Somewhere in the bowels of my mother’s house sits a sturdy coffee table of deep, black wood carved in ornate patterns and iconic rural Japanese dioramas wrapping up the legs and around the 48” x 18” perimeter of the tableau, itself an intricate relief. The tabletop is covered with a quarter inch sheet of tempered glass. The table is museum quality.
I have marveled at this table my whole life.
When I was a boy it sat in my Grandma B’s home. Grandma B was Grandmother Barnett. She was my father’s mother. She was Grandma B as opposed to Grandma Nunn, my mother’s mother, and I guess why it was B rather than Barnett was because there was always a new dutchy toddler learning to talk and B was easier to say.
The table—we always called it the monkeywood table—was probably the nicest thing my grandmother ever owned. My father bought it for her when he was in the Navy, during the Korean Conflict, long before I was so much as a twinkle. Shore leave in Japan. Dad was just a boy, himself. He joined the Navy at 17 never having lived anywhere but the flint hills of Leavenworth County, Kansas, and I can only imagine the culture shock experienced by a Midwestern kid loosed upon that Asian island with a shipload of other young Americans, money burning holes in their pockets. I remember 17. Mostly because I took notes. And had I been in a similar situation I would have found volumes to write about!
Somewhere amidst the shore leave revelry, navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of women and bartenders looking to relieve young American sailors of their scrip, he took time to choose a present and ship it to his mother halfway around the world. Dad was devoted to his mother.
The elaborate carved table stood in marked contrast to her otherwise humble abode. George Reeves playing Superman on the black & white television sitting on a TV stand. Plastic icons, statues of the BVM and others of her darling son in His crowning moment. So to speak.
The Matzeders are Catholic. That is, the Matzeders who came here from Bavaria in the late 19th Century were Catholic, and many of them still are. Grandma B became Catholic and raised my father the same. He spoke of Catholic School and troubles with the nuns and always quipped how strange he should grow up to marry one. To which my mother, née Nunn, always responded, “Ha, ha” sans exclamation, her voice thick with running-gag sarcasm and Ozark twang. Her family were various breeds of Protestant stretching far back into history, so that’s how we were raised, but Dad never lost his inner Catholic.
I am a Baby Boomer, and one of the things all of us Boomers have in common is our parents lived through the Great Depression. It was the last big bust of Boom’n’Bust Capitalism that lowered the boom and persuaded a nation if we didn’t want to be communist or haul out some guillotines we were going to have to regulate some of the worst excesses of said economic system. Everybody was poor, and the ones who weren’t were dirt poor. Our parents weren’t joking when they told us they walked four miles to school. Barefoot. In the snow. Uphill. Both ways. My father made sure we knew he grew up too poor to have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. I’m not sure when chamber pots went out of fashion. I know Dad’s family—his mother, grandfather, and himself—didn’t have indoor plumbing. Grandma still had an outhouse long after my father had moved away.
Grandma worked as a server at the Ft. Leavenworth Officers’ Club. In the middle of the Great Depression they were living on tips. His grandfather, who like everybody those days picked up what work he could, planted a vegetable garden out back.
I can only imagine the delight Grandma felt as the crate bearing her only son’s precious gift arrived from the exotic Far East. There were no cell phones and snail mail crawled aboard the “slow boat from China” so even had he thought to write and tell her to expect a package there would be no guarantee the letter arrived first. I can imagine some neighbor with a hammer helping her to pry the crate open, and then empty the pre-plastic packaging of straw that held the smells of cargo liner holds and Japanese port-side shipping fish and salt and Shinto incenses escaping as the lid pried back to yield a treasure far beyond her wildest imaginations. I imagine her running her fingers over each curve and angle of the carving, every nook and cranny, savoring the workmanship the feel of exotic wood. I see her polishing that wood and washing the glass top to glistening transparency. It was and ever would be the best thing she ever owned.
Grandma B wanted me to have the monkeywood table. She told me, when I was a boy, and all my life, whenever it came up in conversation we knew that one day I would receive this gift my father gave his mother for my own.
