Fanny’s table

Louie (4) and Gus (1) Huler under the table, 2009. Photos courtesy Scott Huler.

Louie (4) and Gus (1) Huler under the table, 2009. Photos courtesy Scott Huler.

by Scott Huler

The first thing you should know is green: Fanny’s table is green. An old, faux-antique dusky green, the green of a deep-forest conifer or a faded piece of blotter paper, but green just the same. The second thing you need to know about Fanny’s table is you would notice other things before you noticed it was green.

You would notice that it has a series of carving motifs so eclectic that no matter what style of furniture you think it might be, it is and it is not. It has Pennsylvania Dutch florets hither and yon. It has gothic leg patterns turned on a lathe, except where they are squared off, or carved into more Amish-style floral details. It has Art Deco lozenges along the edges, and border pinstriping carved into the surface around the top exactly deep and wide enough to catch crumbs and exactly shallow and narrow enough to make them impossible to clean out without a fork tine or a letter opener.

You would notice that if you slid out both of the attached leaves from beneath the tabletop and jammed them into the sides – a two-person operation, with attendant grunts and curses – the table looks like it could fly, but if it can’t do that it can surely seat twelve. Twelve knights, or Amish, or beatniks, or some combination thereof.

The five regular chairs have salmon-colored vinyl seats, in addition to Addams Family-style dripping arch patterns. So does the Big Chair – grandpa Louie’s chair – which also has two kingly arms, one of which forever wobbles, no matter how often you fix it. It wobbles, I have learned from reliable sources, because one day in their childhood my mother and my aunt Arlene decided that they were going to walk across the dining room without touching the floor. They touched the floor all right, and so did the chair arm, and oh boy did grandma Fanny let them know it, and the returning wobble tells the tale.

Tells it year after year, whenever the table spreads its wings and gathers people to it. Traditionally that was Passover and Thanksgiving and other holidays at grandma Fanny’s house in Cleveland. And while the dads watched TV the moms would put on the enormous white tablecloth with all our family’s names cross-stitched on it, and lay out the china and the silver while we cousins played beneath, using the fluttering tablecloth as hiding place walls.

My brother remembers the Deanne Express, which came to be when one of the young cousins grew old enough to crawl, and the rest of us would crawl behind her, under the table, up onto the chairs, in the Escherian architecture among the table and chair legs and struts. I remember creeping beneath it to try to liberate the Afikomen, the playfully hidden piece of matzo that keeps children occupied during the long Passover Seder. It was our Good Place, our secret place, our meeting place. Every game of cousins hide and seek began or ended there, every secret was whispered there, every shameful tear shed there, where mom knew just where to find you – when she figured you were ready. It was the safest place within the already magical space of grandma’s house – the sanctum sanctorum sanctorum.

And then Fanny died, as grandmas must, and without her Louie died within months. And then the madness of distribution of parts and pieces, and among three grown children no empty dining rooms, and among cousins still in college no need for a table you could land a small plane on, so Fanny’s table, disassembled, lay in Arlene’s basement for a decade, drying out and gathering dust. There was a fearful moment when Arlene and Rachel – my mom – both discovered they had promised it to specific children, but Amie and I instantly agreed: as long as somebody’s kids ended up playing beneath that table it was all ok.

And then I got married, and I got an apartment in Philadelphia with a formal dining room for which Ikea and its ilk simply have no answer. And I remembered.

My mom provided a photograph, and Violet, my wife (at that time), agreed it looked like a fit. “It certainly is … green, though,” she said. You may call that foreshadowing. I drove to Cleveland for a visit, rented a van, and loaded all six chairs and every piece of the table, and then I piloted that van through an ice storm over the Appalachian Mountains to my Philadelphia apartment. And Violet and I brought the table piece by piece up three flights of stairs, and her mother, by for a visit, took one look at it and declared it the ugliest thing she’d ever seen, and that was the last moment Violet was going to like it.

