Monday, October 20, 2014

Tables and Things

Growing up I had a table that was made entirely of wood.  About eight thin planks cut at different length made up the table top, rounded at the edges both from years of use and the original cut work.  The legs form a big X supporting the table when opened, standing up flat when folded so we can put it away between the bunk bed and the wardrobe (also made of wood).

Dad made these in the hours after work (as a scientist).  If you asked anyone in the family they would tell you he is a slow and meticulous carpenter, painter and finisher.  Mom would tell you he is a slow and meticulous potato peeler, cabbage washer and dumpling wrapper.  I would tell you he is a slow and meticulous shoe lace tier, jacket button-er and my brother would tell you he is a slow chess player.  He massaged objects that came into his hands, planks of wood, vegetables or our hands that needs washing.  He scrubbed until every last piece of dirt was out and the surface in question was shiny and beaming with pride like his face.

We made dumplings then though only once in several months or a year.  Dad would always wipe the table top with our kitchen rag.  We didn't have things like polish or wax, so water and soap was all we used. But years of food serving must have seasoned the varnish somehow, giving it a shine whenever dad was done scrubbing it.  He even scrapped out the gummy gray build up found only in the groves between the planks.  Mom would not start spreading out the dumpling wrappers and pots and saucers until he was done.  We prayed for him to speed things up but he would bite his lower lips, eyes fixed on the table, pulling a clean rag top to bottom plank by plank, slowly but surely.   Sometimes we put on his favorite Beethoven concertos, he would match his wipes with the beat of the music, humming or whistling until every surface is clean enough for either open heart surgery or dumpling making.  As primary schoolers we got cranky quickly while they carried on with the many steps of dumpling preparations in such a manner.   Dad would not rush but taught us how to sing and whistle with him so hunger would not boil over to frustrations and meltdowns.


I spotted this table one day recently at a local restaurant, the scab on it reminded me of a carpentry project on which dad and I collaborated.   He had found a pile of discarded wood so he asked around and a friend sketched out a simple wardrobe plan.   Mom had been asking for one for ages, but we never were able to save up enough to buy one from the stores.   So for months dad sawed, sanded, cut and banged nails together in the courtyard, while I ran behind him playing with wood shavings and carried paint buckets back and forth.   He needed me otherwise occupied so he asked if I would mind drawing some butterflies and flowers; or maybe I somehow proposed the garden theme when hearing his mention of a drawing.  The details escaped me now as I could hardly contain myself, neither sleep nor ate much for days.

Off I went to draw some rather fancy butterflies during the midday siesta hours next to mom's bed as she lay napping.   She woke up day after day dreaming about little pops of something burst next to her ears, as my drawing pens had created that sound whenever I uncapped them.  No matter.  I was determined to finish the project at hand so disrupting mom's naps was but a small price to pay.   The flower theme stumped me a bit as I was still at the stage where five round pedals with a dot in the middle represented all flowers,  so mom pointed out her prized roses and walked away.  For days then after I had to sit by the window sill and sketch out my flowers.  The wooden bench hurt my bums and squatting made my knees sore.  I must have been in third grade by them, so art was still an adventure full of new discoveries.   Finally I presented my work to dad and his lips stretched ear to ear and thin lines appeared around his curved eyes.  He sat down for hours and transferred my drawings to a piece of wood as thin as paper.   Together we painted them subtle colors we could afford and scrounged from nearby building sites.  He affixed these to the wardrobe surface where there used to be large scabs and my drawing covered them perfectly, transferring the imperfect old wood planks to something unique and beautiful (according to mom and dad).  All the neighbors said so too.  For a week a line formed outside our door to admire the result.  My chest had never stuck out so high, and that wardrobe remained my favorite furniture for years.

Inevitably some years I grew sophisticated tastes in art and saw how childish my drawings were.  But eventually I learned to see imperfections and scabs as special, trendy and chic again.   I stared at my silly drawings and understood its innocent kind of beauty, cried over it because I missed those days of family closeness.  The four people in the family were scattered onto three different continents then, busy making money and building quite a collection of perfectly imperfect objects.   More years went by before we all gathered again, celebrating more and working less.  My eyes grow moist as I write this, as dad is no longer here for me to tell him "thank you" for making my butterflies and flowers into a piece of family history and heirloom, despite of the silliness of it all.

Still I would smile at the memory, and think he must be too.  So I went on wiping my simple wooden dining table for the seventh time until it shined and almost ready for surgery.

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