The table

by Damian “Dips” O’Donnell

Our dinners at home were always noisy, cluttered affairs. The eight of us would sit around the delightful (though tiny) old mahogany table, which seemed to have a talent for expanding whenever Mum found there were additional mouths to feed. It could have been someone’s mate, a cousin, the local parish priest or, from time to time, our great uncle, a Jesuit priest and biblical scholar, who would return triumphantly to Melbourne from some exotic city like Jerusalem or Rome or New York and enthrall us with tales so rich and vivid I often drowned in them.

The table, a circular shaped piece that stood on a tripod of simple curved timber legs, had a remarkable story. It spent most of its life on the farm of my great grandparents who resided in Kelly country at Baddaginnie, a small settlement along the Hume Highway near Benalla. The farmhouse was a very basic affair, complete with earthen floor and monstrous open fire place around which, I am told, many family gatherings were held. Family legend has it that the Kellys, who lived a few kilometres away over the hill, would on occasion ask my great grandparents if they could look after their horses and livestock for a while as they were “going away for a bit.” I’ve never been able to verify this as fact or fantasy.

I don’t know how the table got to the Dalton farm in Baddaginnie, nor do I know how many years it spent there being warped and bent out of shape by the roaring open fire, but it eventually ended up in our family home in Montmorency and began a new career as a dinner table in a bustling household, though in our house the open fire was a respectable distance away. We were all well aware of the table’s peculiar distorted shape and how it rose and fell gently from one side to the other with a camber similar to the MCG turf, and we all knew that if you lent on it in a particular way it would cause the dinner plates of those sitting opposite you to jump. The first time an unsuspecting guest witnessed their plate jumping in the air for no apparent reason usually resulted in great consternation for them and great entertainment for us.

So many things happened around that table. School reports were discussed, football games were dissected, dining manners were learned and often enforced with a clip over the ears, great stories were told of family travels and past sporting conquests, birthdays were celebrated, deaths were mourned, careers paths were debated, and girlfriends were introduced to Mum and Dad (I have no sisters so it was only ever girlfriends). We had raging arguments and political disagreements which occasionally resulted in someone storming away from the table in disgust. We apologised to Mum and Dad for our wrong doings but broadcast our triumphs, we told jokes, told lies, and told each other off.

And of course we ate. We ate Irish stews, soups, chops, zucchini slices, and roast chickens. We ate casseroles, fried rice and fish fingers and we always ate our vegetables, though brussel sprouts were swallowed whole as we reasoned that the pain of doing that would be less than the pain of another ear clipping should the sprout not be eaten at all. At birthday times we consumed enormous cream sponges or pavlovas topped with strawberries or passion fruit, and we drank lemonade spiders with chocolate topping. The recent Spring Racing Carnival got me thinking again about the old family dining table. On Cup eve the table would be cleared after dinner and discussion would commence about the horses competing the next day. It was the only time of the year that such blatant punting was permitted in our house. The old man would say we were all stupid for betting on the Melbourne Cup because it was the toughest race in the year to pick. His stand against punting was not based upon any puritanical view, but rather on bitter experience. Mum would ring her brother in Brisbane who always seemed to have a hot tip. She would hang up the phone and come back to the table where we would all be asking, “Who does he like Mum?” He normally went for value. He normally got it pretty right.

The 1976 Melbourne Cup was the first time I actually backed the winner. I recall sitting around the table after Mum had made her usual call to her brother in Brisbane. Funnily enough I don’t recall who his first choice for the Cup was but I clearly remember her saying, “…and if it’s wet he likes Van der Hum.” That’s precisely where my $2.00 each way went.

The table has a quiet life now; a sort of semi retirement. I trust it will survive to see plenty more Melbourne Cups.

About Damian O'Donnell

OK - which is the odd one out: Love the Cats and flannelette shirts, especially in winter. I get on extremely well with red wine. We just seem to hit it off. Love horse racing in Spring. Used to love cricket. Go to Stawell every Easter and contemplate life around the fire. Love water skiing, especially in summer. Love a great oil painting. Will read most things put in front of me. Thought 'The Sorpranos' was the best TV show ever made - by miles. Run an accounting practice in Melbourne's suburbs.

Comments

  1. Sara (Esposito) Clark says:

    Damian, I went to primary school with your twin brothers and this story of your dining table evoked strong memories of your family. I could just picture you all around it.

    I only came across your contirbutions to this site today after John Harms mentioned you on 774ABC. Your writing is wonderful.

    I trust your parents and brothers are all well and wish you all the best. Sara.

  2. Sara – thanks for the comments, I’ll pass this on to Matthew and Liam.

    I certainly remember your surname (Esposito). I was at St Francis again recently to watch one of my little ones play tennis there – the place is huge now!

    Regards

  3. Nicki Dalton Nieboer says:

    Hello,
    My grandfather, George, was “adopted” from St Vincent de Paul Boys Orphanage by a Mr W Dalton, farmer, of Baddaginnie in 1901. Do you know if this could be the same Dalton farm in your article?

    I’m looking for any info about George.

    Regards.

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