For the first time in almost four years, the dining room table is, simply, a dining room table. Gone are the two bookends that were functional but slightly disturbing, each a perfect half of a dachshund. Gone are the books that cycled in and out of the dachshund’s innards with each passing year: from imposing grammar and science textbooks, to enticing collections of short stories, to numbing standardized test guides (so many by junior year spring that the dachshund could not contain them all). Gone are the mugs that served not only as pencil (and used iTunes gift card and gum wrapper) holders but also as taunting reminders of the carefree life one might enjoy beyond the dining room table. (“Martha’s Vineyard!” or “Denali National Park!” the mugs would practically shout at passers-by.) With my daughter’s graduation from high school, the only object now on the table’s surface is a simple vase filled with flowers.
How the dining room table came to be my daughter’s study carrel provokes different answers, depending on whom you ask. In the beginning, it seemed to her, the oldest child, a logical place to spread out and work in relative quiet without withdrawing entirely from the family. Microwave popcorn and Diet Coke were just a few leaps away; a loud “can you grab that from the printer?” resulted in immediate delivery service to the table; and our cat could be counted on at least several times a night to bring studying to a halt by lying fully stretched across the most urgently needed papers or books. (“The tutor is here!” we would call out in those situations.) At some point, however, the sickening realization of just how much homework there was, how little time there was in which to do it, and how many possible distractions abounded elsewhere in the house turned the voluntary involuntary. “The dining room table of gloom,” we joked, mirthlessly. We met her periodic pleas to take the whole study operation upstairs to her room with firm parental resistance.
And so, night after night, there she sat, alone at the dining room table. Neighbors out on late-night dog walks counted on her presence, and duly noted any changes in routine — as when she realized one day during junior year that if she switched sides of the table, foregoing the nice view out the window for a less inspiring but strategically secure panorama of the entire downstairs, she would have an extra few seconds in which to minimize academically unnecessary programs from the curious eyes of non-feline visitors. She seemed not to realize that we always knew, from her darting glance and rapid keystroke, exactly what she was doing. (We also knew who ate all the candy. Guess who empties the wastebaskets?) Although she surely chafed at the situation, and at the excesses of many of the school assignments that prolonged her nightly stays at the table, she was not unhappy, buoyed, as always, by an innate and profound optimism that will likely prove more instrumental to her long-run happiness than anything she studied at the table.
On a Sunday night in July, my husband, my daughter and I sat down together, on the same side of the dining room table. It was the first time in months that any of us had been in the room. We pushed away the vase; she opened her laptop and spread out her college course registration materials. The logistics were awkward, my husband and I crowding uncomfortably close to her to read the tiny font of the course listings on the screen, but the mood was upbeat. We talked, easily and as equals, about requirements and possible majors, as well as the importance of studying things that interest and excite one. We read through the freshman seminar descriptions with gusto, some provoking “oohs” or “wows,” others a harsh buzzer sound. She listened with genuine interest when we reflected on our own experiences and mistakes. Although we did not discuss it, I know that each of us felt the symbolism of the night. The table had become a place for my daughter to map out, as best one ever can in advance, her own path for the future. Perhaps on upcoming college breaks and holidays, we will gather there again, to help her regroup and reassess, to hear about her adventures and challenges. The “dining room table of promise” — maybe it always had been, but we were only able to see so once we cleared away the debris of high school life.
Andrea Nervi Ward ’85 lives in Wellesley, Mass., with her husband Tom Ward ’85 and their two teenage daughters. She has served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun and as a federal appellate attorney with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston.