etymology of your dining room

I had the most interesting challenge come up today. Well, okay it was a conversation, but I took the outcome as a personal challenge. Most people I work with know that I am a font and the guardian extraordinaire of a plethora of useless factoids and information.   In fact, I get teased for it a lot, to the point where I sometimes just throw a tidbit out there to see the reaction I get. I guarantee one day someone I work with will be watching Jeopardy and will know the answer because of something I’ve said. Like knowing what arachibutryophobia is…

ANYWAY…. A co-worker just helped her parents move and was describing the new furniture that was purchased for the dining room.  My co-worker was explaining how the buffet had to be positioned off center because of a vent, to which I replied that my sideboard was off center in my dining room. My co-worker gave me a quizzical look and said, “Aren’t they the same thing? A buffet and a sideboard?”  And thus, my challenge was born!

So, dear readers, if you ever wanted a brief, internet research based* explanation of the etymology of your dining room furniture, search no further! Because I have nothing better to do on a rainy afternoon than provide you with this useless fascinating information.

Apparently a “sideboard” is the family of furniture which includes any piece used as storage and display. By that definition, most media centers that have storage are probably also considered a sideboard.

my sideboard which holds more liquor than wealth or silver

my sideboard which holds more liquor than wealth or silver

So a buffet is actually defined as a small sideboard to store dishes, linens, and serve food. As you know, buffet also refers to a way to serve food en masse, also known as a Smörgåsbord (which is a Swedish meal made up of a bunch of cold dishes all served on the same table buffet-style, but the word is now used in English to portray a variety of options). The use of the word buffet apparently comes from 16th century France, referring to a display of wealth (like silver and crystal) as well as the furniture it is displayed on.

a buffet sideboard, from

Then there is also a credenza! Typically made of wood with a center section flanked by glass doored sections on either side, credenza comes from the 16th century Italian where it was used as a verb, meaning the sampling/tasting of drink and food by a servant to make sure it wasn’t poisoned before serving to noblemen. Basically, it’s a buffet but you can see in. And don’t forget it’s also a sideboard!

Oh and don’t leave out the breakfront! I’ve always wondered why it was called that, and assumed it was because the front is usually glass and easily broken.  But nope! It’s a piece of furniture with a curve, typically tall, and the curve of the center section is “broken” by extending forward from the sections on the side.

a gorgeous example of a breakfront! from

Similar to your breakfront is a hutch (also known as a Welsh dresser, kitchen dresser, pewter dresser, or china cabinet, AND very similar to a hoosier cabinet). A hutch is a cabinet that has drawers and a cabinet below, topped by a counter/surface/sideboard, along with a shelving unit above.  Originally, a piece of furniture like this was really just for utility, and commonly found in the kitchen. This is the place where you would prep your food, and then prepared food was put on your sideboard/buffet/credenza in your dining room. Sometimes there would be a long drawer just under the cabinet that was lined with tin so you could put cooked items to cool and sit before served. As time went on, the shelves went from storing food to and your every day plates to displaying the best-of-the-best crockery that you owned.

my dining room hutch

my dining room hutch

And do you have a drop leaf table in your dining room? It’s also known as an Irish Wake table or coffin table.  There is a fabulous article about it here, and I wouldn’t want to do it injustice by paraphrasing. Let’s just say that when it’s used as designed, you would NOT be eating off of it.

So, my dear friends, there is some additional knowledge that you probably didn’t need. I personally love knowing the back story to expressions and etymology of words.  Just ask me about soffits some day.

* Thank you to Wikipedia,, This Old House, and a variety of other websites where I gleaned all this information.  It’s actually nice knowing what to properly call the things I own.


where the heart and history is

where i grew up

where i grew up

Definition of HOME

1 a: one’s place of residence : domicile b: house
2 : the social unit formed by a family living together
3 a: a familiar or usual setting : congenial environment; also: the focus of one’s domestic attention <home is where the heart is> b: habitat
4 a place of origin <salmon returning to their home to spawn>; also: one’s own country <having troubles at home and abroad>


Two years ago today, with much the same overcast weather, the man and I were sitting at a long mahogany table signing paperwork and being handed the keys to our new house.  It’s hard to believe how quickly two years can pass.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’m here, in a house, so far from home.  My mom still lives in the same house that I grew up in, about 150 miles from where I live now.  Whenever I go to visit my mom, I say that I’m going home.  I may have my own house and life here so far away, but going back to New York is going home too. It isn’t just roots for me. It’s memories, my past, and what made me what I am. To me, home isn’t just where I live, but it is where I have been and where I have come from. There is still a nostalgia when I drive past the apartments I’ve lived in. Each one holds a piece of my history from my time in college and the memories that were made with friends from a different time in my life, to the apartment I lived in when I began my life as a professional and, for the first time, ended up living on my own, even if not by design.  The time in each place changed me.

