Furniture Note:
Tea Table?
15 May 2019

My grandmother had a drop-leaf table, with two leaves mounted on a frame that might have been taken, in a careless glance, for a rather wide firescreen. The style is fon-fon Midwestern vernacular with a Jacobean accent. It is not my sort of thing at all. I don’t remember seeing it in Bronxville, where it must have loitered somewhere in the living room. Only when my mother set up house in Houston did it register with me. The living room there was — well, much larger than the one in Bronxville, and, beyond that, sort of ooh-la-la. Down a step from the entry hall, the living room featured a curled ceiling that receded from one and a half storeys in height at the interior (tucked right under the roof) down to the top of an enormous plate-glass window overlooking the swimming pool. Frightful, really, until you got used to it, by which time the Fifties was no less a distinct period than Queen Anne.

The first piece of actual furniture that the eye took in after this architectural assault was my grandmother’s drop-leaf table. On top of the one open leaf was a monstrous silver punchbowl holding a vast array of silk flowers. The table was pushed up against the rear of our old sofa, which, through several reupholsteries, dated back to my parents’ marriage. It was long enough for my father to stretch out on. That was when the only living room was the living room. As soon as he was touched by real prosperity, my father took to mapping in the den, as the room with the television set was called.

Although I’m sure there were other occasions — photographs prove as much — the only time that I remember sitting in the living room was after my mother died, when Dennis Stanfill, then the chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, came to present Dad with the elephant prod fabricated as a prop for The King And I, upon his (my father’s) retirement from the board of directors after nine years’ service. (It says all of this on the clip-on label.) The cloth-covered presentation case in which the elephant prod rested completed the event’s air de Rosenkavalier

I’m going on about the elephant prod — which I immediately declared fresh off an assembly line in the Burbank manufactory where such toys for unsuspecting bigwigs were produced — because I sense that making what follows interesting is going to be a challenge. But I’ll risk anything to capture an instance of the intellect at work. Or not.


My mother called it her mother’s “tea-table.” Doubtless it had been put to good use when my grandmother had ladies to tea.* But, excuse me: “tea table”? Not bloody likely. A tea table is round, and mounted on a carved tripod, preferably with ball-and-claw feet. The feet on my grandmother’s table are mammalian rather than avian, and otherwise unidentifiable, at least by me. 

I just went for another look. (One of Goethe’s megatheriums, perhaps.) The drop-leaf table is mine, now. So is the awful punchbowl, and so is the elephant prod. So are a few other items from that Houston living room. The elephant prod had just come into my possession, now that I think of it, when we moved into this apartment — having spent decades with my late stepmother. Maybe that’s why, the moment I visualized the layout of our furniture in the new space, I was caught like a bug in a Venus flytrap by the memory of what my mother had done with her mother’s tea table. Until today, that table occupied much the same place in our living room that it had filled in the Tanglewood house.** For a long time, there was even a large (living) orchid atop the table. Recently, I had begun to be aware that this arrangement lacked the éclat of its Houstonian inspiration. Somehow, the table had become small-looking, and very, very rectilinear. As a variation on the classic console-behind-the-sofa, it was failing. But I could live with it. 

What I couldn’t live with was the desk in the dining ell. I don’t want to talk about the desk in the dining ell, which was a much bigger failure than the drop-leaf table. I’ll say just two things about it. First, we bought it because it would fit over the HVAC unit beneath the window in the dining ell — and it was cheap. New to the apartment, I had dreams of a “house desk,” located right outside the kitchen, where I would take care of household business. Second, this never happened, because there wasn’t room. You couldn’t sit at the desk, no matter how small you might be, because no chair would fit with its back to the dining table. So the desk in the dining ell was never more than an inadequate sideboard, with all sorts of tote bags and other detritus lurking in its shadows. Lately, I had become determined to move it somewhere else, perhaps into the boudoir end of the living room, pushing it up against the wall where a metal console with books stacked tidily beneath it still stands. 

My idea, which I ran by Ray Soleil, was to take a saw of some kind to the strut at the base of the console, to cut away enough metal to allow the console to fit round the HVAC unit in the dining ell. Ray did not like this idea at all. It would destabilize the console, he thought, and it would require a lot of elbow grease. Since the elbow grease would be his (even if compensated), I backed away for a rethink. 

And that’s when I stood on the imaginary line between the living room and dining ell and, searching the space in front of me for a piece of furniture that would fit over the HVAC unit, saw that not only would my grandmother’s so-called tea table fit nicely in the space, with both leaves dropped if necessary (which it wasn’t), but the place that it currently held would take the house desk nicely. A desk for Kathleen, even! And right outside the kitchen, too — via the other door. 

This obvious solution to the house desk problem never actually occurred to me, even when I had the idea of swapping my grandmother’s table and the desk in the ell — something that, again, never happened, because once the moving got started I realized that the handsome (and not cheap) writing table in the book room, which Kathleen had bought for our old bedroom upstairs, would look much better. (This writing table did not clear the HVAC unit.) Even then, all I thought was that the desk would now be useful. That a writing table ought always to have been in the otherwise unused space — called the “foyer”on the official plan, but a lot larger than what’s usual for this building — became clear to me only when one was actually there. 

It’s not that I’m stupid, or that my fabled spatial sense has a blind spot. No, the moral of this story is that I’m still, more than forty years after she died, unlearning many of the counterproductive lessons — such as stocking up on food as if for a bomb shelter — that I learned from my mother, who, to my almost certain knowledge, never used her mother’s table for what she called it.  

* And bridge, too, I don’t doubt. My grandmother played bridge as though she’d learned it on a riverboat, or perhaps in the same suite in Morrissey Hall where my father spent his undergraduate career at Notre Dame. (But remember, this grandmother was my mother’s mother. My father’s mother was busy doing his washing, which he sent home by train every week. To Iowa, two states away.)

** Which, by the way, has been demolished, as I was really staggered to discover on a magic-carpet ride provided by Google Maps. 5500 square feet of living space and thirteen tons of air-conditioning — gone with the wind. Even the pool — filled in. 

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