The beating heart and layers of history: Why I love my dining table

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Ruth Dawkins

Why I love my dining tableI am not a materialistic person. As a glance at the barely-there contents of my wardrobe would tell you, the accumulation of stuff holds no interest. But there are a handful of objects in our house that I really, really love.

One of those is our dining table.

It is a beast of a thing. Seven feet by five. Six sturdy planks of unidentified tropical hardwood, some of which are starting to separate so far that I can fit a whole hand down the resulting gap. The top is covered in scars, scrapes and gashes — each one a story. It holds secrets, this table — layers and layers of history.

It was originally a chef's table at Donaldson's in Edinburgh — a gothic-style building, built in the mid 1800s, which over the last 150 years has served as a school for orphans, a school for deaf children, and a World War II prison camp for Italian and German soldiers. When the building was sold about ten years ago, much of the furniture made its way into antique shops around the city, and it was there that we found our table, under a layer of dust in a shop at the end of an alley.

We sanded it down. Added three inches to each leg so that our taller friends could sit comfortably. And then, with some considerable grunt work, we hauled the thing into the middle of our dining room.

So many of my Edinburgh memories are associated with that table. It's where I sat up late into the night, burning candles and listening to my husband play harmonica. It's where I last drank coffee with a much-loved friend, now much-missed. It's where I set up my computer, and started a blog. In the throes of labour, I clutched one corner and hoped to absorb some of that table's stoic strength. A year later we pinned bunting along the edges and spilled cake crumbs in the grooves as we wished our son a happy first birthday. With our tears and laughter, our arguments and celebrations, we kept adding to our table's history, day after day after day.

But then we moved. From bonnie Scotland to middle England, and the table wouldn't fit into the new place. It sat, sad in the garage for a fortnight, until the removal truck returned and it was taken into storage. We bought another table — smaller, lighter, and free of chefs' cleaver marks. A fine wooden table. It did the job, for eighteen months, but it was not the same at all.

But then we moved again, so that big old table was taken out of storage, and loaded into the shipping container, along with everything else we owned. Onto a truck in Dartford, down the motorway, then onto a boat. From Felixstowe to Singapore, with a short layover in Port Said… through the Suez Canal, then Fremantle, Melbourne, and finally to Hobart, Tasmania. Hopefully its final resting place.

Phew.

We have the beating heart of our house back again.

After all that time apart, I am taking a little more care of our table now. It still ends up covered with piles of paper, and suffers the occasional splodge of yoghurt or Bolognese sauce, but now it also gets a weekly buff with some beeswax polish and a soft cloth.

Things often have to be extracted subtly from the gaps, like spinach from between your teeth. I like to imagine dropping a seed down there one day, and coming back a week later to find a small green shoot. But there is no need, really. The table has enough life in it without me adding any organic matter.

This lovely table draws people to it. Just as I sat here and typed the first words of my blog, Tom now sits at his place and grasps a pen, tracing letters over and over in his notebook until they start to make sense. It is where books are read, where breakfast is eaten, and where big conversations take place. It is the place where, once again, my husband and I sit up late into the night, burning logs on the fire, listening to the radio, sipping wine.

Our table is back in our home, and all is good.

  1. This piece actually made me a bit teary-eyed. Feelings about a table!

    Two months ago we shipped my family's 100-year-old dining table across the ocean to England, refinished it, and lugged it into a place of honour in the lounge in our new old house. I hope it continues to anchor happy family moments just like yours does, Ruth.

  2. This was beautifully written – thanks for sharing! Objects definitely have their own powerful magic. They can transport you across time, connect the living and the dead, provide stability, and invite mystery and curiosity. Glad you were able to take it with you on such a long journey to start a new chapter in your (and it's!) life.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. I completely agree – a few special objects can really provide connections and stories. I've written a post on my own blog recently about a new ritual my son and husband have, swapping items from their 'secret box' each night, and it is really giving my son the opportunity to ask questions and learn things about his family history.

  3. This is so beautiful! I always tell my husband that my "dream home" will have a large dining room table with character. It's the only piece of furniture I care about, but sadly I have neither the room nor the table, yet. Thank you for sharing your table!

  4. My husband and I bought our first piece of "grown up furniture" last year. It's a nice dining room table that has leaves to extend it. I picture the future dinners we'll have, the friends we invite over, the holidays we host… who knew a table could hold so much emotion?

    I was sad when my cat skidded across it and scratched the finish… but then I realized that eventually the table will have a "patina" on it like our wedding rings will. And all that wear and tear will have meaning!

    • Ahh, that is such a good attitude to have! Pets and children both make you relax your standards a little I think – well done to your cat for starting the story of your table! You need a couple of red wine spills next I think…

  5. Our dining table was given to us by my husband's mother when we moved into this place. It was the dining table his family had through his childhood and had been sitting in her basement for ages.

    It's not in perfect condition. The oak veneer is chipped and cracked because her and FIL got bad advice about stripping the paint (acid baths NO) when they bought it second hand after they were married in the '70s. (This is also the reason it doesn't have its chairs anymore because they fell apart in the acid bath.) MIL is still pissed off about it and has a little grump every time she comes round. It has little round indents in it from my husband and his sisters stabbing it with a ballpoint pen as kids. And there is an M carved into the top, for which my husband got in a large amount of trouble circa 1984.

    I, for one, love it. There's so much family history in a dining table – more so than in, say, a vase or a chair. It tells the story of his childhood, and in time, will do the same for our kids. There might be more initials carved in it, olive oil spilled, forks dropped. I think that's great.

  6. I completely understand the way you feel. It is not about the table but the people, the happenings around it and all the memories. It could sound sentimental but it is the way some of us feel about a specific object. I like the table and its story and I am happy that you shared with us the way it makes you feel.

  7. I LOVE furniture with history. Things that are new just seem sort of empty to me. Not that you can't fill them with history yourself, but I really gravitate towards pieces that have already had full lives before the one they share with my own family.
    I bought my huge, antique dining room table several years ago off Craigslist for $40. ($40!!!) The man selling it to me pointed out all the dents and gouges and offered helpful tips on how to refinish it. He hesitantly asked if I thought $40 was a fair enough price for all the work that needed to be done. I tried to choke down my excitement and said that I thought it was just fine. I couldn't even try to haggle with the man, I was already getting such a crazy deal. Short of cleaning it up and reupholstering the chairs, I haven't touched the table. I love every dent and gouge and I like to imagine how they got there and what the homes were like that housed it.

  8. This post made me do multiple double takes. I have friends in Edinburgh, I have lived in Dartford, I now live in Singapore, oh, and I have a giant hardwood table that is cracking as it ages. I can only hope that it will fit in our future homes, but I'm reconsidering my animosity to those cracks having read your post.

    "From Felixstowe to Singapore, with a short layover in Port Said… through the Suez Canal, then Fremantle, Melbourne, and finally to Hobart, Tasmania" I had to re-read this so many times, I know what you mean but all I can think every time I read it is, Port Said after Singapore then Australia, what?

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