my father's home

my father’s home

I can’t fathom a day when I won’t have the  home I grew up in and that part of me to go back to.  While both of my grandfathers died before I was two, my grandmothers were alive until I was in second grade.  I didn’t spend much time in either house, but enough that I have snippets of memory from both places. When I was a teenager, I never thought how hard it must be for my father. When his mother, my Oma, died and my uncle inherited the house and everything in it, there was a rift created that I never understood.  All I knew was that my father didn’t talk to my uncle. What I know now is that my father was cheated from his past.  When my uncle decided to move in the house and keep it , it meant that my father had to drive past the house every day on his way to work, but could never go in. He couldn’t go get his favorite coffee cup or books, retrieve the cigar boxes of photographs that Oma had labeled painstakingly over the years in her German script with names and dates and tidbits of history. It meant that my father was robbed of his history.  There are no happy memories tied to driving past that house and I remember very little of it.  I remember the odd layout of the first floor and that the house was always darkened and smelled like a mix of smoke and coffee and old papers. And I remember the tiny kitchen with the small table by the back door that I was allowed to sit at when Oma made her afternoon tea. I always was given some tea for myself, in a glass that had three stripes on it (brown, orange and yellow) and it always made me feel so mature to get my own tea. Now I know that it was mostly milk and sugar and just a little tea, but at seven years old I felt like I was sharing in some adult magic.

my mother's home

my mother’s home

I don’t have many memories from my Nana’s house either. Nana was my mom’s mother. I remember that the first time I saw mint jelly was there, and I wondered why we were having jello with pork chops.  I remember that her sitting room in the back of the house had tons of natural light flooding in, and that I would sit on the floor playing with Barbie’s while mom and Nana watched TV. When Nana died, the division was less contentious. No one planned on keeping the house and my grandmother’s belongings were divided.  I grew up surrounded by artifacts of my mother’s history. Family bibles and photographs were always a part of my historical conscious and whenever my mother’s brothers came to visit the dining room table conversations were about sharing memories and jokes and family stories. There was never a void in my knowledge of that side of my family, and I’m blessed to know so many of the anecdotes that make my mother who she is. Every once in a while when I’m visiting my mom and we’re out shopping or running errands, we end up in the area where she grew up and we drive past the house.  There is a sadness to visiting a place that is no longer yours, but as we drive past my mom invariably tells me some piece of her history that I didn’t know before and there isn’t the same thread of pain that I imagine my father experienced.

As we’ve built our home, the man and I have filled it with things that we’ve found at estate sales, things that were Oma’s and Nana’s, and things that both our families and friends have given us to help us create this new life for ourselves. Whether it’s a plant or kitchen towels or pots  or the gift cards that bought the paint we used, we are surrounded by a new history that we are creating for ourselves.

Owning and creating this home has been tumultuous and crazy and exhilarating and terrifying. I remember how busy the first few days were after we moved in.  There was the constant parade of movers on our second day, and on the third there was the barrage of friends who came to help strip wall paper and wash the walls in the dining room and change locks and move boxes.  And in the months, and now two years, since, we have had our first Thanksgiving here, and our first Easter. We have had our house flooded by friends for barbeques and holiday celebrations. We have laughed and cried in this house.

Whenever I go to visit my mom, I’m going home. But when I come back here to this house, I come back to the home we have made. And I am so very blessed.

May 18, 2011

Northern Girl

A few years ago I was called taig for the second time in my life. It was in the parking lot of my neighborhood Wawa. My bumper sticker had started it. I had “26 +6 = 1” on mine, and the man who called me taig had the red hand of Ulster on his.  The man spat some more words at me in a lush brogue until someone told him to knock it off. I never thought the sentiment of the North would follow me to Philadelphia.

