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My mother's table
Ask yourself what a familiar sight means to you
In 1950 my mother made a coffee table, with a bit of help from Dad. It’s made of Jarrah, an Australian softwood famous for the fact that it doesn’t rot. It’s a solid thing, only about ten inches high. It has angled legs and the table top is of two pieces, glued with something that Dad did tell me, which has never shifted or looked like shifting. All it needs for maintenance is a bit of teak oil occasionally. The wood can split if not kept oiled, but doesn’t split much.
The table has followed us around from place to place, a focal point in every living room. It used to sit near the fireplace in my first home, surrounded by the odds and sods of the generations which had become the furniture. Later it was the center piece in a whole new lounge suite, looking like it was designed as part of it.
My relationship with the table started when I realized I was taller than it. The table was associated with the family and friends, and the amount of beer which has sat on it would fill a brewery. Domestica has a happy side, and many games of chess and euchre were also played, as were the endless battles of my toy soldiers across it. When the forces from the city near the wardrobe came into the highlands, it was a fortress. Tanks and infantry battled snipers and artillery in the chairs and on the stone hearth. Monsters also used the furniture to attack the cities, sometimes winning.
The dog, interested spectator, would roam among these battles, his tail being declared a strategic weapon at various times. The table and the dog had an interesting friendship, the dog trying to keep his tail away from the various targets on the table, and the table using its height to duck his more enthusiastic moments.
When not being used for anything important, the table returned to its role as host. The tides of people who sat around it would fill a decent local phone book. An Indian princess, various TV people, Hungarian exiles, businessmen, Army and RAAF officers, ex-Diggers of various descriptions, RAN trainees, my mysterious but dear cousin Moira, a selection of younger cousins on Mum’s side, my half nieces and nephews, a grandparent or several, a very well known architect, an equally well known sculptor, models, artists, one of George C Marshall’s nieces… and those are just the ones I can remember in the time it would take to read this.
I’m not too sure what color the table originally was. I think it was a plain light wood, but over the years, it became so ingrained with beer and tobacco, that the only way I can re-stain it is to mix up cigarette ash and beer, and work it into the scratches and scrapes.
Its surface is surprisingly un-pitted, given over 50 years of the sort of everyday use it’s had. Anyone looking at it would assume it was some sort of Scandinavian piece, or an old English solid wood table. It has that look of bulk, but it’s quite light.
I really must say, as a writer, that “character” is such an inadequate word for some places. The table isn’t just a piece of furniture to me. It’s a place, a part of life I would never dare try and express in some glib little phrase or so. I dread to think how many family crises it witnessed in all those horrible years. I couldn’t count the number of times I leant against it, shaking with laughter from our incessant family quips. To call that “character” would be like calling Shakespeare a novelist.
The table sits in my living room, the rose bowl full of pine cones and Australian banksia pods, with a chess set I need to clean, on it, and a drawing, and a teppanyaki dish that I use for painting sitting colorfully there. A Seekers CD, and an original 1950s Coca Cola bottle opener which I used as a slide and to make Ker-ching sounds on the guitar’s bridge when I first started to play guitar, are roaming around on the table.
I haven’t finished writing this, and I’m now starting to realize that just about every piece of hardware which has ever come in to our homes has wound up on the table at some point, like it was a little clearing station.
I paint on it, I draw on it, my unwieldy collection of board games has spent much time on it. The chess set, a computer game, has fought some epic battles on it. The neighbor’s cat in some of my stories was a frequent visitor, and she snuggled up as I drank gigantic amounts of tea from the table and watched TV with her.
Wine and rum now replaces the beer occasionally, but the table seems to take it in its stride. Snacks in their thousands, some from my mother’s uncanny sense of how to make afternoon tea, have resided on the table like an ad for Gracious Living For An Optimist. It’s hard to imagine any setting in which it wouldn’t be welcome as an elegant little piece, in any house.
I’ve sat by it, exhausted, exhilarated, in states of depression and states of sheer joy. It’s like a compass. The reliable reference point. How are you supposed to express something like that? I’ve done homework on it, done so much experimental art that I really couldn’t begin to quantify it.
Even now, watching things come and go as I move house for the 29th time in 35 years, it remains as a solid object among all the idiot transience this world produces like diarrhea. How many pestilential moments can there be? The table reminds me of the contrast. So many filthy, passing, things. The through traffic in the sewer of oblivion, worthless, time wasting, and so “important” in a world where to move is considered to be doing something.
Ludicrous. If something must change, it should be for the better. If something must move, it ought to be somewhere more useful. Humanity used to be nomadic, but soon got out of the habit when it was found possible to remain in one place and live well. Why scuttle about like cockroaches in the name of antiquated, inefficient economics? People don’t even need to be where the work is, any more. If they could do it, people would be perfectly happy to settle in place among the things they know and love.
Traveling for hours to get to a job is like intergalactic exploration in search of your face. You just don’t need to do it. Moving home on the basis of whatever breeze is much the same. Some people, admittedly, do like being on the move. It’s natural for them, they are well adapted, they obviously don’t resent it as much as I do.
This is the first time I’ve moved in nine years. All the old allergic reactions to moving are in full force. I hate it. Always have. I’ve rarely ever moved because I wanted to move. This is one of the few times, and it’s not because I don’t love the place, and all the things done here over the years, 12 books, the website, the cartoons, The Little Nurse, et al. I intended to move, because of an idiot neighbor. I’ve had some classics, but this one takes the cake. As it turns out, I have to move anyway, because the old bloke who owns the place is selling.
Yet another home. Yet another per ardua ad removalists. I am utterly sick of it. I want to write, and do my work, and music. What do I get? “Let’s play house” for idiots. Screw it. Let someone else do the gypsy bit, I refuse to do it any more, even if I do really want to move this time. The next move will be to somewhere from which I will not need to move again.
That table does represent my general values, domestic and global; a happy home, a nice place, and some peace and quiet. No wonder I think so highly of it, and all it means to me. No psychologist yet born has even mentioned the question of what is home. Strange omission. Everything is presumably a possible source of trauma, but what are the sources of a stable, productive, mind?
This is culture jamming by other means: avoiding the hideous social norms by asserting your own way of life, regardless of time, fashion, peer groups, social fads, and other illusions from a corporate mentality considerably less than that of a dead chicken. What gives a society the right to create an economic blender, produce a communal gruel, and call it a life? Are decades spent in mindless procedures and empty rituals really that interesting?
Humanity needs more opportunity to be itself, not just an inertial mass of credit ratings sloshing around a jerrybuilt mausoleum. Pressure living is only fun for those who can’t remember it. Morons claim to like toil and tedium, and the banal, bitchy, dripping of the income brackets, and call it “work”.
Nobody likes “work”. Those that enjoy the way they earn a living aren’t “working” in that sense. Is anyone really suggesting that nobody could find something more pleasant to do with their time and money, than spend 40 or so years in a terrified grapple with the need for security?
I wonder how many people have been driven insane by their work. It must be a lot. The truth is that nobody ever quite gives up their ideas of peace and quiet, a nice home, and the things they love. The conflict between what should be, and the situations the need to work creates, which are always threatening those ideas, is a pretty good reason to go nuts.
The table is sitting there peacefully. In a few hours I’ll have a good meal on it, and a decent light beer, and relax a bit after this paper chase I’ve been on all day.
When I move anywhere, for whatever reason, you can bet that table’s coming with me.