But it was my safe place, my memory of Grandma Fanny – and, to be honest, it looked smashing in the vast formal dining room of that apartment. We had dinner parties where it never failed to garner compliments, and so Violet, deeply committed to dinner parties, came to accept it. And did I mention it came with a buffet, which our family forever referred to for some reason only as “the sideboard”? Regarding the size of the sideboard I will tell you that when acquainted with it, a friend, asked to describe it, said only that “It sleeps four.”

Our apartment did not ring with laughter – I have already told you Violet was my wife only for a while, and while she had many fine qualities, when she argued she went for blood. When we had one of our common melees, we found ourselves staring at one another across the table, and Violet said something that could scarcely be unsaid. She glared, banged her palm on the table, and abruptly stood to walk away –  and then walked directly into the bathroom, from which came only silence.

The silence was far too complete to be safe. I crept to the door and knocked: “Um,” I said. “Are you okay?”

Her voice quavered. “No,” she said, and I opened and went in.

A splinter. During its years mouldering in Arlene’s basement, the table had dried, and the wood had begun splitting. We waxed it once in a long while, but it mostly just sat and did its job, and so it developed a raggedness along its bottom edge, where the weave of a pants leg could snag a separating line of woodgrain. Violet’s pants had done just that, and thrust directly into the meat of her thigh was a splinter – though it may be more accurate to describe it as a tree limb, a spear, a telephone pole. A piece the size and shape of a wooden matchstick stuck out at perpendiculars, and it laughed at tweezers. As Violet hyperventilated I got a needlenose pliers, and –  “nnnnnnnn-THOINK” – pulled it out. I poured into the hole a gallon or so of peroxide and called a friend who was a doctor, who told us not to worry.

You may see in this the result of furniture neglect and an admonishment to wax and treat more often. I see in it that Fanny doesn’t let anybody talk to her grandson in certain tones of voice. Anyhow, Violet and I remained together for long enough that we headed for Raleigh. What did we plan to do with the table, friends asked. “Kindling?” Violet suggested.

Violet, the table, and I moved to Raleigh, where we had rented a house with a formal dining room where the table fit perfectly, and then we bought a house much like it. I don’t say it was Fanny’s table that convinced Violet that her future lay back in Philadelphia, but soon after we bought the house I got to buy it again, and she headed back, and I and Fanny’s table made a life for ourselves here.

When I met my beloved wife, June, and saw Fanny’s great grandchildren looking out at me through her eyes, Fanny’s table was just part of the donnée – it went where I went. Of course once those children started filling up our little house, the formal dining room had to do double and triple duty – music room, drawing room, playroom  – and so it moved to the wall. But an enormous psychotically carved green table possessed by the spirit of a great grandmother just doesn’t belong pushed against a dining room wall, so when we added a vast back porch and put the table out there to eat during interior construction, we quickly realized that Fanny’s table belonged there. June comes from ancestor worship just as I do, so it’s her mother’s – much smaller – dining room table we eat off indoors now, and it doesn’t mind being against the wall. Fanny’s table sits happily on the porch, protected from wind and rain, and in the humid Carolina weather probably far better off than it was for its years in Arlene’s basement.

We still put on that big tablecloth now and then, and invite a million people over, and I think the table is happy. Far more important, my boys play beneath it. When I sent a picture of them doing that to Amie it felt like we had completed a circle. And when the sideboard – just too big even for a porch – outlived its utility in my shed, June’s dad took it in, where it agreeably fills up a room in his house.

This is likely the last stop for Fanny’s table. Never a piece of fine furniture, it was a “reproduction” even when Fanny bought it new in the 1930s. I asked my mom, “A reproduction of what, a fever dream?” And it’s been dry, and it’s been damp, and it’s been here and there. But above all it’s been loved. We’ve sat around it at Passover and Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve and any number of dinners large and small, and if on its surface it holds our food, beneath it, in its dark places, it protects our spirits and harbors our secrets.

Holidays are about family and history and connection and love and stories, and Fanny’s table has them above and below. Come on over and I’ll tell you a few. Lift up the tablecloth flap and take a look – it seems just about time for the Deanne Express.

Grandma Fanny and Ronnie at the table, circa 1950

Grandma Fanny and Ronnie at the table, circa 1950