SCAN0002The slur Taig is used by Loyalists to define the Northern Irish Catholics. “If guns are made for shooting, then skulls are made to crack. You’ve never seen a better Taig than with a bullet in his back” horrified me when I heard it. No one wants a Taig in their midst when they’re an active member of the UVF. We drove through Tigers Bay to see the bombed out warehouses and the worst interface communities where between blocks that Protestants live on and blocks that Catholics live on, high brick walls were topped by barbed wire so that no one could throw bombs or rocks over the top. Entire sections of row homes were destroyed and graffitied plywood covered windows and doors: “Ready for Peace, Prepared for War”, “Fuck Taigs” and “No Surrender”, “Democracy Denied” and “PSNI Scum”. Both sides have their slogans of hatred. There are murals depicting “murderers” and the victims of the 1981 Hunger Strikes.  Many murals depicted men in military dress with guns.

I went to Northern Ireland in May of 2003. To find God. To find myself. To find history.  It was a two week study tour that I wasn’t prepared for. I had my clothing, my towel, my toiletries, and my books.  But the Iraq war was a permanent SCAN0001backdrop to life and “BUSH NOT WELCOME HERE” was spray-painted red in 2-foot letters on a building for sale in Belfast. The letters covered posters boasting Boy George’s appearance at Joy Niteclub. Signs in Ballycastle read, “Even Saddam holds elections.” On the back of the building at Free Derry corner, it also now reads, “1968-2003 NOTHING HAS CHANGED WE DEMAND OUR RIGHTS.” Politics and tension were thick in the air wherever we went.

Ireland is portrayed in movies and travel ads as the land of beer pints and redheaded schoolgirls doing Irish step dancing.  But the reality of the North is a former IRA member – Jon McCourt –  showing us the direction people ran through Rossville Flats on Bloody Sunday, the RUC closed around them and herding people into the square where they opened fire, killing as many as they could.  Concrete barriers and buildings still bore the pitted markings of gunfire and shrapnel explosions.  The area was shrouded in desolation.  Murals by Bogside artists have been erected on nearly every block, depicting victims, activists, and events of that day.  A black marble monument reminiscent of the shape of our own country’s Washington Monument, but a tenth of the size, was erected in a small courtyard. It bore the names and ages of the victims.  The three youngest – Jackie Duddy, Hugh Gilmore, and Michael Kelly – were all seventeen years old, and they were all unarmed.

SCAN0006Our arrival days later in Belfast brought curbstones painted red, white, and blue indicating we were now in a Protestant territory, and served as a warning to those who are Catholic that should the step inside an establishment lining one of those blocks, they could expect to be hassled.

At Shankill Treatment Centre I met Tommy. A former UVF, chain smoker, not much taller than I, and thin – probably too thin. We sat on the ground outside the backdoor of the center. The way Tommy laughed when he talked about something painful, trying to cover up the sadness to what he was saying, made me uncomfortable. Whether he did this for my benefit or his own was unclear to me.

Tommy asked me something, but his accent was so thick that it wasn’t until I asked him to repeat the question a third time that I understood.

“So, yer a Fenian, aren’t ya? A fuckin’ Taig?” he asked. “You have the red hair…”

I replied with a mumbled, “I guess so,” while I averted my eyes, appearing transfixed by the ground beneath my outstretched legs. He chuckled.

“Aw, don’t yer worry bout that. See here,” he said. He rolled up the sleeve on his t-shirt to reveal a Celtic cross tattoo on his scrawny freckled arm. It was a simple black one, faded with either time or poor workmanship.

“My daughter… .she married a Catholic so I got this,” he explained. “He’s a good guy. Ya know? Best for her. Don’t matter what he is, ya see.”

I nodded and smiled at Tommy.  I thought of my own tattoo – Celtic cross, about four inches in diameter. As he spoke of his own tattoo, I couldn’t help remembering that a few weeks before leaving, we had joked that if the plane got lost, we could use my tattoo like a Batman lamp as a homing device for Ireland. I had gotten it as a sign of permanent faith and a feeling of kinship. I didn’t know my red hair would be enough to brand me, let alone the ink on my back that I kept readjusting my shirt for to make sure it didn’t show.

In the middle of one Protestant housing community, wooden pallets, old doors and windows, along with broken sofas and armchairs were gathered as fuel for the July bonfires. There are young boys of eight or ten with guns and stone cold SCAN0003expressions protecting these piles. They are preparing for the Orange parades. The piles of fodder for the fire are gathered near a mural for Bucky McCullough like offerings on a shrine to the loyalists. I wonder if they even know what they are protecting and fighting for.

