Material Embodiments

I first met Susan’s dining room furniture when we visited Fortress Fine Arts Storage in Boston, known to I-93 travelers as the building with the inflated gigantic padlock. I was in awe of the central elevator platform, which was large enough for a car, and the mystery of what valuables were within each surrounding compartment. I imagined a spy movie chase scene, the elevator moving a Lamborghini down as two gangs of masked bad guys acrobatically jumped on and off passing floors, grabbing gems and vying to drive the sleek sports car screeching onto the street.

dr-2000-big_sideboardOnce inside Susan’s quite tame unit, we removed the plastic covering and out came the dark reddish-brown mahogany, Georgian-style table, six chairs, two sideboards, and glass cabinet that comprised Susan’s “antique dining room furniture.” Manufactured in the early 1910s, a shellac sheen shows off the wood grain. The features of each piece, like the tapered chair stiles and legs, the sideboard drawer fronts, and the round table top, are outlined with bands of light-colored “satinwood” (probably birch). To set off the mahogany from the satinwood, each band of satinwood is etched with two lines of ebony. All in all, the set paints a picture of stately elegance.

Little did I know then, however, that errant napkin threads or clothing could snag and eventually pull off pieces of those satinwood bands. Such pieces would join their kin in an envelope already in one of the sideboards, marked “D.R. FURNITURE,” in Susan’s chicken-scratch all-caps. I would soon learn that none of the furniture was rock solid; when an elbow leaned too hard, a body shifted suddenly, or a cabinet door fully opened, the furniture groaned. I didn’t know that underlying elegance was infirmity.

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In Susan’s childhood home

Just before Susan’s sophomore year in college, in 1976, her parents moved to Switzerland. Susan and her brothers had to take possession of anything they might want later in their lives.  In some ways, the dining room furniture, and the other material remnants of her childhood she rescued, stood in for the parental protection and comfort she lost overseas. She hadn’t been ready to leave the nest; the nest left her. Its vestiges appeared through letters that took ten days in transit; carefully scheduled, infrequent phone calls; and one summer-long stay followed by annual family vacations. The nest’s constancy was held in the twigs and branches Susan moved with her from place to place, and in the family furniture she’d stored for so long.

In 1989, in her storage compartment, Susan and I assessed her dining room set and agreed that the table and chairs would fit in our new relationship’s apartment, but not in Susan’s Jeep Cherokee. A few weeks later, hired movers carefully carried in each chair and the two table parts, unbound the plastic sheathing and the protective blankets underneath, helped mount the table top back on its pedestal, and left us. There we were, in a fairly crummy apartment, atop a rug cut out of carpeting we had removed from a renovated library, looking at a sophisticated table and chairs that felt a little out of place in their new surroundings.

I hadn’t realized how carefully I was expected to treat my new furniture. I’d been brought up properly. I was accustomed to using coasters and placemats on a table. I knew not to write on a sheet of paper directly on any wooden surface. During dinner, one wasn’t to lean back on a chair’s two legs, but it wasn’t a mortal sin. The first time I rocked one of Susan’s chairs back onto two legs came the first of the reprimands.

“Careful, you’ll break it,” Susan warned.
“Don’t put your foot on the table pedestal. You’ll wear off the finish,” she directed.
“You keep knocking the chairs into the table when you walk through. You’re going to chip the table.”

I was used to furniture living with me as the boss. If I were carrying something and a chair was in my way, I’d nudge it with my hip. If I wanted to put something on a chair nearby, I’d hook it with my foot and drag it over. If I had a heavy load of books, I’d plunk them on a table. Susan’s furniture, however–this furniture was the boss of me. I loved living with Susan, but the importance with which she anointed these objects made me nervous about all of her belongings, a feeling that took me years to shake. I, someone with perpetually dirty hands, treated that table and chairs with kid gloves. I transmitted my skittishness to all of our visitors, particularly to my family: “careful of the table. Eek! Please don’t do that to the chairs.”

The furniture at home in the dining room
In our dining room

A couple of years after Susan and I first moved in together, we bought a Victorian house. At last, all of her furniture came home to roost in a formal dining room that matched its character. As our lives wore on, the envelope with the chipped-off trim grew thicker and the chairs grew looser. One infirm chair was marked with a red bow and banished to the side of the dining room: look, don’t sit. Despite always picking them up by the seat, like scooping up a child, the two arm chairs’ upper limbs began to wiggle and so they joined their armless cousin against the wall. When people came over, we matched seats by size and character. For those who could sit prim and proper, the walled chairs came back to the table.

Since my initial schooling, I have treated the table with tender care, so, generally, we have been at peace. The chairs, however, are a different matter. They do not suit my body. I am short; the chairs are not. When I sit on one, I rest my toes on the floor, the weight of my legs crushes the chair rim into my thighs, and my calves clench to assume some of the load.

