An appreciation for old furniture and well-worn wood is in my blood. My mother designed and built a beautiful Shaker-style drop leaf table and Colonial-style hutch when she was in high school and college. She won prizes for them. Every time I see those items at my parents’ home, I recall the stories about their creations. Mom used a tuna can as a template to design the scalloped detail across the top of the hutch. Those items were a few of the fixtures that spoke to me in my childhood home. I grew up listening to words like chamfered, beveled and mitered in everyday conversation.
When my paternal grandfather built his reproduction cape home, he used old barn floor boards, 2 feet wide, well aged and then well sanded and hand waxed by him, to panel the great room in the house. He also used them as floor boards throughout the house. Where ever possible, he used old wood and brought it back to life, reshaping and coaxing as needed.
A few pieces of furniture, currently living with me in my home, have been in my family since before I was born. These are almost like elder family members to me. I cherish the history of items that have family legacies and I have even created a few of my own.
Another art form I highly appreciate is storytelling. When furniture tells stories, I listen. I will share a few of those tales with you…
There is a grain chest in my living room that lived in a barn at my Great Grandparents farm for I don’t know how many eons before it was given to my newlywed parents. As the name implies, it stored corn, oats etc. used to feed the farm animals. It’s a bit of a behemoth, at about 7 feet long and 3 feet high.
I remember it in our dining room, in the homes I grew up in and for years I had to stand on tiptoes to see what was on the top. It’s where my folks displayed a lot of seasonal items so it continued to change with time. Halloween decorations would grace it in the fall; the crèche would be set up on it at Christmas, Easter things collected there in the spring… It also served as a sort of cedar chest, storing off-season items like quilts in summer and holiday tablecloths.
A few years ago, my folks decided to downsize and the grain chest came to live with me. I had to get rid of a sofa to have a place to put it, but it was well worth it. This item has so many memories for me and just seeing it everyday in my living room gives me a very warm and connected feeling inside.
An old grey metal and wooden trunk sits under a window in the bedroom. It’s pretty nondescript but it reminds me of visits to my great grandmother’s house as a child, where it sat in one of the bedrooms there for decades.
I have a wooden box, which I found perched precariously on the top of the burn pile at the local dump when I was in high school. It was a simple chest with pleasantly rounded corners, well hidden beneath several layers of hideous institutional green paint and rusty nails and painted hinges and hardware. I’d just gotten my driver’s license and upon returning from a Saturday morning dump run for my father, I couldn’t wait to share my new treasure. Dad is pretty open-minded but gave me a decidedly hairy eyeball on that occasion. I was determined to prove the potential in that box to him. The next weekend I removed all the hardware and soaked it in paint thinner. I stripped all the paint off the box and replaced the rusted nails with some square-headed nails we had in a jar in the barn. When the paint was off my mother, who knows a lot about wood, pronounced the wood to be cedar! It had a nice golden glow to it with some subtle pinker areas.
I dosed the box in several coats of Danish oil and reinstalled the hardware, which turned out to be brass! I took that box to college and kept clothes in it. Afterward I used it to sit on and eat off of and store my treasures in as I moved around. Today it sits quietly in my study giving me enormous pleasure and still storing miscellaneous items. It has acquired a legacy in my lifetime.
When we moved into our current home, the 9-½ foot ceilings were higher than anywhere I’d lived previously. The small linen cupboard that had served as a media center in the small house I’d lived before, looked positively ridiculous in the current house. What to do? I priced a few taller cupboards that could be easily converted to the task. They were way out of my budget and were not as tall as I’d like, plus they would still require some effort to make them work. Out of the question.
I began to think…. I had a large old bureau with a peeling veneered surface I’d picked up cheap at the end of an antique auction. It was in the garage waiting for me to give it a facelift before bringing it into the house. If I could figure out a way to put shelves and doors on the top, it would make a good base to build a media center on, in scale with our current living room. I could make top portion as high as it needed to be.
I decided to build the top section out of bead board on the sides and 1-inch pine stock for the top, bottom, back and shelves, to make it sturdy. I was a bit miffed at the moment about cupboard doors but decided to get started and worry about doors later.
I sanded and painted the bureau base a deep green, cut the way-too-long legs down, and antiqued the finish. After consulting with my mother about some of the finer construction points, I built the top section and painted it to match the bottom. I ‘aged’ sharp angles and edges and made the shelves adjustable. I kept the two sections separate so it would not be too heavy or awkward to move into the house. We decided to use the mirror supports, still on the bureau base, to attach the top when it was in place, to help to keep it stable.
I’d just finished the top and bottom sections when took a detour home from work one day and spied a pair of tall wooden cupboard doors, leaning against a pile of trash in front of a house that was apparently being renovated. Hmmm…. I stopped and put them into the back of the car. They were painted a dingy white and stenciled with a chipped pattern.
I took them home and measured them. By sawing a couple of inches off the width and height, the doors fit my cupboard top perfectly. I sanded and painted them to match the rest. My mom helped me to set the hinges and we had a ‘new’ media center that ‘fit’ our living room and held the stereo, TV and CDs. The cost was mostly ingenuity and elbow grease. And, Ta Da! Another piece of furniture with a legacy!
When my parents moved into their previous home, nearly 40 years ago, there was a jelly cupboard in the basement. It was painted battleship grey. Somehow I was able to see through the paint to the simple cupboard below. Somewhere along the way, my mother who sometimes favors bright colors, painted it orange and used it in the laundry area. I was a bit scandalized by that treatment, but after all, it was her’s to do with as she pleased. When I moved into a house years later that had no built-in cupboards in the kitchen, I asked for that cupboard, offering to replace it with a shelf unit for her washing products.
Well, my wonderful mother not only acquiesced, but knowing how I felt about it; she removed all that awful paint. When I picked it up, all I needed to do was to rub in some linseed oil to bring out the beauty of the grain in the original pine. This is now another furniture item with a history.
This old rocker, hails from the Quincy Mass. home of my great-aunt Kit, my grandmother’s sister. I think it was their mother’s originally. Dark curving wood with upholstered arms, back and seat in faded rose-colored fabric. It went first to my Grandmother upon the death of her sister, where my mother re-upholstered it. Then, when my grandmother passed; the rocker came to live with me. I have had to repair one of the rockers when it cracked, showing it’s elderly bones. It is still very comfortable and used gently. It currently lives a life of relative leisure in my craft room where it holds other treasures; an afghan my grandmother knit and a rose chintz teddy bear that a talented friend made for me when I was going through a rough time.
On the way to the funeral of a beloved great-aunt recently, my youngest son Liam and I were talking about old stories handed down in families and then about furniture and other items that have a family history. He sensibly asked me how he would ever know all the histories of the items in our home when ‘the time came’. It was a great question. It inspired me to assemble a book with a photo of every item with family connections and include a brief description of the history that I know about that item, its story. I hope that book will be a tool that helps my descendants to make important personal decisions, at a distant time beyond my vision…
May the stories live on!