FURNITURE AND OTHER HISTORY
When Mary nearly married into “new” money, and she and her fiance almost bought an estate near Downton, she asked her outrageously wealthy husband-to-be with what they would furnish it. He told her that they would buy new furniture. The idea had not occurred to Mary. In her family, one inherited household goods.
Know what happens when a dirt-poor girl moves out of the house? She takes any stick of furniture that the family can spare. Chances are, her parents and theirs did the same. I furnished my first apartment with no output of cash whatsoever, and it felt like home. I grew up with that chair, that clock, that quilt, and so did my mother. When I want to change things up, I hand these things off to other family members. Everything stays in the closed loop. Useful objects are treasured and preserved. No one will ever wash the Cornbread Spoon in soapy water. Well, he did once, but we’re not together any more.
No, it wasn’t over the spoon, but almost.
My kitchen could be completely functional with only what my grandmother gave me and what I inherited when she died. Her pots and pans and spoons and skillets came from many places, but mostly from her granny and her mother-in-law. I cut bread with a knife used by my German great-grandmother and I fry bacon in a skillet used by my great-grandmother’s Daughter of the Revolution mother. I mash potatoes in the same bowl, serve meat on the same platter, and bake brownies in the same pans that were used in my childhood. No one bought them during my lifetime, or maybe even in my mother’s. These things just…are. The Cornbread Spoon is still the Cornbread Spoon, and that’s that.
Some things have rotated among family members so often that I can only vaguely remember who finally made (great great) Aunt Kate’s bedstead stand upright again after getting damaged in storage. It was her wedding bed, and then my aunt’s, but I don’t know where it lived in the decades in between. Aunt Cindy used it until my mother needed it and Cindy needed a bigger bed. Then my mother needed a bigger bed, and it came to my daughters. They abhorred sleeping alongside one another–one kicks, one talks–and it came to me. Now it’s back to my youngest daughter, who will probably take it with her when she leaves home. She knows that she has her great-great-great aunt’s bed. That means something, like the Cornbread Spoon means something.
It means that we value quality things because we unwilling or unable to replace them with quality things. If that bedstead has survived so many generations of Prott-Goss-Hartlieb-Tevis shuffling, it can outlast us all. We just keep getting different mattresses.
Some things we gleaned from the house bought by my grandparents after Papa’s retirement. The other family took what they wanted and left the rest. Oh, that’s some good stuff. A real craftsman-mission rocker lives with me, and four chairs–two pairs, not alike–and a kitchen table whose legs rotted away at the bottom so I cut them off to make a coffee table. Somewhere in the family, there’s a parlor table that matches mine, but mine is a little warped. That’s okay.
I have a set of dressers from that house, midcentury modern and heavy as lead. My cousin has a dressing table from the 20s in pieces as side tables now, and the matching armoire belonged to my baby daughter until it was dropped in a move. I let it go, but I mourn it. My mother used it when she left my father, and the sound of the doors of that armoire opening and shutting reminded me of peace and freedom and the power of being a woman. The bed belonging to that set was hers, too, until she got married. Then, for a very short time, it was mine, but it was too short…literally. I am long. People used to be smaller, like my tiny mother. My head touched the top and my feet pressed flat on the bottom when I laid flat, and it stayed in the house where it started, the New House, when the house was sold. They probably threw it out. That’s okay, too.
My grandparents’ first dresser, taken from my grandfather’s family home, lived with me after my first marriage, but my temporary He took it outside and painted it kelley green one day while I was at work. I saved the mirror from that green fate, and my shock and disappointment made him take an axe to the frame and the drawers, still wet with fresh paint. I never really understood why, but I don’t have that husband any more, either. I do have the mirror. And the axe.
When I moved into this little cottage with my small daughter, the sole brave friend willing to help me move asked if I had ANY FUCKING FURNITURE MADE IN CHINA. His back suffered at my lack of modern, mass-produced chipboard.
The furnishings given to me by generous friends with fat wallets and good taste, to add to what I took away from my marital home, have become symbols of emancipation, heavy and solid in their own right. The few things I’ve acquired after the move are, as a rule, older than I am. I’m not an antique snob, I just don’t want to ever buy another of that THING again. My desk will outlast me, and if I am very lucky, my daughter will tell her family about the time that her mama went to an estate sale just to see the inside of a cool old house–common occurrence–and left with a nineteenth century library table tied to the top of her Honda.
I like my old things, because they are a part of my heritage as a poor, small-town, Midwestern woman. We save. We take care. We remember.