Grandma B died the same year my daughter was born. Dad had traveled from our home in Virginia to Kansas City, to tend to his mother in her final days. He was always devoted to his mother.
He brought home some small mementos. And the monkeywood table.
“Oh, my table,” I said upon seeing it.
“I’m going to keep it for you,” Dad said.
Dad “kept” the table for me. It was a running joke between us as I went through a succession of jobs and marriages and residences without ever seeming to find that blossoming niche.
For a man who had spent my entire youth hopscotching US military bases all over the world, my father looked mighty askance at my own vagabond lifestyle. Maybe because it wasn’t attached to any kind of career. Maybe it was because I had so much potential and he expected so much more from me.
There came a time, in the early days of the 21st Century, when my sister Lisa and I were sharing an apartment with Dad and we would all set our beers atop that table. It sat in the middle of his living room, which like most American living rooms was arranged so families could watch television without interacting with one another.
“Are you taking care of my table?” I’d ask.
He’d say he was. “When am I going to get this, anyway? Grandma always wanted me to have it,” I’d tease.
“You can have it after I’m gone,” he’s say, and neither of us were eager for that. But the day came.
It was a cold and dreary DC day when my family watched his brothers-in-arms consign my father’s remains beneath the earth of Arlington. It was the first time in decades all my sisters, brothers, and myself were in the same place at the same time. We had scattered to the four winds and swirled about like leaves in autumn eddys. It’s how we were raised.
Though one or another of us has lived in Mexico, California, Texas, Canada, Kansas, Missouri, Alabama, Florida, New York, and London, most of my siblings have gravitated back to the Virginia town where we were reared. We grew up within three hours of Washington. Most of the immediate family could caravan in their sedans or minivans up 64 to Richmond, then 95 to Washington, but my youngest sister, Mikki, and I had to fly. She flew in from JFK and I from MCI.
I usually number myself among those forty percent of Americans who could not possibly scrape together $400 in an emergency. My father’s funeral might certainly count as an emergency, but I was able to afford the round-trip tickets, possibly because it I had eight months to finagle it after he died. Arlington Cemetery has so little space remaining and so many veterans die every day that there is a backlog that long to inter ashes. A traditional casket would have taken longer.
Despite affording my flight, I still piggybacked off a family member’s frequent flier points to get my foot in the door of one of the perhaps too dear hotels within the city limits whose rates serve to remind me of the chasm between the people for whom it’s chump change and those for whom it’s mortgage. I shared a room with my lifelong partner-in-crime, my sister Lisa, who has the distinction of being the only person who can live with me an extended period of time without wanting to kill me in my sleep.
After the different groups of friends and family members who came to see my father off had checked out of their rooms, and gassed their vehicles, and started back along their own schedules, my mother took Lisa and I out to eat before I had to fly back to KC.
When I film it, or slip it in the pages of a novel, I will create a setting for this meal which you, reading, will be able to taste and smell and the setting will weave with various threads of history and for all I know the shade of Wilkes Booth will join us at the table as a metaphor for living in the shadow of your father, but my memory is a bubble with my mother, Lisa, and myself around some harried waitress’s trey, sharing a meal on Mother’s credit card because it was Lisa and I, the Underachievers, the Black Sheep, the charity case.
For all I know it was in National Airport and they were dropping me off.
Wherever it was we naturally exchanged stories of our memories of Dad.
And I asked about the Monkeywood table.
“Oh, I’m going to give that to Abigail,” she said. Abigail’s my daughter. She and her husband had come down from New England.
“Mom!” Lisa exclaimed.
It was like a knife straight into my heart, but I didn’t say anything. What could I say? She was right.
“What?” Mom replied.
“That’s not fair. Grandma wanted Mark to have it!”
“I decided Abbey would give it a more stable home. And it would still be in the family.”
And it was settled. Just like that.
I’ll let it be a metaphor for childhood dreams and youthful aspirations. For as long as I remember I’ve been convinced I am going to die homeless. Better Abigail should have it than it end up in a pawn shop or a roadside dump.
At least this way I might see it once in a while.