Sunday, May 20, 2012

Revitalizing our heirlooms and our hearts

Daddy and Mama's five-drawer dresser-- 2012.

Mama's vanity, 2012. Its metal stool padded with satin wore out over the years.

It’s easy to distress furniture.

Just put five or six good-sized rocks into an old sock and flail away at your piece like a Mafia hitman.

Wipe the sweat off your brow, and voila—you’ve got a beat-up antique.

My mother would never forgive me if I did that to anything, let alone her precious bedroom set.

Besides, it’s no stranger to distress.

My parents could seldom afford new or matching furniture, with one exception.  During the 1950s, after an exceptional wheat harvest, Daddy and Mama bought a bona fide bedroom set: a tall, five-drawer dresser, a vanity with a large square mirror and tiny satin-covered stool, a three-drawer nightstand and a double bed with square headboard and footboard. In blond oak, the lines were clean and sleek in the “Scandinavian Contemporary” style. With a red satin bedspread, their bedroom was complete.

A dresser drawer shows the original oak finish and brass hardware.

The double bed seemed vast to me 53 years ago, when at age four, I crowded in with my parents.  Though Mama gave me three inches on her side of the bed, I thought they were extremely selfish not to scoot over a little—after all, they had a lavish 54-inch wide mattress!

I look at the bed now, and it has shrunk.  How did two full-sized adults and sometimes a baby sister manage to spare even three inches for me?

Sometimes my sisters or I brought a tummy-ache with us, so the bed and nightstand no doubt received an occasional baptism in vomit.

We moved twice a year—at the end of May, to our dry farm home, and at the end of September, to a rental house in town. Daddy and his moving crew—sometimes his sons, heaven help us if it was his wife and daughters—loaded furniture into the farm truck for the 20-mile trip. Sometimes the dresser and vanity stayed in town through the summer; other times they were moved. 

One term depicts moving day: “%&**%$#.” Daddy was always in a hurry to load and unload.  He could back that truck up nearly to the doors of the two houses covering some of the steps and saving a lot of work for his crew.

He took all the furniture in one trip—and it was up to Mama to haul pots and pans, clothing and books in numerous round trips by car.

Lacking muscle, I was often assigned to carry the slats, wooden boards that supported the mattress.

Though Mama swaddled her precious bedroom set with quilts and blankets, it got banged around—Dad’s famous saying about what it did to furniture was: “Seven moves is as good as a fire.”

The large dresser and vanity filled both of the small bedrooms my parents used. Like many folks during the 1950’s and 60’s, Daddy smoked, and some of his smoldering Camels stained pieces of the set.  Luckily, cigarette burns were the worst consequence of the times he dozed off while smoking.

Daddy and Mama shared the big dresser, and stored important papers in the middle drawer, which had three compartments. One of them held memories of Holly, their daughter who lived only four months—her birth certificate, the few photos they had of her, some tiny baby clothes. On June 6, 1976, the Teton Dam burst ten miles east of us.  As we rushed to get out of the flood’s path, Mama wrestled that drawer out of the dresser and into the car trunk. She was the only one who had the sense to grab irreplaceable items.

The three section drawer held my parents' important papers.

Daddy died in 1989.  Mama kept a pair of his jeans unwashed in the dresser for quite a while. Sometimes she buried her face in the worn denim, in his scent.

Mama died in 2009 and some of us gathered on a Memorial Day weekend to sort and inventory her things—a big job, since with her Great Depression mentality, she saved everything. Then we gathered on a summer weekend to distribute her belongings.

My brothers pitched an army tent in the yard to cover our parents’ possessions. Our oldest sister, the executor of the estate, had come up with a great system: we placed the names of her eight living children, and of a grand daughter representing her deceased daughter, into a hat. For each item on the inventory, a name was drawn, and that person got the item.  After nine draws, the names went back into the hat and we started over.

Previously, we had each indicated which three items were most important to us, so negotiation, consideration of others’ desires, and trading went on throughout the process. At sundown, all had meaningful legacies and there was plenty left for the grandchildren before one truckload went to Deseret Industries and another went to the dump.

I was happy to inherit the bedroom set. Once more, my brother and nephew wrapped the furniture in blankets and loaded it into my son’s small truck.  The Scandinavian Contemporary bedroom set rode across Idaho, blasted by heat, plastered by bugs and shaken by semis.

All the way, I wished that the set looked like it did the first time they brought it home in the truck. 

A professional quoted a hefty price to sand, stain and re-varnish the pieces. Someone suggested distressing it—but I didn’t have the heart to punish it any more than our family already had!

For 18 months the bedroom set sat in the crowded garage as I pondered how my amateur DIY efforts might destroy my inheritance. When our son got married and begged for a dresser for their unfurnished apartment, I gave him the one I’d been using, and with my clothes hanging out of laundry baskets, I had to do something. I decided to paint.

As I sanded and puttied the gouges and burns, memories flooded in. On a drawer, a child had scratched “Mom,” starting with an extra tall M.

“Which of my delinquent siblings vandalized this dresser?” I wondered.

On the next drawer, “Dab” was scratched in the same style. 

Dad's drawer labeled "Dab".

It all came back.  Mrs. Van Houten, my second teacher, despaired that I would ever figure out the difference between d and b.  “You’ll be ‘Deddie’ all your life,” she said. 

As I sanded, I remembered myself as a child, scratching the dresser with my baby sister’s ducky-headed diaper pin. A snoopy big sister caught me and punished me, but “Big deal,” I thought—I had labeled those drawers! (As if my parents needed help remembering whose drawer was whose.)

I haven’t changed much—my husband chides me for labeling pantry shelves, saying, “We can tell the difference between green beans and peaches!”

Somebody—not me—wrote in crayon on the dresser box behind a drawer. There was a lot of dirt in the bottom three drawers and the box behind them, probably from the dresser being stored at the farm for a time.

The vanity after being sanded.

The dresser after being puttied, living in our garage.

Yes, it was gouged and burned, but the furniture is solid, with tongue and groove workmanship, as sturdy as the day it was built—1951, says the stamp on the back of each piece. 

When I painted the nightstand, I hoped to replicate its former blond oak color, but I choose a shade too dark and even with some careful antiquing by my husband, it didn’t have the look I wanted.  It sits in the home of our daughter, Emily, who just moved from a tiny home to a big home—an heirloom to anchor her to our shared past.

I chose a creamy ivory paint for the vanity and large dresser, and replaced their tarnished bronze hardware.

Close-up of paint and hardware on vanity.

The dresser sits in our bedroom, massive and beautiful.  In the three-section drawer, my socks and underwear have never had it so good!

Miraculously, the vanity’s 42-inch square mirror, sporting a campy decal of a rose, a compact, lipstick and nail polish, has survived intact.  Clear plastic brackets clamp it to a supporting sheet of wood, which has its own beautiful wood-grain patterns.  The vanity practically shouted, “I need faux crystal handles to match my brackets!”

The wooden frame behind the mirror with beautiful wood grain landscape.

It sits my office, which doubles as “the good guest bedroom” when it isn’t buried in papers. I shared a bedroom growing up, I shared a bedroom in college, and I’ve shared a bedroom during 35 years of marriage.  So the four-year-old in me has decorated this room—my first all-to-myself room—in pink.

My reflection in the vanity mirror has changed through the years, first in my mother’s bedroom, now in mine. Because I see her image in the background, loving me and holding me accountable to her principles, I can look myself in the eyes in that mirror.  I’m glad my grandchildren will be able to see themselves in Mama’s mirror.

Grandchildren can see themselves in my parents' vanity mirror. Notice the small 
decal of rose and make-up in upper left corner.