The oilcloth on our kitchen table needs to be replaced. This is a change that needs careful thought, as the color and pattern of the new one will set the tone and mood for family meals for the foreseeable future.
The table itself was there when we bought the chalet 15 years ago. Built of ordinary pine but not of an interesting age, it was sturdy, functional and boring. So I painted it glossy white.
Anticipating years of use in the country kitchen, I finished the surface with a few coats of durable floor paint. We now had a dazzling but difficult centerpiece to our new domestic lives – immaculate, shimmering and indomitable, the Platonic ideal of a kitchen table.
After a week or two of being scared of it every morning, my wife covered it with the first piece of oilcloth and I haven’t seen my work since.
If the normal precedent is followed, the new oilcloth will be cheerful but moderately – a pleasantly neutral background for any breakfast, light lunch, or casual dinner. But I have to wait and see – my opinion at the buying stage has rarely been asked. Technically, I have veto powers but I have never exercised them. I usually just ratify the done.
In addition, I can be a powerful influence when it comes to setting the table. Our sons are now at an age where they are able to do it when asked, and sometimes they do, but more often than not the placement of their cutlery relative to glassware is downright sloppy. What is more, they seem strangely indifferent when I draw their attention to such shortcomings.
However, they are not entirely oblivious to the intricacies of the table. Usually I place a knife and fork on either side of where the plate will go – with a glass to the right, in the traditional way.
But I can be temperamental and I like to let the boys guess. Sometimes, to surprise them, I cluster the bistro-style cutlery on a napkin a little to the left of each guest. And if the whim takes me, I startle them by deploying unexpected placemats.
“What’s the occasion?” they chirp briskly before realizing there isn’t one. But I’ve noticed that when I do this, the conversation that follows is often more lively than usual, and it suggests that the degree to which a table is set not only marks, but can also make it an occasion.
Most families have an established (but not necessarily fixed) hierarchy of feast days. In our home, for example, my birthday dinner was a big event, but not anymore – parenthood took care of it.
My wife often finds the feeling of being spoiled when cooking a particularly delicious dish of my choice – and I do my best to reciprocate when it’s her turn – but we will probably both admit that we feel more special. honored when our seats are settled with the special wine glasses and the best towels.
The boys don’t seem to grasp the intricacies of this last detail. They reluctantly admitted that it wasn’t elegant to wipe your mouth with your hands, then your hands on their jeans, but their favorite concession is to randomly hand out a few squares of ripped paper towel. They seem sadly ignorant of the nuances of gradation of the towels.
These range from squares of lightweight fabrics to thicker papers, followed by everyday cotton and finally premium linen. They also seem to lack any civilized notion of when placemats are typically needed – not to mention the clear distinction between the ordinary and the special.
As for tablecloths, I suspect it will be a few years before I can reasonably expect them to discern when one is appropriate or not. My wife and I have a mutual, almost instinctive, sense of that which has been refined over two decades of having fun together, but sometimes we have to consult each other before choosing the most appropriate tablecloth for the occasion at hand.
Does vivacious but subtle cotton set the right mood? Or what about the heavier and more sober with taste? And a joint decision is always required before choosing the ultimate and supreme option of deploying the infrequently used legacy white damask that automatically grants banquet status to any meal.
Even on such obvious gala occasions, extra and extra-fine discrimination is needed to address seemingly harmless but important and delicate distinctions – depending on the occasion or the guests.
For example: do we light candles; or arrange flowers; and for whom do we bother to polish silverware? It would be recklessly intrusive to discuss the criteria for the latter but when it comes to festive floral displays – the seasonality of country life makes the decision for us.
Our acre and its surrounding hedge offer holly and ivy at Christmas, daffodils at Easter, and elder or fuchsia flowers all summer. And the candles are still working. I love to see their glow reflected in my wife’s eyes. Their soft light soothes the natural restlessness of our sons. And they make my wrinkles almost invisible.
In view of the yellow mountain by Philip Judge is published by Gill Books