My Scottish father-in-law used to deal in antiques. He had a good eye and he knew it. Unfortunately he was a better aesthetic than financial judge and the business ended in tears. But not before he’d picked up a number of lovely pieces, some of which he brought down to my husband’s and my flat in London.
Each week I give our mahogany table – one of these pieces – a rub down with a cloth heavy with orange oil. For a day or two the table glistens. It needs more work – light sanding and staining – to bring it back to its former glory. But a quick rub down is all I have time for before flying out the door for school pick-up.
A generation ago a mahogany table in the kitchen would have been extravagant and/or out of place. My parents’ mahogany table had pride of place in their dining room, along with silver salt and pepper shakers and a mustard bowl with a tiny spoon. In the kitchen they had a pine table covered with a sensible oil cloth.
When I was growing up I didn’t like antiques, let alone mahogany tables – which seemed sombre, dark and hard to maintain. Sitting round a mahogany table for family dinners was what I left home to escape.
And escape I did. For fifteen years I lived in a world devoid of mahogany tables. In my studio flat in London, on the other side of the world, a pine kitchen table stuck out like a jetty in the bay window. But slowly things changed. When the man who is now my husband moved into my studio flat I had to make room for him. Not physical room – he was skinny at the time. But imaginative room. I had to make room for the person he was, with his particular history and aesthetic loves.
Did I fall in love with my husband because I knew, unconsciously, that he’d lead me back to a world in which mahogany tables had a place? That together we’d create a home with a mahogany table in the kitchen? Perhaps.
‘Why don’t you have a separate dining room?’ my mother asked, almost crossly, when she visited us on our return to Melbourne. ‘Because John and I both wanted a study’, I explained patiently. ‘And besides’, I added, ‘now that we have children we spent more time in the kitchen than in any other room’. By this time my mother was well into her seventies, and I could almost hear her bite her lip.
These days we live in Hobart. My mother, in the high end of her eighties, still lives in Adelaide. During a phone call last Tuesday she told me that she’d looked at an ‘apartment’ in a residential home – two rooms and a bathroom with a 24-hour nurse on call. Would I, she asked, come over to choose what I might like from her house? The dining room chairs? Her coffee cups? ‘Oh Mum’, I said, ‘I know every room of your house. Besides I’d like my sisters to choose first. And I’ll be there in September anyway.’ I felt a bit mean, putting her off – but really it was because I didn’t want there to be a hurry.
‘What you have inherited, make it yours’ (Sigmund Freud). Have I, I wonder, done this? Have I created a life that is truly mine? Am I handing on to my children a life that they’ll be able to transform and make theirs in years to come? Will they want our mahogany table one day? Or will they, like me, need to distance themselves from all things mahogany for a while?