One day long, long ago when Jim and I lived and worked at Kimball Union Academy, I was walking my toddlers into the school’s dining hall for lunch when the head of buildings and grounds passed me. He was rolling the top of a very large oak table out of the dining hall.
“Where’s that going?” I asked. It was not a completely innocent question as it looked to me like he was getting rid of the table, and I had need of one.
“Why? Do you want it?” he answered. “We’re replacing these old tables with new ones.”
And so an apparently chance encounter brought us a kitchen table that would drive the layout of our entire farmhouse.
A solar engineer designed our house. He was nothing if not a minimalist. As a very tidy bachelor he lived by the rule of use it or lose it. Somehow he imagined our family could be as sleek and organized as he was, so he designed us a house that had no extra space and almost no closets. Somehow the miracle of building a house made us see everything with rosy colored glasses- even a house design with no storage space- so we blithely built this house to our solar engineer’s specs.
The saving grace in the design was that I had insisted the solar engineer create a place for this table which was a whopping five feet in diameter. Apparently it was the only moment of clarity I had in the whole design process.
Begrudgingly, the solar engineer made enough room for the table though not enough room for chairs around the table. This meant we had a relatively spacious space for eating compared to say, the 2.5′ X 5′ downstairs bathroom he designed which literally was too small for a regular sized toilet or a regular sized sink (or really a person).
When you stood up from the toilet you were in danger of banging your knees or chin on the tiny pedestal sink we squeezed in. Ask all the staff that have ever worked here, and they will have something to say about that charming bathroom. Ask them how happy they were when we tore out the bathroom ( and I use the word bathroom loosely) and built the staff their very own commodious bathroom by robbing some space from our already peculiarly narrow living room (after all when your living room is also way too small, why not make it smaller?).
Anyways, back to the topic at hand-our mighty oak table. For twenty five years we packed people around this behemoth. It comfortably seated eight or ten but we fit up to fourteen around its circumference for big meals like Thanksgiving. With six Sheehans around it on a daily basis, it felt large but not too large.
The table got a lot of action. The children never went to their tiny closetless rooms except to sleep, so in between meals, the table’s surface was almost always covered with homework, art projects, snacks and a cat or two. I liked that we had one place we could gather AND FIT!
Yet when our census went down, this large expanse of a table began to feel out of scale. With just me and Jim at our super sized table we needed a man servant to pass the salt from one of us to the other. But a replacement tiny table (in a scale appropriate to the rest of the house) felt like it would bring its own problems. There were still plenty of moments when all the staff was in the house gathered for a meal or all the kids were home and then we needed the equivalent of our big oak wonder. Our solar engineer could not fathom the idea of a dining room for special occasions so of course we didn’t have one of those to fall back on.
We needed an odd solution.
And we settled on one. We knocked out the island between the cooking area and the eating area to make a blissfully larger open kitchen, and then we had a local carpenter make us three lovely maple kitchen tables.
Blame it in Downton Abbey. In the servant’s dining room at Downton there are two kitchen tables pushed together to form one long expanse. This gave us the idea of making these three modest sized rectangular tables that could be reconfigured based on the circumstances.
With a big crowd, we line up all three tables and it looks like Downton’s staff dining table only less tea and more vegetables.
With a medium size crowd we make a big square with two tables and leave the third as a prep table near the stove.
When it is just me and Jim, the prep table stays in place, one table sits in all its glory in place of the oak behemoth and the third table goes into the playroom next to the greenhouse where we use it to fold laundry, because, of course, there is no space for folding laundry near the washer and dryer ( Frankly I feel lucky the engineer believed some people might need a washer and dryer- I am sure he made a more ecological choice and either had no dirty clothes to wash or had his less green girlfriend do his laundry for him at her home that broke his rules and had modern conveniences).
But, after twenty five years wondering what on earth we were thinking when we signed off on the original houseplan, the house finally really fits us. With just two of us in the house, the minimalist’s design works splendidly. The tiny bedrooms are perfect for company coming and going and a dining room would be just more space to heat. We’ve solved the bathroom problem and who really NEEDS a living room? The only thing rogue is our three tables and that is one excess I am keeping.
A young Will at the original behemoth, enjoying an egg standing on end on the Spring Equinox.
Here’s the mighty oak expanse with an entire gingerbread village on top and a three person garden bench that appears to be swallowed by the table.
Here are new table one and new table two in use at the holidays for domino runs. Note stainless steel bowls for musical effect at the end of the runs.
Here is the stretch of all three tables set for Thanksgiving dinner, their big moment.