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Fossils and Furniture

August 30, 2015 by in Memoir

When they were young and childless, my parents were antique hunters, weekend ransackers of estate sales and flea markets. Each Saturday they drove out from Toledo into Amish country, following narrow roads like stitching in the crazy quilt of soy and corn, looking for pockets and exits where the past was sold. They hunted in barn-styled warehouses with acres of Shaker chairs and in villages with nothing but a gas station and a curio shop—spilling out onto the porch of a clapboard house or stacked behind a dusty plate window.

Interior design then had a vision of this countryside, one stuffed with cabbage roses, white wicker furniture, and blue-scarfed ducks. My parents filled their apartment with reclaimed oak antiques and relics of a pre-electric age—kerosene lamps and flat irons—almost in dissent.

In the early 80s my father worked building tracts of petite mansions in the sprawl north of Columbus—fake marble receptacles for a thousand Laura Ashley couches and cherry Chippendale chairs. He was laid off during the recession and recoiled from those homes so thoroughly he enrolled in a graduate program of labor history within a year. It was perilously unstylish field in a world of hollowed-out unions and trickle down economics. He learned utopian politics there, borrowed, in all their handicrafted romanticism, from William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement. It was political program that elevated traditionally made furniture beside common ownership. He’d build his own bureaus and tables later, in Mission and Arts & Crafts styles, more pieces than we could cram in our house. But in the 1980s he concerned with historical salvage, with stripping and straining battered relics back to use. The more mangled the piece, the cheaper, the better. My parents hunted for water-ringed surfaces and unsteady legs, trash to polish. My father thought it was an appropriate hobby for an historian and, in an absurd deus ex machina, found a cache of letters from a strikebreaker in an old trunk.

My parents had no family relics, no inheritances; they had to fashion that past for themselves. My mother spent most of her childhood in a billowy white farmhouse, hemmed into a small plot when its orchards were turned into rows of houses. Her parents bought it because it was cheap and big and their only considerations of décor were the necessary tessellations of beds and dressers to cram seven kids into three bedrooms. In photos, they have plaid couches, knotted pine walls, avocado fridges, chunky Seventies cross-stitching, images of saints. Everything was handed down or bought cheap and quickly broken, and when my mother left, her possessions could fit in a single cardboard box.

My father grew up in a brick ranch, constructed by his father to be as flat-topped, new- fangled and atomic as the gas stations he built for a living. Wicklow Drive had sparkling, popcorn ceilings, a bathroom pink from the tiles to the tub, and an intercom system for 1500 square feet. My grandmother decorated it trendily, with a harlequin print sofa set, cantilevered shelves of milk glass, louver doors that folded back like accordions and boy and girl rooms in blue and pink. In the 70s restyling she added a sunken living room, with wood paneling, orientalist tchotchkes, and a spread of grass-green carpet. This house was both modest and formal, the home of people who ate chips and sandwiches on wedding china and had costume jewelry for every pair of pumps.

At my age, my parents were anachronistic, homesteaders and hand-crafters in a decade of cookie cutter cul-de-sacs. They were, by all reckoning, uncultured: they worked for tobacco companies and tract homebuilders and they’d never traveled beyond the Midwest. They were children of an industrial belt that had just begun to rust, a place with scarce jobs and budget ambitions. But they had a vision of their lives that confounded this backdrop, and they made their home to match it. They decorated as they meant to go on: archaically, nostalgically, with fossils and optimism.

I know their finds from those days like great wood weights that hold down the corners of childhood memories threatening to blow away. The cabinet my mother finished herself, the chamber pot cabinet that housed the dot-matrix printer, the dresser that was my changing table and still, in the garage of my mother’s house, holds my forgotten clothes. They’re like old friends: the Tallboy, the Buffet, the Barrister.

Some pieces barely survived us children. When my sister broke the drawer of a 19th century schoolhouse desk, my mother moaned that Victorian stuents used that desk for generations and her kids had broke it within a few years.

The dining room table slowly started shedding leaves; often, in the middle of dinner, one would spring loose and tip up like a seesaw under the weight of an elbow or a casserole. We lived slippery lives among precarious, beautiful things. Eventually the glass kerosene lamp, unused for years, was knocked from the mantle and its shards swept into the trash.

The furniture that survived was bundled up and moved as my parents gutted, salvaged and flipped old homes. I lived first in a tiny, blue clapboard bungalow in the Ozarks, with scorched grass and a dirt driveway. The first house my parents owned was a brick American foursquare writ small, in a streetcar suburb in Ohio. “Wiltshire” was a former rental with an octopus furnace and plaster cracks repaired with toothpaste, but my parents had a ambitious plans for it. My father single-handedly replaced the central beam as a weekend project. When we grew out its three narrow bedrooms they bought a larger, draftier foursquare a block over and up. The previous owners had neglected “Corona” as they tried to coax exotic plants to take hold in cold soil in the backyard. The house had slanted floors, encrusted layers of wallpaper bulging and curling with moisture, and curious renovations—bathrooms the size of bedrooms and rerouted staircases. My sisters and I thrilled at the more luxurious updates left by previous residents—the bathroom skylight and the cramped jacuzzi bathtub that, with the jets on, rocked like an unstable washing machine—while my parents mourned the sleeping porch that had been lost for a silly home spa.

