BENEATH the piles of folded laundry, beneath the sewing to be done, beneath the papers to be sorted and the projects my children forgot to take to school sits my dining room table.
It was the first furniture purchase my husband and I made together for a new home and it represented all the family holiday meals we imagined we would have in the years ahead.
It is an antique and the woman who sold it to us told the story of her dining room table. Her husband had asked her why she did not trade it for one of the beauties that passed through their antiques shop. And she had told him that the marks and scars on her table were keepsakes from their children's growing up. They are not blemishes, she told him, they are memories.
I try to remember that when I see the India ink Joe dribbled on the table during one of his art projects. I try to keep that in mind when I see the letters grooved into the surface from the time one of the children pressed too hard with a pencil.
But more often, I brood that my dining room table is not the altar of family, friends and food I dreamed it would be when we bought it.
Why? Because it is too much trouble to clear all the papers and projects and so we eat in the kitchen. Because we take most of our holiday meals at my mother-in-law's dining room table. Because when we get together with friends, we eat out because I am too busy to plan and execute a dinner party and my cooking skills have atrophied after years of hot dogs and Spaghettios.
But, like most women, I refuse to give up my dining room because of the daydreams it represents. I know it would be more useful as an office or a study or even as a family room. But I can't replace my dining room table with a computer work station or a piano or a recliner and a television because that would mean I will never have a Norman Rockwell family feast or a Martha Stewart dinner party.
I can't extinguish the hopes I have invested in my dining room table.
"You are right. The dining room is in demise," says Nancy High of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. "The dining room has become a message center and a storage space and a project room."
According to Terence Conran in "The Essential House Book," the dining room is in decline because it does not feel comfortable. "Rooms which are not used much lose that sense of animation that comes from being lived in -- they become dead space."
But if it is used by children for homework and projects, Conran writes, the dining room will become infused by their presence and be a much more pleasant place to eat. His logic goes something like this: If you use the dining room for almost anything else, it will be more inviting as a place to dine.
"We do cling to this idea that our perfect family shall all gather at the dining room table at Thanksgiving and Christmas," says High. "But the reality is that we rarely sit down as a family to eat, much less pull out the linens and polish the silverware.
"We are so honor bound to tradition that we even purchase an 18th century reproduction dining room suite to perpetuate the fantasy."
The fantasy continues with the china and glassware. Lenox is the only reason to go to all the trouble of a big wedding. But even women with a service for 12 continue to be fascinated by dishes and the promise they hold for a beautifully presented meal at the dining room table.
I have everything from Lenox Holiday to hand-thrown pottery, and I have enough dishes to serve the neighborhood or have the best yard sale in it. Still I could not resist the hand-painted Italian ZTC ceramics because of the dinner party I envisioned at my dining room table. It is the same dinner party I have not had with my Lenox Holiday or my hand-thrown pottery.
"We love dishes," says style forecaster Michelle Lamb, who writes the Trend Curve newsletter.
"There is an element that is still doing the Thomasville dining room suite, but we are becoming more casual. The Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel have shown us that we can do it with a table and six different chairs," says Lamb.
"In new homes we are not even seeing a formal dining room. It is part of a great room that blends into an eating area that blends into a family room. It is not a dining room, just another place to eat.
"But even if we have done the casual thing with the furniture. When we put the dishes on the table, we take it up a level."
When we put the dishes on the table. That is the key. We never put them in front of our husband and children because they might chip or break the dishes and then what would we use when we have our dinner party? We are saving them for an evening that we might not live to see.
My dining room table will play host to laundry, paperwork and school projects for years to come, I know. The candlelights glinting off crystal and the dishes too pretty to cover with food -- these things exist only in my head.
For now, the only place my family eats together is the car.
Pub Date: 6/27/97