I walked up to the front door of the little country house, breathing in the calm of the surrounding farmland and mountains. Thirty minutes prior I’d been in the bustling little city of Asheville, my latest hometown, cars zipping down Merrimon Avenue with little respect for life. Arriving here felt like home. I knocked on the door.
There was some rustling about inside and then a man opened the door, wearing a long-sleeved denim button-up tucked into weathered denim jeans. His hair was gray, his skin held memories of the countryside’s sun, and his lips curved inward in that way lips do after decades of storytelling.
“Well, hi, I’m Skipper!” he said enthusiastically. “I’d shake your hand, but with all that’s going on, people aren’t doing that these days, but I’ll give you one of these, how ‘bout?”
He reached out an elbow, and with a smile, I extended mine to tap with his.
Skipper and I had already been in touch over the internet after I’d found his listing for a small kitchen table with four chairs for sale. I was hoping to take a little slice of this country home back to my Asheville apartment in hopes of getting it to feel a little more like home.
As I stepped into the house, I noticed things were in a bit of disarray, as if the house were about to undergo a remodel. I didn’t think much of it as we turned left from the entryway into the modest kitchen. The table sat next to the window, a perfect spot for coffee and the morning paper.
Skipper was talking, I assumed about the table, but my mind was too busy with the latest barrage of pandemic news and my own fears around searching for belonging within such uncertain times. As a result, I could only hear, not listen. My ears registered sounds, but didn’t process the words. I wasn’t listening in the way we need to in order to truly show up in our lives.
Then Skipper asked me what I do, and my human instinct to respond to a question kicked in.
“I’m a full-time writer,” I said.
His eyes lit up.
“Well, every day must be a story for you then. You’ve got a new story right here even!”
Something about that comment awoke me from my trance. I hadn’t been paying enough mindful attention to see the story. Skipper had. I quickly ran through the bits of conversation I’d caught in my mind’s webs enough to catch-up—and then I listened. That’s when I really learned about this table I was buying, and how it had belonged to his mother who had recently passed away at the age of 100. Skipper was in the process of cleaning out her home, and finding new homes for her belongings.
He told me how his mother had lost $14,000, everything she had in the bank, during the Great Depression. He talked about how her family members had lived, or not, through the Spanish Flu. He told me how after losing everything, she became what he described as a “hoarder.” She was unable to part with any material items, as if she was subconsciously preparing again for leaner times.
Skipper demonstrated how the table’s wings could fold down to make more space in small rooms, and then took time to point out each of its flaws. For everything wrong with it, he had a story. He held the history of each scratch in the paint, and he passed them along to me.
“Well, right here is from a dog mom had,” he shared, pointing at a chewed-up table leg. “I think there’s another spot where the dog got one of the chair legs and mom taped that up. Oh, yep, right here.”
He tilted a chair to its side so I could see where his mom had wrapped clear tape around the chewed-up wood to discourage more chewing. I looked out the window and saw a little dog looking back at me from the passenger seat of Skipper’s truck parked in the driveway. I asked him if that was the culprit.
“Oh, no, that one’s mine. Mom’s was a dachshund,” he said, and then he shared the story of the day the dog had passed away and how it had really torn up his mom. “Tore me up, too,” he confessed, and I thought I caught a little glisten in his eyes as he spoke, but I couldn’t be quite sure through my own.
“That stuff is so hard,” I said.
Skipper and I had already haggled down the price of the table over text messages, but he asked me if that price still worked for me. It was clearly more than this table, in its shape, was worth. We both seemed to know it. But, in that moment, I had been blessed with a wealth of stories and heart-to-heart connection amidst an isolating chapter of life. I told Skipper the price still worked for me.
He helped me load everything into my car, taking care to make sure it all fit just right. As he did, he talked about the surrounding land, knowing I loved the country. Something in him sensed my struggle with adapting to my new city sounds. He told me to come back in the fall, that his farm had a great corn maze, and that he had some property by the Pigeon River that I was welcome to visit anytime. It wasn’t just something nice he chose to say, it was his genuine kindness.
I drove back to the city and lugged the table and its chairs up the stairs to my apartment and into my previously empty little dining nook. I cleaned each piece before decorating its top with colorful placemats and a floral arrangement that had been gifted to me by another soul like Skipper’s. I smiled as I unwrapped the tape on the chair legs and sprayed them down, wiping off the little bits of dog fur still stuck to them.
In the end, I had overpaid for a kitchen table. It is a table that, as a table, isn’t much at all. But, it’s not just a table. It’s a table that belonged to a woman who had lived long enough to see everything in her life fall apart more than once. It’s a table that once belonged to a woman who knew about resilience.
And as I sat down at the table for the first time and took in a deep breath, Mark Nepo’s poem, “Adrift,” came to mind:
Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of
wonder and grief. The light spraying
through the lace of the fern is as delicate
as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat. The breeze
makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost
in the next room, in the next song, in the laugh
of the next stranger. In the very center, under
it all, what we have that no one can take
away and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured
by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.
I’m not sure if I’ll see Skipper again, if we’ll get to connect once more over our love of the countryside, one that bridges any generational divide. But, I know he’s added richness to my life. I know that he reminded me to listen. I know that he somehow told me things were going to be alright. I know that I never met his mother, but that, by golly, I love her. I know that as I sit at her old table, I sit with everything that we’ve both lost, and that which no one can take away from us. I find my resilience in this sad beauty, knowing someday I’ll have others here with me again to gather around my table for a meal.