In addition to my physical discomfort, I know, kinesthetically, that my natural proclivity for fidgeting jars the chairs’ bodies, hastening their demise. I cross my legs at the ankles and swing my feet gently. Because the chair’s frame is wiggling, I notice my feet have started rocking wildly back and forth. Against Susan’s rules, I quiet my feet by placing them, still clasped, on top of a pedestal leg. My shoulder blades push against the chair’s back. Sensing I’m about to tip the chair onto the two back legs and risk snapping one of the decorative stiles by putting more weight against them, I slump for a while. Then, I go back to position one. I cycle back through my body’s options, occasionally pausing to stretch my legs straight out to loosen my muscles, until dinner is over and I announce “let’s retire somewhere more comfortable.”

I deserve to be at home in my own dining room. At some point, I called a truce with the dining room chairs. I imported a sturdy, shorter chair, and use it exclusively, thus avoiding altogether my potential for breaking one of my tortuous nemeses.

Recently, after more than twenty four years together, my beloved partner Susan died of ovarian cancer. She left behind me, our teenaged son, and innumerable memories. She also left behind a lot of what probate calls “personal property.” A lot.

Dresser tchotchkes

Most of us who lose our spouses are left to deal with their belongings. The shoes and socks. The toothbrush and shampoo. The coats, with used Kleenex and loose change in every pocket. The tchotchkes on every surface, like the Asterix and Swiss Fasnacht figurines, a stained handkerchief knotted into a “mouse” by a childhood neighbor, a collection of darning eggs, and a bottle of sand from our romantic trip to Bermuda. Susan was a keeper. Almost all of what she kept, from her childhood and beyond, held emotional value to her and so, over time, came to have emotional value to me. This has made my work to clean up the house much more frustrating and painful than it might otherwise have been. Whether I value an item for its utility or because it was something we got together, I feel driven to honor Susan’s memory by not dispossessing it haphazardly.

The past called to Susan. She answered with a passion that was evident to all who knew her. In her career as an archivist, she championed personal papers and organizations records. She helped college students and faculty research papers and books, and children “meet” foremothers. She advocated saving for future generations, to passers-by at the Big E (New England’s agricultural fair), potential donors with attics full of their lifetime’s activities, and the staff of the institution for which she worked. Susan’s historical interests ranged from preserving evidence of the activities of both sides of her family, to going on an archeological excavation at Tell el-Hessi in Israel, to creating A Guide to African American Manuscript Sources in the Schlesinger Library and the Radcliffe College Archives (G.K. Hall, 1993).

Susan’s dining room furniture was imbued not only in the nostalgia of her childhood but also in history. Hundreds of years ago, her mother’s family had settled an area of southeastern New York. Susan’s grandfather, and his father before him, were antique collectors of the kind whose barn you may think (perhaps mistakenly) you’d like to inherit. The dining room furniture came from this side of the family, which automatically indicated to Susan it was old. Presumably, hundreds of years old.

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1914

At one point, Susan pulled out a folder given to her by her mother. According to the back of a photograph taken in 1914, the dining room set had been given by Susan’s maternal great-grandfather to newly married cousins, who then passed it to Susan’s grandparents, who gave it to her parents in 1954 as a wedding present. It wasn’t that old after all. The furniture didn’t fit her definition, or mine, of “antique.” This knowledge, however, didn’t affect our furniturial relationships.

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Child’s potty chair

After their parents moved to Switzerland, Susan and her brothers added boxes of cherished objects from their New Jersey house on “Schoolhouse Lane” to the riches already in their grandfather’s musty barn. When it came time for the siblings to divvy up the barn’s contents in preparation for selling the land, more family treasures came to live with us, including a castle and a marble raceway her father made, a box marked “grandmother’s toys,” a late nineteenth century set of children’s furniture, and a traveling case of doll clothes. In our basement, a couple of wicker-seated wooden chairs of some important style or another that “just need to be refinished” sit, adding new dust to the old.

In addition to keeping things because they held meaning, or historical or monetary value, Susan held onto things so as not to waste them. Soon after she died, I searched her desk drawers and filing cabinets for any sign of her reflections on cancer or death, or about our relationship. I hoped she’d left a letter for me, something I could hold onto bearing written proof of her love for me and her sadness about having to leave.

Instead, I found myself sifting through another of Susan hoards. Her desk and filing cabinets were crammed full. Within an 8’x3′ space were boxes on all surfaces, tucked together like puzzle pieces and each ready to explode upon opening. Amidst shoeboxes of photographs and pockets of foreign coins were stocks of supplies.

“Oh, Susan,” I said, shaking my head, “when were you going to use this stuff?”

“You never know,” I imagined her retorting. “Remember when you needed colored thumbtacks, punch hole reinforcements, or an extra envelope of any size? I always had it for you.”

“But what’s this?” I asked myself, digging down in the big desk drawer, under the piles of letters from her best friend. “Look at all these empty manila envelopes. They have postmarks from more than 25 years ago.” “Susan,” I said with reproach, “you didn’t even clean out your desk before you moved it from Cambridge and then to our apartment. You never know when you might need one? When you needed one, did you ever open this drawer, or did you just use one of the other thirty you kept in that box over there?”

We’d had similar conversations when she was alive. “I just never have time,” she’d said. “Why pare down what I have when we have the space and there is so much that is more fun to do?”

