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Credit: Courtesy of Ellie Duke

My Grandmother Put a Ping-Pong Table in the Entryway Because “We Like Unusual”

published Aug 4, 2020
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Twenty stories of objects and areas in people’s homes that nourish their souls more than their social feeds. Read them all here throughout August.

At the end of a long gravel driveway on the east end of Long Island, my 88-year-old grandma is most likely eating a BLT in her bathing suit on the breezy back porch of her beach house. People around here might call this house a “cottage,” because it’s shingled and un-winterized, but it has space for 17 if they’re willing to sleep sardine-style. The house has been my life’s most consistent home base: I have paused here between jobs, boyfriends, schools, and travels. What it lacks in privacy it makes up for with a delightful, if somewhat haphazard, come-one-come-all communal spirit.

There are two ways to arrive at my grandma’s house. A side door, the most highly trafficked, brings you into the kitchen, the smallest, darkest, and of course most popular room. But the true entrance is via the front porch, through a bright entry hall with pink hydrangea wallpaper, coral stairs, and a folding mini Ping-Pong table posed purposefully in the center of a sisal rug. The scuffed and slightly rickety table has been host to countless epic battles of will over the years, as well as a few friendly rallies. It’s the first thing visitors see when they arrive, and their last sight before departure. 

I don’t remember the Ping-Pong table’s debut—it feels as though it’s always been there, though I can’t imagine my great-grandmother whizzing forehands across the mini net. The house has been in my family for three quarters of a century, and any changes or additions have been incremental and rare (it was a noteworthy event when we recently got fresh potholders). When I asked my grandma for an explanation, she shrugged. “We wanted to have one and that’s where it fit. Plus, we like unusual.” Some things are simple.

Depending on your perspective, you might find a Ping-Pong table welcoming you into an old-fashioned beach house an assertive display of competitive spirit, a challenge. Or you might see it as informal, a welcome to take off your coat and stay a while. In reality it’s probably a little of both. Aggressively un-fancy. Conveniently, since I rank among the least skilled Ping-Pongers in the house, I see it mostly as symbolic. Our neighbors have tennis courts, we have table tennis. To me it advertises: in this house, we play. 

Credit: Courtesy of Ellie Duke

I often feel grateful for my love of play, a lot of which I think was ingrained during my summers here as a kid. To take pleasure in a pointless activity is something of a skill when you’re an adult, and coming to this house helps me practice it. There haven’t been children in the house since I was one, but the sense of playfulness persists. At the peak of summer there are five dogs in residence, ranging in size from chihuahua to mastiff, which is just as chaotic and delightful as you imagine. There’s a stack of board games in the closet, and a mildewy basement full of toys: surfboards, arts and craft supplies, bikes, fishing rods. Not far away is the greatest playground in the world, the ocean. The pee-stained rug (as mentioned: five dogs) and peeling paint in the dining room doesn’t bother anyone; in fact, we prefer it that way. This house is lived in, enjoyed, not tiptoed around.

After a few months in isolation, sad and tired and lonely, I ached for the familiar comforts of this house and my family. I drove to New York from Santa Fe in a mad 32-hour dash, away from solitude and into the throes of my familial vortex, all the more intensified this year by our inability to come and go as easily as usual. Since then I’ve been at my grandma’s, lifeguarding her ocean swims, eating Häagen Dazs for lunch, and getting my butt kicked at Ping-Pong. I’m still sad and anxious about the world and where it’s going, but I’m not lonely anymore. And I’m re-remembering how to play, how to enjoy things as simple as a perfectly placed Ping-Pong shot.