For many, childhood memories are preserved on the pages of photo albums and scrapbooks, in video footage, jewelry, figurines or other family trinkets passed through generations.
Jesica McEachern’s heirloom doesn’t fit that profile.
Many of the Alvord resident’s family stories are encased in the dining room table at the home she shares with her husband, David, and 1-year-old daughter Kinsley.Its features include a scratch from dragging a vase across its top the day after her wedding. But what really sets this table apart is an enclosed model train that chugs through an illuminated miniature city underneath plates, silverware and glasses. Built by her father, Doug Starosta, and his father, the train navigates the 8-and-a-half by 5-foot table while up to 12 diners are seated comfortably around the perimeter.
Jesica still notes that permission to operate the “sacred remote” that controls the train was granted to her now-8-year-old nephew, Josh, before she or her sisters got a shot.
Jesica’s memories of the family’s traditional Christmas breakfast are marked with chatter, the smells of breakfast and excited nieces and nephews – all with the noise of the locomotive zipping around the table and occasionally sounding its horn in the background.
And she remembers an increased challenge in getting some of the kids to eat.“Every time we sat at the table to have a meal, the kids were so enamored by the train that they would forget to eat,” Jesica said. “So my sisters and my parents would have to constantly remind the kids to finish their meal. At some point, my dad would typically stop the train so that my nieces and nephews would just eat.
“But how many people eat dinner on an operating model train?” she said. “My nephews and nieces love watching the train and sounding the locomotive horn. Now that I have my own daughter, I look forward to the many memories that she’ll create sitting around this table. I can imagine Kinsley showing her friends ‘her train’ when she’s older.”
In addition to the memories, the table is representative of her paternal relatives and their hobby.
“My grandfather was a really neat man,” Jesica said. “He could build anything (from player pianos to his own home) and he loved tinkering with things. Although he could do any type of construction, he also loved latch-hook and he taught me how to do that when I was younger.
“My dad has always loved trains,” she continued. “He now works as the rail logistics manager for a steel company, and has for 30-something years. So he works around real trains every day. We grew up around trains and train memorabilia.”
The two men started the train hobby when Jesica’s father was 5. They built a Lionel with five tracks and were working on another that was never finished.
“Unfortunately, my dad didn’t get any of it after my grandfather’s passing,” Jesica said.
Four or five years later, Starosta decided to build his own.
“He was thinking about running it above head-level in the living room and I threw out a crazy idea to build it on a dining room table. That way you could watch the train while you ate,” McEachern said. “And that’s what ended up happening.”
Every evening for about nine months, 12 years ago, Starosta tinkered with his new project.
He shortened the pedestal bases of a regular dining room table to lower it. He then built a train layout on the table top and added wood sides around it. To encase it, he placed a custom-built, two-tiered plexiglass top on the wood sides.
The wiring that powers the remote-controlled track, train and lights in the small buildings and along the streets run underneath.
“I also remember when my dad was building the table, he would have to lie on the floor underneath it to run the wiring,” Jesica said. “Our cat Destiny, who we affectionately called ‘The Big Cat,’ would snuggle up next to my dad and just purr like crazy. I guess Destiny thought she was helping.”
Her parents decided a few years ago to move out of the house Jesica grew up in and sell their furniture, including the table.
“That table was too special to me to let out of the family,” Jesica said. “So I asked if I could have it. Since none of my sisters objected, my dad gave me the table, along with a crash course in train operations. We only eat at this table for special occasions or large gatherings. But if we’re at the table, we try to run the train … My extended family has so many memories with this table. I’m looking forward to the memories my little family can add.”