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Past Lives of Possessions
This afternoon, I covered our dining room table with the white tablecloth my grandmother embroidered over 100 years ago. It’s my favorite tablecloth and I only use it for special occasions, such as Passover, Thanksgiving, or Hanukah which we are celebrating with friends this evening. Every time I spread it across the table, I admire her handiwork; the intricate floral design in blue, green, yellow and rose hues, the blue border and the colorful geometric lines in every corner. I love it because it’s beautiful but mostly, I love it because I know my grandmother created it and used it on her table. I smooth the fold lines, even out the drop on each side of the table and feel close to her even though she has been gone for over 60 years.
I keep all my tablecloths in a pine cedar chest that serves as our coffee table in the living room. When you open it, the sensuous smell of cedar surrounds you in a cloud of perfume. I always look forward to opening the hinged cover and inhaling the first fumes that have been locked inside since the last time I raised the lid. The chest belonged to my husband’s family and was delivered by moving truck along with other hand-me-down antiques to our home in California over forty years ago. His family was hoping these beautiful pieces would be treasured by the next generation just as they had treasured them. With love, my husband refinished the chest and it found a permanent home in our living room.
We weren’t able to find room for all the pieces that were delivered that day but a pine breakfront has presided over the dining room of every house we have lived in. The upper half, which is easily removed from the bottom for moving purposes, has a glass door with shelves to display many of our other treasures. If you look closely at the peaked top, you might notice that a portion of the wood has been repaired, the victim of a pet cockatiel who loved to peck at the surface every time we forgot to watch him.
The dining room table in front of the breakfront is heavy, solid oak with two extension pieces that can be inserted in the middle of the table when it is cranked open with a special handle. I found it at an antique shop somewhere along the ocean drive in Southern California. During the years our children were growing up, it was our family table, always large enough to handle any extra children or adults who stayed for dinner. It has been refinished twice and still looks brand new. When I sit at the table, I like to think about the families that might have sat around it before us; I wonder who they were, what they talked about and why they couldn’t keep the table. I wish the table could talk.
After a lengthy search, we finally bought a table for our lanai. We spend a lot of time in this small room, where we eat breakfast, lunch and (most often) dinner. The room is long and narrow so we needed a rectangle or an oval table that was long enough to seat our children when they were visiting. I visited outdoor furniture stores, Florida furniture stores and classic furniture stores with no luck. Then, my husband and I wandered into the large antique and collectable warehouse store across from Burns Court Theatre in Sarasota and there, in a back corner almost covered by other items, was this long oval wrought iron table with a thick glass top and six chairs (that needed reupholstering). The base had a grape-vine design and an unusual leg structure that was very stable but the top moved gently when you pushed it. The shop owner told us it had been designed especially for a condo balcony in New York City. I imagined the condo owner sitting at the table, a cup of tea in front of her ( I was certain the owner was a woman), staring down at least 20 floors at the people walking in the street below her. Then she moved to Florida and the table had finally ended up in this store on consignment. The table was perfect in every way – it was the right size, came with chairs and had a history! It would find a welcoming home among our other antiques.
Of course, there is still more. We have a small serving table, with large wheels and two drop-leafs, bought in a small shop in Upstate New York. The proprietor told me a man had made the table from a tree that had fallen in his yard and had given it to his daughter. I wondered what had happened to the daughter and why she would give up such a wonderful gift. The cart is a little clumsy and some of the pieces don’t fit quite right but the story sold me.
A large oak hall stand with hooks for your coats, an umbrella well and a seat to take off your shoes commands our doorway, another possession acquired at an antique store during our years in California. It has the stature of furniture created in the North East and I imagine that someone bought it there, then moved to California. I have filled the umbrella well with canes which (unfortunately) I have had need of several times.
We have many possessions that remind us of the three years we lived in Japan: a rattan coffee table and two end tables, two plaques embedded with semi-precious stones found in an antique shop in Hiroshima, two wall screens, several paintings. Our possessions are filled with memories, both from our family and the ghosts of previous owners. Someday our things will move on also, a few to our children, perhaps to our granddaughter, but most will be acquired by new families and will go on to be a part of their life stories. And that’s the way it should be. Maybe I’ll attach this essay to each piece that I’ve mentioned so the new owners will have a little bit of history to go with their new possession.
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