Times Past: Kitchen table holds generations of memories


  • Greenfield resident Janet Keyes uses this folding table in her living room. Contributed photo/Janet Keyes

Published: 2/23/2018 5:04:35 PM

Our kitchen table was central to our family life when I was a child. All through the winters we took most of our meals at the kitchen table, not in the dining room. In our Guilford, Vt. house, and in Greenfield, the houses were poorly insulated, so the kitchen was the warm room because of the wood stove used for cooking and the foul-smelling kerosene heater used for extra heat. Because my grandfather was sickly, he needed the warmth. As a small child, I sometimes played under the table when I got too big to crawl under the stove, where the floor was warm.

On cold winter evenings after we children were in bed, the adults would sit around the kitchen table enjoying the cozy wood stove, and sometimes drinking tea for more warmth. My mother and grandmother would take turns reading aloud from the weekly Grit magazine and the Brattleboro Reformer. I recall hearing lots of laughter when they read the Grit’s “Hank and Min” stories, and more subdued conversations about the local news stories from the Reformer. Although we had a radio, it was not used much in the winter because it was in the dining room. The kitchen table was the best place to socialize.

My mother once told me this was the table my grandparents used when they started housekeeping as newlyweds in 1900. I came to realize that my dad had probably played under that table when he was a little boy. That helped make the table more special to me.

Of course this drop-leaf was no fine antique. It was just old. The top and drop-leaves were pine, with some knots. The base had pine sides and hardwood pieces at the ends. The four legs were hardwood, probably maple. This sturdy table was built to be used daily for years, not to age gracefully as a pampered showpiece in any seldom-used front parlor.

It was indeed used. In the summer when the cook stove kept the kitchen too hot, the family ate at the big table in the cooler dining room. But the kitchen table functioned as the primary work area for preparing fruits and vegetables to be canned in glass canning jars with red rubber gaskets between the jars and the lids, and metal spring latches. Both my mother and grandmother looked red-faced and hot throughout much of the summer days, and the kitchen filled with the aromas of freshly cut fruits or vegetables. The oil cloth cover of the table was carefully removed to a safe place so the bare table could take any damage from all their work.

In the same way, every winter when Dad butchered a cow to provide a year’s supply of canned beef, the women removed the oil cloth table cover, and they all worked to cut up hundreds of chunks of raw beef on the table top. The odor of beef being cooked in the canning process was overwhelming, and I still find it slightly offensive sometimes. Naturally, at the end of each project they scrubbed most of the stains off the table top, whether the stains were from fruit, vegetables, pickles, preserves, or meat. The sturdy oil cloth cover would hide any stubborn remaining remnants of stain.

That well-used table remained in my parents’ kitchen to the end of their lives. When the time came for us to dispose of all the furniture in the large farmhouse — five generations of accumulation — we gladly took the kitchen table.

My husband and I put in much time and effort to sand the table and give it a few coats of a clear satin polyurethane finish. That kitchen table now sits in my living room with its drop-leaves down and without any oil cloth cover. It is a special part of what makes our house a home.

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