My parents, who (particularly in the latter decades of their marriage) didn’t agree on much, did share a sort of eclectic visual sensibility. This was good: my father, who was an artist and designer, might have ridden roughshod over my mother had they not. But in fact, with this huge space to fill (the living room alone was something like 2500 square feet–not to mention the kitchen, hallway, two small downstairs rooms, and four bedrooms upstairs in what had once been the haylofts), and if one of them had wanted colonial pine and the other Swedish moderne…well, it could have been ugly.
In fact, my parents’ aesthetic was an interesting blend of modern and antique. They’d fall in love with a piece and then find the proper setting for it. In order to find all these nifty things my parents spent a lot of time in antique stores, trolling for treasures. My brother and I spent a lot of time in antique stores too. We were trained very early not to touch, not to break, and if all else failed, to hang out in the driveway drawing pictures in the dust or trying to balance on fence-rails or perching on rocks or otherwise finding ways to amuse ourselves while Mom and Dad continued their (to us) inscrutable search for milk glass, dictionary stands, and library benches, as well as the big pieces that sometimes led to mayhem.
What kind of mayhem? The table that ultimately graced the kitchen at the Barn was a big old Victorian round, five feet across, with a massive carved pedestal. Unfortunately, Mom and Dad discovered it in Brooklyn rather than the Berkshires, and the antique store wasn’t about to deliver. So my brother and I were left at the Barn under the care of my patient Aunt Julie, while the ‘rents fetched the table and drove up to Massachusetts with it in a U-Haul. They launched into this adventure believing that the trip would take its usual three hours portal to portal. Instead they got lost. First in Brooklyn, picking up the table. Then after discovering that they could not take a car with a U-Haul on their usual route (the Taconic Parkway), they got superlatively, extravagantly lost–an epic degree of lostness with which even the Donner Party could not compete. That three hour trip blossomed into something like eight hours, at the end of which they were not speaking to each other or anyone else.
We, unaware of the lostness, had gone on about our lives as usual at the Barn, not-dying and playing. I made a cake (my very first baked-by-myself cake; I think I was eight) and was waiting for the folks to show up and rain praise and delight upon me. Then the parents arrived, snarling, and my cake was forgotten. Ah, well.
The table waited until the next day for unloading. Once it was assembled, it was a thing of beauty and a focal point for the room. Points for aesthetics; for logistics, not so much. For years after that my mother would groom the table, rubbing it down with linseed oil, in which she had an almost mystic faith, then spending hours rubbing the oil into the grain and off the surface. Sadly, as years went by and my mother’s health deteriorated, she kept applying the linseed oil, but her rubbing into-and-off technique went way down hill. By the time she died, the surface of the table was just a little gummy.
A year or two after Mom’s death, my father had invited his sisters (Ethel, Eva, Ronda and Linda) to visit. As we sat around talking one night after dinner, first one sister (Eva?), then another (Ethel, I think) and then finally all of them started rubbing irritably at a bit of the table with their napkins. Before long I had been sent into Dad’s workshop for fine steel wool and rags; our entire post-prandial activity that night involved ungumming the kitchen table, continuing the conversation as we rubbed at the object which had almost caused my parents to kill each other. We continued working on the table for several days, until the old oil had been stripped away, a new coat of oil applied, and the table buffed to an appropriate and non-sticky glow. Mom would have been delighted.
Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf. Her first two Regency romances, Althea and My Dear Jenny, are now available from Book View Café. She has just completed The Salernitan Women, set in medieval Italy, and a new Sarah Tolerance novel, The Sleeping Partner (which will be out in October of 2011 from Plus One Press).