings, after all.

In one of his essays, G.K. Chesterton addresses this very sacredness that is borne out of each unique home environment. But he has much more to say about the value of the people therein. Like my plans to sell the dishes and refinish the table, it might often seem better to draw clean lines by lessening the importance of home and choosing the people we know. But Chesterton says there is no bigger adventure, no more important group of people, than those who comprise our home. He speaks of the priceless “largeness and variety of the family” and admonishes that “Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this, do definitely wish to step into a narrower world.”[1]

The folks who people my home are a mere three, but the aunt who gave us that Christmas ornament, the father-in-law who gave me the basket hanging on the wall, the twice-great uncle who made our china cabinet, the unknown family who ate at this table before us — we remember them as we look at these things. The memory of those individuals, contained in the things they made, the things they gave, makes our home and our lives anything but narrow.

I suspect that in the end, meaning and memory will be — in the words of the ever-wise U2 — all that we can’t leave behind, along with our very souls. When that meaning and memory get wrapped up in the substance of tangible things, well, I’ll pull up a chair at our dining room table and enjoy every scrape and scratch. I’ll add a few of my own. And maybe, many years down the road, another family will pay a hurried visit to an antique store. They will be charmed by the draw leaves in this antique oak table, now even older. They will buy it and take it home. And in the act of sitting down to dinner, they will bind their story to ours. They will step into a larger world.

[1] Chesterton, G.K. “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family.” Brave New Family. Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 1990. p.44