This is a story about a table. It begins, in the early years of the twentieth century, when a young immigrant couple from Czechoslovakia bought a home in the Duquesne neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The neighborhood was a bustling one then, filled with Catholics from around the world. For six days, the men worked in the steel mills, and on the seventh, they donned their Sunday best to walk with their families to one of Duquesne’s three Catholic churches.
The young Czechoslovakian couple was no different. Their life revolved around the mill, their parish, and their neighborhood. It also revolved around their boys—all five of them. Early in their marriage, recognizing they’d need some place to feed the growing brood, the couple took more than a few of their pennies out of savings and used them to purchase a dining room set made in Lenoir, North Carolina. On the bottom of the chairs, paper tags proclaimed the date they left the wood shop: March 1916. The dining set was beautiful, grand even, far grander than the working class home to which it went. But, it was meant for a grand and noble purpose—to be the locus not just for daily meals of halushki and peroghi, but also for daily conversations, for homework and story telling, family prayers and birthday celebrations, schooling little ones in the virtues and handing on the traditions of their homeland. It was, in a sense, made to be an altar, an altar upon which the sacrament of family life unfolded.
For decades, the dining room set more than upheld its end of the bargain. It welcomed first the boys, then the boys’ wives, and eventually, the boys’ children. Its faithful service earned it a few scratches, especially near the legs, where little feet so often kicked, but the damage was nothing a little Murphy’s Oil couldn’t hide. Nearly half a century passed, and the mother of the family passed away. Then, one of her boys bought the house, dining room set and all. There, in the years that followed, his three girls ate pasta cooked by their Italian mother, and history repeated itself. First, boyfriends joined the family at the table. Later, after the boyfriends became husbands, grandchildren followed. And night after night, holiday after holiday, the table played host to them all.
The daughters and their children never stopped coming back to the family table, but by the 1980s, the neighborhood to which they returned was no longer the neighborhood in which they grew up. The mill closed down, never to re-open. Meth makers set up shop in vacant houses. The streets weren’t safe after dark. But the Italian mother would not leave her home. She remained there, still cooking for her family and welcoming them to her table, only now making sure to bolt the doors when she was alone. Finally in late 2013, three days after her 90th birthday, she passed away. Bit by bit, her daughters began the arduous work of cleaning out the house, jam-packed with the remnants of two lively marriages, five Czechoslovakian boys, and three Czechoslovak-Italian girls. First, they divided up the boxes. Then, they sold off some of the furniture and gave away what no one would buy. But, try as they might, they couldn’t bring themselves to sell the dining room set.
Somewhere between Wednesday night dinners and Italian Christmas feasts, the table and its companion pieces had become more than furniture; they had become part of the family, a witness to their grandparent’s story, their parents’ story, and finally their own. The table had soaked up something of those lives, something of the prayers prayed around it and the laughter laughed over it. And, because of that, it was sacred—scratches, dents, and all. How could they sell it?
But, how could they keep it? None of the daughters had need of it. None of the grandchildren wanted it. A new owner would soon take possession of the house, and the dining set, sitting alone in the now empty house, had to go. So, up on Craig’s List it went at last. It sat there for a month, priced too high to sell. Then, the day after the family lowered the price, a troublesome redhead called. She was badly in need of a new dining room table, and this one fit the bill perfectly. More perfectly than she knew. For when she arrived, she found not only a dining room set that looked like it had been made for her home, but also a story of family, love, prayer, and food.
In sum, what she found was a thoroughly Catholic table, one over which generations of Catholic women had served. And although she paid for the table (not much, but something), she felt like she was the one receiving a gift…or, more accurately, like those now departed Catholic grandmothers were entrusting her with more than just a table. They were entrusting her with a mission: to safeguard the table for another century, to welcome people to it, to honor those who sat around it, and to use it as it was meant to be used—as an altar, a sacramental, an enduring sign of grace and beauty, goodness and love, faith and family.