At the end of two weeks, we went back to the house we had started our journey in. It was called Knocklayd. To me, it was a place of safety and reflection nestled out of the way of the Troubles.  It was here that we had one last mass and one last night of laughs and instant coffee before boarding the small Midland plane to Heathrow, and then back to Philadelphia. Knocklayd was high in the hills of County Antrim, a few minutes from the beach where the sun didn’t set until 9 and the sheep caused traffic jams on the narrow one lane road. On our last drive there I stared out the window at the passing fields, horses and sheep dotting the landscape on either side of the road we traveled. Some three thousand miles from what I called home, watching cattle graze a hundred feet away, I found what beauty truly is.  The lowing of cows in the distance.  The softness of the earth. Being alone, there, in that place with hate at a safe distance, insulated by ocean and hills, I felt as if I had met God.  Or, at the least, as if I had finally come home.

Now it has been nearly a decade since that two weeks. I can close my eyes and see myself standing on the rocks at Giants Causway, or walking through the streets of Derry with John.  I can hear Tommy’s hoarse laugh and the sound of the waves breaking on the shore of Ballycastle. Every Saint Patrick’s day I don my claddagh that I bought in Derry and the triskele earrings that I bought in Belfast. I have a pint of Guiness and remember how much better it tasted over there. And I remember the feeling of being a girl in the North with red hair being called a Taig.


Tiocfaidh ár lá.


One of the photos that sits on the piano in our house is from my college graduation in 2004. All of my mom’s brothers were able to make the trip to Philadelphia. I used to joke that my family only got together for weddings and funerals. I don’t joke anymore. The last time all of us were together was my college graduation. And even then, my two older cousins weren’t able to make the trip.  My family has always been scattered across the country, but we did our best which is better than most.  Phone calls, cards, and when we could, visits.

One of my last memories of Uncle Jimmy is feeding him in the hospice. His hands were trembling as he tried to peel back the top of the packaging on a hospital container of rice pudding.  So I helped.  His hands were weak then, so I moved my chair over to the side of his bed. He tried eating himself, but he couldn’t get the spoon to his mouth without his hand trembling so hard that what he had managed to get on the spoon started spilling off. So I helped. It was slow, he didn’t really have an appetite, but he ate. Rice pudding was, after all, one of his favorite things. He seemed to examine each mouthful, seeming to move it around in his mouth to get more of the flavor. I knew that his taste buds had been off for the past few years and wondered if he could even really taste it.

At one point he told me that I shouldn’t have to. Shouldn’t have to see this or feed him, I wasn’t sure. But he felt guilty. I only felt love.

After my father died, Jimmy became like a surrogate to me. Not a replacement, but a presence that helped ease some of the hurt.  He wasn’t there everyday, but he lived close enough that if I had needed him, he would have been there. He took the role of godfather seriously. After he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2005, he and my mother braved the long road of healing together: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, more radiation. My mom would take something to crochet or a book with her, and sit through all the doctors visits. Jimmy even lived with her for a while and stayed with her after treatments. My mother was an angel. A saint. A sister that anyone would be proud to have.

There are so many things I could share about Jimmy – his mishaps, his humor, his quirks, his faith, his hard work. But so much of that is private. And this isn’t the place. Or the time.

My husband dressed in Marine Corps Alphas for Jimmy’s funeral to honor him. Jimmy was so proud he had been in the service. It was a beautiful tribute. Jimmy was buried in Calverton Cemetery on Long Island, a military cemetery, on a hot day in August with clear blue cloudless skies. My other uncles had decided that the flag should be presented to me. It sits in my living room, in a display case, which I rub when I walk past.

Jimmy died three years ago today. The wound still fresh. I can’t bring myself to take his birthday reminder off my calendar. I wonder what he would think of my house. I still expect to see him at the holidays and stop myself when I go to ask aloud what time he is supposed to arrive.

Three of Four siblings: Mom, Uncle Jimmy, and Uncle Joe. January 2008


my hands are small I know but they’re not your they are my own and I am never broken… – Jewel. “Hands.” Spirit. Atlantic Records, 1998.