She had a point.

hammers_0317-1My amusement about Susan’s yen for saving has carried me through a lot of frustration about what to do with the caches of conference give-aways; multiples of identical clothing (in case the store stopped carrying a style she liked); sub-genres of tools (she’d been a carpenter; I only need one hammer); and office supplies galore. I’ve given bags and bags to charities and schools, begrudging the amount of time it’s taken over the course of several years, but feeling good that I have fulfilled not only Susan’s desire to never waste anything but also someone else’s needs, even small ones. It’s felt silly what a struggle it’s been to get rid of such mundane goods as the plastic wallets meant for plane tickets. But the truth is, it really has been a struggle, bearing this self-imposed responsibility to find everything, regardless of monetary value, a second home.

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At the spa

Susan loved her dining room furniture so deeply that she, a woman who never spent money on herself, once sent the whole set to a posh spa at a nationally renowned restoration company. The attendants gently pulled apart cracked joints, cleaned them, and sealed them back together with traditional hot hide glue. Minor cracks received pigmented wax injections. After stripping all surfaces naked, the restorers lay down a thin layer of shellac, re-stained the mahogany reddish-brown to match its original color, brushed on lacquer, and gave each piece a long rub-down polish.

After its time away, we welcomed home the table, chairs, sideboards and glass cabinet. Susan and I selected the napkins, placemats, table cloths and flatware that merited a place inside the drawers of the sideboards. We put a beautiful runner and a few objects on top of one sideboard. The other took its place in the hall with my pile of mail and things to do on the right side, hers on the left. I organized the wine and water glasses, pitchers and serving dishes into a display inside the glass cabinet. We centered the table under the chandelier, put in one leaf, and put some of the chairs back around. I kept my pact with the antique chairs by setting my rugged chair at the table, maintaining the neutral zone by keeping my seat away from theirs.

With the furniture came the restoration experts’ report.

dr-2005-mussey-sidechair“The chairs are not nearly of the same quality as the other pieces . . . For example, where mortices and tenons and dovetail joints were used on the case pieces [sideboards and glass cabinet], the chairs were constructed using dowels, an inherently weaker material . . . It appears that all of the chairs have been repaired in the past, primarily for reasons of structural weakness.”

Now we had in writing proof that the chairs had always been too delicate for me. Proof that my impatience with them had been warranted. Not surprisingly, after they had been back for a few years, their slow disassembling began again.

While Susan had cancer, I’d sometimes torture myself by walking around the house, looking at the constant reminders of her there would be after my impending loss: her grandmother’s “himmelbet” (canopy bed) where we used to sleep and now our son does; the print from a Judy Chicago show that she’d gotten signed “for Susan and Kim”; the sharp-cornered coffee table her parents bought us as a house-warming gift that we’d wrapped with bumpers when our son was a toddler; the recliners we bought two weeks before she died, so she could sleep upright.

I was right. Even after my pitching, recycling, and donating, the house is still chock full of reminders of who Susan was. Of who she remains for me. At first, being engulfed in relics comforted me, which makes me understand why she kept so many objects. So much furniture.

My rule since the beginning has been that if something tugs at my heartstrings or our son wants to keep it, it stays. This has allowed me to make repeated passes through the house, slowly creating more breathing room on floors, surfaces, and walls. There is no particular rush, other than to satisfy my desire for simplicity and for objects that properly serve their function, like chairs I can sit in. I’ve been untangling which of Susan’s emotional attachments have truly become mine and which ones I no longer want to govern my decisions. Over time, my grief has changed enough to embrace the logic that Susan will always surround me, with or without her material possessions. The selections I’ve made reflect who I will become, as life moves on without her, and what my son can choose to keep when it is his turn.

The dining room furniture, a bent wood baby highchair, and an upholstered, sturdy child’s chair are the last items that take up space I want to use differently. All of this furniture has been in my life for the better part of twenty years. Deciding to part with the dining room chairs and table (but not the sideboards and cabinet, which are not only beautiful but also functional) took me three years, and now I want to be done. Every day they’re still here, I want them gone, feel a pang of guilt, and miss Susan all the more.

I am sad, because deep in my heart, I do love even the chairs that I hate. I know Susan would be sad that I’ve decided the chairs and table need to find a new home, but, in the end, she would understand and want me to do as I wished. In her absence, I accept the responsibility of passing them to new owners who might, themselves, form a lasting attachment to them, or at least appreciate them until they break.

Chair

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Material Embodiments by Kim Brookes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Permission to Use.

2 thoughts on “Material Embodiments

  1. Kimmy, I really enoyed your lengthy babble about the table and chairs that Susan surely will agree the time has come to share those old possessions (thought to be very valuable) and hope the new owners love them as she did and pray the chairs stay glued!!

  2. I absolutely love this! I’m glad that you’re trying to move on and re-establish you. I know that it’s not easy, but you will find happiness again one day.

    I’d really like to see you write about how you met Susan and how you fell in love. Write about your life together and how you decided to have your amazing son.

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