Several years ago I wrote an essay called ‘My Kitchen Table.’ It was an essay about many things; memory, hope, motherhood, love – but it was also about fragility, loss and vulnerability.
When I wrote it, I was thinking about how my kitchen table had played a key part in so many of the moments of my life that defined me.
It had became, in short, a friend.
It seemed to me then, as it still does now, that my kitchen table is arguably the place where I spend my most ordinary, yet intimate and honest moments. It is where I am all the sides of myself; the me who is not good in the mornings, drinking her coffee and blearily making toast for her children. The me that sits late at night, when my children are in bed, quietly wrapping Christmas and birthday presents, and feeling that tender burr of being an only parent. The me that writes pieces like the one I write here (and at my kitchen table too, it seems important to say), the me that likes to cook for other people. The me that has drunk too much wine with old friends’ late into the night, glasses and bottles littering the table-top, putting the world to rights and then promptly regretting it the next day.
The myriad of me’s we all carry inside us.
You could say that the kitchen table is the place where both our public and our private selves are given a seat and made welcome. We share our table with others, but crucially, it is also, at times, the solid physical presence that holds us up and supports us. Our elbows when we lean on our tables, bear our weight and our troubles. With our head in our hands and deep in private thought, it is the humble kitchen table that supports us, in all the ways that expression means.
The poet, Katherine Mansfield, chose a kitchen, and in particular a kitchen-table, as the setting for her magically-ordinary love poem Chamomile Tea. It is impossible not to feel the quiet intensity of the moment in which she describes how;
Under the kitchen table-leg / My knee is pressing against his knee
What I love about this poem is how she captures one quiet moment of intimate intensity, whilst all the while the presence of the ‘peacefully dripping tap’ and the ‘saucepan shadows’ on the walls, create a sense of timelessness and belonging that only adds to the depth of this love-affair, rather than diminishes it.
In Mansfield’s depiction of love as thriving amidst the daily backdrop of pots and pans, she intimates that the kitchen, and the kitchen-table is neither a place of drudgery nor duty but instead, somewhere gloriously heartfelt, and truthful. It is a place of roots and belonging.
In thinking about this post I began to ask people what their kitchen table meant to them. And in listening to their answers, I began to hear many stories in which memories became a central theme of each individual story. The table was a physical reminder of people and moments. It was about one’s parents, it was about being a parent. It was family and friendship and home, and what I came to understand was just how emotive that topic was for so many people. Memories endure, and the kitchen-table, made of wood and sturdy, endures alongside those memories as a tangible link to the past,
The photographer Sarah Mason and her partner Suzi, photograph and make films in which kitchen tables have become symbolic in their work capturing people and families in everyday settings. I recently talked to Sarah about her work photographing families. She told me how all her family portrait sessions begin with a cup of tea at the kitchen table of the family she is photographing. This small moment of gathering; allowing an opportunity for everyone to come together in a space in which they are able to feel secure, says much about the table as a place of safe-harbour and belonging. Sarah’s description of the kitchen-table being ‘more of a communal space…than the lounge’ really interested me.
Perhaps it is because when we sit around a table, we are truly looking at one another, listening and sharing each other’s space. The focal point of a table is one another. And ourselves. It is about gathering and sharing and returning. Our tables are somewhere we return to again and again, sometimes with others, sometimes alone, and as such there is a touch of ritual about that which makes it so significant and emotional for us when we recall it.
And now, finally for me, there are other faces around around my kitchen table on a daily basis. Other hands rest upon it, and smaller feet than mine swing beneath it. No longer a table for one. I have become a mother and this has become our family table. And my kitchen-table, silently bearing witness to all those future memories yet to come, and simultaneously representing all those stories and memories that have gone before, will be at the heart of them all.
Just as it should. My kitchen-table, thank you.