"hands" artwork, 1999

My teenage years were filled with poems and music and angst and art and an unquenchable desire to put into words and pastels and photos and pencil what I was feeling. I was in a portfolio art class in high school where we had to pick a theme, and with my love of words, mine was quotations.  I could create any piece of art as long as it was based around a quote.  I used the opportunity to chronicle what was going on in my tedious, high school existence, or to put into pictures a song or poem that I loved. In December of 1999 I decided to use Jewel’s song “Hands”. I used a photo someone had taken of my hands in Central Park as a center piece, and painstakingly sketched my own, spelling the word “hand” in American Sign Language. After I finished the project, I often wondered if I should have used someone else as the hand model.

my mother's hands of joy

I’ve never liked my hands. My mother’s hand are long and elegant, with generous nail beds, and the softest skin, always having the warmest and most comforting touch. My own fingers are short with small nail beds that produce nails that like to bend and crack and break at the slightest provocation.  I always felt my fingers should be longer so that it was easier to play the piano, or should be more graceful and ladylike. They have been my one true vanity as long as I can remember.  I used to spend every two or three weeks in a salon for an hour, having my nails filed to perfection or gelled or acrylic-ed until they were long and strong, neat and clean. And sometimes, then I would think they might be pretty enough. They might look feminine enough.

my father's hands, writing while on leave in the 60's

My father had thick worker’s hands. They were by no means ugly, but they had the tell tale signs of someone who did something with them everyday other than sitting at a keyboard or shuffling papers.  My father, as a baker, would often come home from work with his nail beds stained red or blue or yellow, depending on the icing or filling he had been working with that day. With his tourettes, my fathers hands would jerk and stutter occasionally. But when he was smoothing butter cream over sheet cake, or using a putty knife in the tiniest corner to smooth out a perfection, they were meticulous, artful hands that created beauty.

Whenever we finished a piece of art, we had to write an entry in our sketchbooks as a sort of summary of the thought process, the creation process. Part of my entry when I finished my “hands” project reads: “I wanted to illustrate them in some way because it’s a message of overcoming helplessness.  and senior year with all the work piling around you, the deadlines to meet and the applications to fill out, it is definitely a time when you just want to throw your hands up in the air and have someone take care of it all for you.  But of course that never happens because none of us has a fairy godmother.” Some feelings never change. Sometimes work and this house – all the projects feel insurmountable.

But as I get older, I have learned to accept my hands for what they are. I don’t get my nails done anymore, and I’m actually liking that. My hands may be small but they are strong. They hold my husband’s hand when we walk through the store or down the street. They idly pet my cats as I lay reading in bed.  They play the piano. They hold a paintbrush so steady that I don’t always have to worry about painter’s tape. They begrudgingly get stuck into cold chop meat to make some of the best meatballs around. They gently tend the rose bush that we planted within the first weeks we moved into our house.  And they can fit into tiny spaces to retrieve dropped earrings or stray nails or screws. They fit perfectly into my husband’s own large, strong ones. They get covered in spray paint. They look like my father’s hands. And I think I may like that.

spray painted hands, june 2010

home sweet home

On September 28, 2010, I began my day by packing up my desk.  It was my last day of work. A year after getting my B.A. in English (I know, what do you do with that degree?) I began as an administrative assistant. I worked full time and earned my M.A. in Writing Studies at the same time (and yes, I know, what do you do with that on top of your B.A.??). And then I worked my way up and became a program manager. And after a few years, I lost my job. The program I ran was sold. They didn’t know what else to do with me. And that was it. I had mixed emotions, thinking that life must have something better in store for me and that it was just the beginning of a new and exciting chapter of life.  In a way, I was undoubtedly right. Because on October 3, I got married.

After years spent apart, me in the Philly burbs and my husband stationed in Hawaii, and at times deployed, we were living together and now sharing a life together. We had a beautiful wedding. We had family and friends surrounding us as we began the first of our new chapters together.

And despite having lost my job, we began looking at houses.  A small two bedroom apartment, two adults, two cats, and all the belongings that go with it – and all the books that writer/reader/ me own – don’t make for comfortable living. We thought a house was a dream, almost an impossibility. But we figured having a wish list and seeing what was out there was worth it. We had an amazing real estate agent who was patient, kind, and understood we didn’t want a typical new clean home. We wanted character and wood floors and a fireplace. We wanted a home with history. And then we found out, despite my not working full time, and despite my husband being a full time student finishing his bachelor’s, we could still do it. We could have the character and all that went with it.

In May of 2011, we had it. We had keys.  We had a 1929 Center Hall Colonial. We had a mortgage. We had a 2,200 square foot house full of dust bunnies, dirty tile floors, and knob & tube wiring. We had a quarter of an acre of gardens and grass neglected and overgrown. We had a garage that was decidedly tilted to one side. We had horrible wall paper, dirty and cracked paint, and a kitchen born in the 1980s. We had a basement that decided to take on water in heavy rain storms.

And I was right – it was a new chapter. We had a home. And we loved it from day one.