The table that Tom built

Times Staff Writer



This a refrain I hear often around my house.

It makes me sigh.


It is a conversation ender. A convenient way for my husband, Tom, to put an end to any discussion I might be initiating regarding home improvement projects.

The dismal reality: He can build almost anything. As a grip in Hollywood, he relies on his carpentry skills in rigging and lighting various film sets. He studied furniture design in art school, has helped artists such as Vito Acconci and Robert Irwin create installations and has built custom furniture for high-end manufacturers.

The tools that litter our house would hint at such a resume, but our furnishings do not. Our house is a mix of IKEA, left-by-the-side-of-the-road remains and a lot of empty space. Much like the proverbial shoemaker’s children with no shoes, we don’t have much real furniture.Whenever I see a piece that catches my eye, I’ll point it out to him. “But I can build that,” he’ll say dismissively. “Then why don’t you?” I’ll think to myself while marveling at his ability to replicate the curves of a glass-top Noguchi coffee table or Arne Jacobson ant chair.

There is one benefit to these dismissals, however. They have helped me to appreciate the one piece of furniture that he has built for us: our picnic table.

We both come from families that were big picnic table users. Wasn’t everyone in the 1970s?

Favorite snapshots from my childhood show a brood of smiling faces gathered around a picnic table for nearly every celebration, from the Fourth of July to my siblings’ birthday parties.

My father-in-law sat at his picnic table for hours on end, scribbling answers to the New York Times crossword puzzle into the 2-by-6s he put together himself.

When he died, no one could bear to go out to the picnic table anymore. It was as if his ghost inhabited that table, making us miss him even more than we already did.


It’s not surprising, then, that this simple piece of furniture would become the heart of our home.

We have never lived in houses big enough to accommodate many people. In order to entertain, it is almost a prerequisite that it be daylight saving time so everyone can congregate outside at our picnic table.

And they do. Our table, which Tom built on a Saturday afternoon with the help of a friend, is oversized and can seat many. At 10 feet long and 4 feet wide, it can easily handle six kids to a side, with ample room for parental oversight at each end. Tom, who is 6 feet, 6 inches, built the table to his scale, 3 feet tall. Many visitors enjoy sitting on its high benches and dangling their feet -- a reminder of their childhood.

The table hosts both families every November in what is the quintessential California holiday -- Thanksgiving alfresco. It has accommodated children’s birthday parties, adult dinner parties and various messy art projects and has become a sawhorse for building more picnic tables for family and friends. Bills are never paid at this table. Discussions about money or our children never occur here.


Tom is a big man. He also has a big heart. From Day One he has invited our family and friends to leave mementos of their visits to his table -- using a letter punch made for labeling metal parts. Mom, Dad, Susan, Rich, Nona, Robin, Daniel (yes, that’s right: Daniel Boone), Andy, Elizabeth, Henry ... their names are scattered over the redwood planks.

At first I was taken aback that Tom would deface this table -- our one “custom” furnishing. Eventually, though, I have come to view the names in the table the same way I view my children’s handprints on the windows of our home.

When the sun hits the French doors just right, they remind me of a home not well lived in, but lived in well.