The Table

Author: Tara Hunt McMullen ’12

In light of our upcoming move, my husband has mentioned selling our dining room table. Our only table.

He’s not wrong. The farmhouse-style table sits four — six if the folks on the ends have short legs or are willing to sit crisscross to avoid banging their shins on the crossbars or playing footsie with their kitty-corner neighbors. With four permanent residents, plus a revolving door of houseguests, we’re due for something larger.

We also need something with less upkeep. The smooth planks punctuated by deep grooves gave a texture and hominess that attracted me to the table. But now those crevices are routinely home to a host of crumbs, Play-Doh bits and shriveled raisins that I dig out at naptime with a toothpick and persistence and a number of child-unfriendly vocabulary words.

Still, the table has been a witness to a marriage and a life unfolding, and I can’t seem to part with it. It was our first real, adult purchase during that rosy honeymoon phase. It wasn’t a joint purchase — he was on his first multiweek work trip that took him to Las Vegas. I was left in rural North Carolina and had signed up to work the base charity auction to kill time, make friends and prove myself as an earnest, fresh-faced military spouse.

Despite my insistence that I am a woman of words, I was placed in the back of the room with a calculator to total up silent auction tabs while keeping an ear out for live auction purchases by the people on my roster. One was the local dentist, who had made a sizeable living cleaning the teeth of just about every military spouse and child in town. In thanks, he brought his whole staff to the event and told them to bid freely and charge it to his tab.

And so I was tallying his deluge of wins when the table — our dining room table — came up for auction. I had spied it during setup and longingly wondered what it would look like in our new home, which was sparsely and spastically decorated with tidbits from thrift shops, college apartments and generous if out of place wedding gifts. The open-concept kitchen held only a small, square pub table, and during mealtime the ting and clang of silverware echoed a bit in the room’s emptiness. I daydreamed of dinner parties and holiday place settings, all without having to belly up to our bar-top table.

So when this hand-hewn farmhouse table, crafted by a friend and her husband, came up for auction at a starting bid of $500, I distractedly raised a paddle.

That was it. There were no more bids. The gavel struck and I had to pencil in a $500 payment under my own name.

A friend with a truck offered to drop it off and help shimmy it up the porch and through the back door, where it found its first home. It has since served in three residences on two coasts.

Then the panic set in. I had impulsively spent $500, more than I had ever spent on anything, and would need to pay for it on my husband’s credit card, to which I had been added just weeks before. The long-instilled Catholic guilt roared as I tearfully dialed his number. As soon as he answered, “Hello?” I spewed the whole story and a string of apologies and waited for reproach. Instead, he laughed and said, “Well, I’m up about that much at the craps table, so we’ll call the night even. But how are you going to get it home?”

The thought hadn’t crossed my mind.

A friend with a truck offered to drop it off and help shimmy it up the porch and through the back door, where it found its first home. It has since served in three residences on two coasts. It has offered a place for us to welcome people. It’s where we’ve introduced ourselves to new friends over board games and said farewell to true ones over a meal and one too many cocktails. It has hosted dinner parties and Bible studies, Zoom calls and writing sessions. It has held craft time, ranging from paper turkey handprints to ornament painting — that one left a permanent pink smear, despite the “Washable” emblazoned across the multicolored jars. Sitting at this table, we’ve feasted during holidays and fought over Scrabble word choices. It has seen the mundane and the celebratory and has become a living extension of our family.

There was a time when I couldn’t eat at the table. During the months my husband was deployed, setting a table for one and staring at an empty chair felt like the epitome of loneliness. I could buzz through the day with work and the gym and friends, but the moment I sat at that table, our table, aching would wash over me. It felt like the ting and clang from our little pub table were echoing once again, and so I ate, for many months, cross-legged on the couch instead.

Still, the table has provided a welcoming place to land when everything feels foreign, which it often does in military life. Now it is where my children recalibrate after a tantrum with a snack. It’s where, in rare quiet moments, I sit and think. It’s where my husband settles in after a long day at work and where we adults can sit and whisper about the unknowns and the unpleasants after the children have been dismissed and Disney+ booms in the background. It’s somehow where we each gravitate when we need a moment of peace. And so, despite its inadequacy, I’m not sure I can let it go.

It seems so trivial, especially to a hopeful minimalist. Given our lifestyle, I have no qualms about ruthlessly purging. The preschool crafts get recycled. The wee baby onesies can go to St. Vincent DePaul. The wedding photos still reside on a USB drive, because it seems foolish to print and frame and hang them only to take them down once more. I’ve learned to store the memories in my mind and in my stories, so items that can be lost or destroyed don’t have to carry emotional heft. And yet, the table feels irreplaceable, even as a Pottery Barn catalog boasting a number of tables, sits atop it.

To slim down before the move, the couch can go. The outdoor furniture, too. I’ll purge the closets and linens and holiday décor. The toys can be pared down, even the books. But the table will stay. It has to.

Tara Hunt McMullen is a freelance writer and former associate editor of this magazine. She and her table now reside in Destin, Florida.