By A.M. Settineri.
In the kitchen of my parents’ home sits the table my father built. It is a solid, walnut-stained rectangle with no frills or flourishes, set like a chopping block upon four unadorned legs. The knots in the wood have soaked up the stain and look like the caramelized nubs of a slow-roasted meat. The surface is smooth, and accepts the light so that it glows warmly beneath our meals. My father’s creation stands tall, and covers the space beneath it like a church ceiling; indeed, the table is as simple and pure as the humble altar of some rural chapel.
He built it at my mother’s request, to replace the store-bought, wobbly, unremarkable kitchen table which they’d owned for over twenty-five years. Though that table had been witness to so many birthdays, so many Christmas Eves, so many going away and welcome home parties, the time had come for it to be retired. It sagged in all directions, and was no longer solid upon the central support. Leaning upon it caused the whole thing to shift see-saw style, so after hefty meals and with heavy stomachs it became hazardous to use its surface to lift ourselves to satisfied feet. Upon this new table, though, leaning is encouraged. Sturdy and solid, it invokes in the mind images from history. It is a table upon which great documents could have been drafted; where thunderous fists could have emphasized great speeches; where great patriarchs could have been laid out in death.
But the table is not perfect. Built from scrap pieces of lumber salvaged from old pallets, the support frame is less a rectangle than a parallelogram; the surface is not entirely flat. Yet these flaws only add to the table’s imagery. The frame could have lost its alignment in a fierce storm at sea, crashing about a storage compartment of the Dutch fluyt which carried it. The surface may have warped in the moisture and heat of the Congo, traveling up the river to sit in the office of some remote trading post. The first night we ate upon the table, no one wanted to get up to load the dishwasher, or turn on the television, or get in the car and go elsewhere. We wanted to blow out kerosene lamps and sit by the fire of a cold frontier night on the prairie. Somehow my father has built not just a table, but an archetype.
He would not describe himself as a carpenter. An electrical engineer by training, my father spent most of his career in the airline industry working with computers. But he is handy, resourceful, fiercely independent, and has done enough of the home repairs over the years to have gotten a business credit card under the guise of a remodeling firm. He dog-ears pages in tool catalogs, and asks nearly every Christmas for books on woodworking. And though he laments his crowded garage; and though the sawdust attacks his sinuses; and though he grumbles mightily of working in the cold of winter, or the heat of summer; he will nonetheless retreat to the garage for weeks at a time to construct for my mother the things he knows will bring her joy. He re-emerges sweaty, achy, red-eyed and sneezing from sawdust, with new cuts on his hands, new hammer bruises spreading beneath his fingernails.
“Is it done?” my mother will ask.
“Yes,” he will wheeze, shuffling to the sink to wash his hands, unable to bend his sore knees.
She will go into the garage to look upon what he has made, while from inside we can hear her exaltations. She returns, always, with a smile, her face glowing like the Madonna.
In a way, my father has been a carpenter all his life. He first learned woodworking as a child growing up in Brooklyn. The family had emigrated from Italy in 1956, when my father was eight. His father, my grandfather, had died six years before, and with his death the family’s modest fortune was lost. They became so poor that my father and his brother were sent to live in an orphanage run by discipline-heavy Catholic nuns, while my grandmother saved up the money to move the family to the United States. They arrived in Brooklyn tired, hungry, and, in my father’s case, completely overwhelmed. Life in America was not an instant improvement. While my grandmother stitched men’s slacks for three cents a seam in a sweatshop in Brooklyn’s garment district to support her five children, my father grew up sitting outside subway stations shining shoes, or stacking oranges at the local fruit store, or hanging out with a neighborhood man named Leo Alfano, a carpenter. My father was fascinated by Leo’s vast collection of woodworking tools, and the carpenter obliged his curiosity by teaching him each tool’s use and purpose. Leo’s work held a unique interest for him. My father’s family was incomplete and destitute; the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn were hard worlds of struggle and violence; school and the English language were tedious taskmasters. My father found in woodworking the ability to order for himself the universe as he wished it; from the chaos of unremarkable wood, from scattered and random nails, from tools pushed along by his hands alone, he found he could construct for himself both an order and a beauty missing from his world. He grew older, and while some of his closest friends drifted into drugs or crime or even the simple outlet of death, my father took vocational classes, learning plumbing, the concepts of electricity, the mechanic interconnectedness of the world. He went to junior college, and then college, becoming an electrical engineer. He got a job with United Airlines and moved to Chicago, the only one of his family to leave the insular cloud of New York. There, looking out across the Midwestern plains, armed with the tools of his education, determined never to pass along the deprivations he endured, my father constructed a life.
Despite the extreme aesthetic quality of his other furniture, the table is my father’s opus. Large, sturdy, conservatively designed, its creation was much the same as that of the family which gathers round it. In short: difficult, exhausting, fun.
He met my mother when they both worked for United. They got married and lived in a small town house my father had bought. When it was time to expand the family, they leased out the town house and moved to a small ranch-style home on the edge of a distant Chicago suburb, a home with a large yard and plenty of trees, where mom and dad enjoyed the quiet sounds of raking leaves in the fall, and of planting a small garden in the spring. They had my brother, then me, and had called it quits on kids only to be surprised six years later by the appearance of two tiny human beings on an ultrasound monitor. When my younger sister and brother were born, the family was complete.
Growing up for us was standard. School and homework and neighborhood friends, holidays and vacations and visits to our parent’ families, sibling rivalries and fights and a wooden spoon for punishment, which we children tend to exaggerate in our memories. Tense family moments we’d rather not remember overshadowed by a rush of images invoking smiles and joyful tears. Together we created a unique history, ours, the family’s.
Now that my siblings and I are grown and have moved away, we have individual stories to add to this collective. When we are all together, returned, if even just briefly, to our parents’ home, we share these stories around my father’s table. Dinners sometimes last all night. My older brother tells of his climbs up the mountains of the northwest, or of his world travels; I share stories from my time in Africa, or from my home in Wyoming; my sister indulges us with her adventures in Australia, with her memories growing up the only sister to three brothers; my little brother talks of his semester in Italy, of his costumes from college game days. Mom howls with laughter; dad studies the knots in the table, grinning and chuckling. They love it.
Now, as time goes on, and dad works a little less in the garage, he finds the tools he uses most infrequently, calling me up at strange hours to ask me if I’ll take them. Of course, I say. I’m a terrible carpenter, to be honest. I’m attracted to the trade, though, want to be good at it, as a hobbyist like my father. So far I’ve made a coffee table, derived in inspiration and execution from dad’s table. I sent him a picture and he called me immediately to offer his services should I ever decide to build something for the kitchen. So we’ve planned his trip for next summer already to satisfy that purpose. I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure we’ll disagree about measurements or how to make a cut, or what board to use or what stain to apply, but I don’t care about that. I’m just excited to build something with my dad.