For years we lived in construction zones, with masks, in rooms draped in drop cloths and snowed in with drywall dust. We spent a winter with the kitchen appliances stashed in the garage, extension cords running from backdoor down the driveway to power them, and years with loose and missing door knobs. (Guests were issued either detached handles and spindles or pairs of safety scissors with which to free themselves from any room.) That house nearly defeated my parents with its tumbling ceiling plaster, its phlegmatic forced air system, its sinking bathrooms, its resistance to all heating or insulation. For nearly a decade it was in a constant state of historical restoration and repair. It was a collaborative process. My father needed skinny arms to fish electric wire through walls and assistants to pass him screws, hammer nails crooked and put palm prints in freshly poured concrete. My mother fell under the sway of home decorating television and added feature walls and sconces and painted the family room blood red and the buffet black. The Craftsman antiques wandered from room to room, a patina of dirty fingerprints ripening on their surfaces. Sometimes we could persuade our parents to talk about how they found that old friend and stripped and stained him in their apartment driveway—the Tallboy, the Barrister, each a time capsule for our parents’ lives.

In the late Nineties a new development sprouted a mile from our house, in the wasteland beside postwar sprawl. It grew in tight loops and cul-de-sacs of Lilliputian manors, each a new cobbling of the same elements—stone face, built in garage, cluster of gables, Tudor half-timbering. It was the same menu from which my father had assembled houses twenty years before. We crept around their skeletal frames after dark and he taught us the names of studs: king, jack, cripple. He scorned these home’s historical pastiches like he scorned Hollywood blockbusters set in the past, and he encouraged us to loot discarded drywall screws from their white gravel lawns.

My father developed an old man’s disease in his forties, likely through misfortune although there were suggestions of environmental exposure, to paint thinners and stains, things he would have encountered on construction sites and in refinishing furniture. Illness hobbled his movements and eventually fogged his mind, but in the early years he believed he could work his way out of it, steady his hands by forcing them make the intricate joints and close cuts of furniture. He produced his own versions of the Mission and Arts & Crafts pieces he’d once hunted for and restored, in quarter sawn oak, with mortise and tendon joints. He assembled so many coffee and side tables they clustered in twos and threes in our living and family rooms, often nestled beside their antique twins. My mothered convinced him to sell a few pieces but the rest lingered, too prized as proof of his facilities to be let out of sight. His greatest achievement was a splendid, huge Craftsman Morris chair, an American facsimile of the chair produced by the Morris Company in the 1860s, and a chair I rarely saw him sit in, only stare at.

My father took his furniture and most of the antiques with him when he left. My mother kept the house, fighting for it in court like a tree in the path of a planned highway. But its rooms rattled empty, almost bare of furniture. It’s strange to see what you think of as your home parceled out, squabbled over. That house, with its shrunken sash windows and missing doorknobs, its hefty, personable antiques and covens of handworked tables—that was the vision of my parents’ early antiquing dates, that stubborn anachronism and prairie nostalgia realized. They’d fashioned themselves a cultural inheritance and a life apart, and, for a little while, hung onto it.

After my father died, we inventoried the antiques and his own furniture and discovered some were missing, sold perhaps, like he sold his library after illness ended his academic career, or just discarded because they reminded him too much of his body’s decay. The furniture that remained returned to my mother. If it hurt her to reclaim the antiques they’d found and fixed together, she never let on. She tells us she’s storing that furniture for us, for whenever we have a home to place them in.

I antique hunt on the weekends now, scouting warehouses in East London, furniture shows, and Ebay for teak sideboards, rocket lamps, vintage crockery. I have a Danish by way of British sideboard, a green wool Norwegian four-seater sofa, a midcentury coffee table I found in the trash in my neighborhood and polished back to life. My mother is puzzled by my fascination with these pieces, finer versions of the furniture that stalked the homes of her childhood. Recently we walked through the house my father grew up in, before my grandfather prepared to sell after 60 years, and I swooned over its spindly shelves, wood paneling, and retro cabinets. The furniture I grew up with has been made mundane, even ugly by ubiquity, but that of my grandparents is now novel, stylish. Maybe without knowing, my parents were simply recreating the homes of their grandparents, whom they barely knew, the carpenters and plumbers and immigrants, and reclaiming their dignity in handwork and labor. My cultural inheritance, then, is an urge to refashion and romanticize the past, to polish the most battered pieces of it and install them in my flat. I think of this when I haul a low, tapered-legged rosewood bookcase from someone’s garbage and make plans for its transformation, squint and see it nestled behind a Morris chair.

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