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Is it Time to Refinish the Table?

The first thing a visitor sees upon entering our living room is a battered old coffee table. It is a table that draws attention to itself. It is huge, distinctive, one-of-a-kind, and, after decades of daily use, full of nicks, scratches, and dents.

I proposed refinishing it over the holidays, but opinion in the household is divided. Some think the table looks fine: “The imperfections give it character,” says one. Some want to replace it: “I never liked it anyway,” says another.

To be sure, the table was controversial from the beginning.

My dad bought it at an estate auction, and it languished forgotten in his garage. The first time I spied it I was drawn to its bold presence: a heavy, square table with a burled walnut top and curved, black-painted legs. It would transform the living room, I thought, and we could gradually accumulate other furniture to go with it.

My spouse was not so sure. “It’s just so big and heavy,” she said. “Will it even fit through the door?” I convinced her it would fit, that it would be great. She remained skeptical.

A few months later we fastened it to the top of the car and hauled it across the country. I stripped the paint and varnish, sanded out the nicks and scratches, and gave it a new finish. It looked fantastic.

At the time we had an infant, a toddler, and a new puppy. Ajax was a chocolate lab with huge feet and an appetite for mischief. He loved to chew anything he could get his teeth into, and the table was the perfect height. He was the first of three puppies to leave his mark on it.

Over the years the table served as a diaper changing platform, a stepstool, a fort, and a racetrack. Many meals were eaten at and spilled on that table; many cups and bowls remained overnight, leaving their traces behind.

In the past, I barely noticed the imperfections, and when others pointed them out, as they sometimes did, I doubted their sincerity. “What do they really dislike about the table?” I asked myself.

Unfortunately, the problems now are more than cosmetic. Over the past few months the veneer has begun to loosen along the edges, and a crack is spreading down one side.

We invited some experts to offer advice.

“The integrity of the glue is compromised,” said the first. “If you don’t take action right away, the whole thing is going to fall apart.”

“It may not look the greatest,” the other said, “but it’s still more reliable than anything you could buy new. I don’t see any reason you can’t get another four or five years out of it.”

I called a family meeting. “It’s time to vote,” I announced. “We can either take the table out and have it restored, or we can just leave it as is for the time being and decide later on whether to replace it. One way or the other, we have to choose.”

“Dad, are we still talking about the table?” one of my sons asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Probably not,” I admitted. It seems I rarely know what people are talking about anymore, myself included.

I am attached to the old table, but I have to remind myself that the question is not about how much I like it. The question is about whether the table is still functional, whether it can still do what we put it there to do. And that is to give us a place to gather, to be a base for our activities, so we can continue to define ourselves as a family. Without a table we would just be a bunch of individuals, inhabiting the same house but living separate lives, without a center, without a place to carry out the rituals that make us one.

On Christmas morning we will wake up, make our beds, pour our coffee, and wander gradually, one by one, into the living room. Somebody will put the String Ties Christmas album on the stereo, one of the boys will take the stockings down from the mantle, another will get a few presents out from under the tree and place them on the old coffee table. We will sit around it, spending the morning like we used to—like we do all too seldom these days—talking, laughing, grateful to be together.

We will not talk about the table. We will talk about each other, about our lives, our plans for the future, our remembrances of times past.

And that is as it should be, when the table is doing its job and we are doing ours.

December 22, 2019

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