It\’s the depths of winter in Vermont. The deer in their deer yards and the bears in their dens are using up the last of their fat reserves. By this time each year, after months of having the heat on and despite the clouds of steam billowing out of our humidifier, my furniture, like me, is starving for moisture. The few wooden pieces that survived our downsizing look dull and gray, not unlike how many New Englanders feel about this time of year.
My husband and I didn\’t buy any of these pieces. They came to us almost fifty years ago from his Alabama grandparents, who knew that, as graduate students with two babies, we could barely afford to feed ourselves, let alone buy tables and dressers and chairs. Transplanted to the north country, in winter this Southern furniture wilts like a camellia in a New England garden. It wants care, nourishment, attention. It wants oil.
|Household Goddess Bearing Oil and Rag, ca. 2017 A.D.|
I get my bottle of furniture oil and look for a rag. I have very few rags now, having purged most of them in the Great Downsizing. I finally find one in which I recognize a piece of an old baby blanket and go to work on Grandma Ruby Violet\’s walnut dresser. It has two funny little drawers that used to hold her six pairs of white gloves, and where I now keep broken jewelry and old eyeglasses. The dry wood soaks up the oil thirstily, and I have to give it some extra passes with my rag.
Ruby Violet\’s kitchen table, now promoted to dining table, comes next. RV could hit a squirrel out of a magnolia tree with her .22, but she was a terrible cook, Her table is adorned with the circular burn marks made by the cast iron frying pan in which she cooked her fried chicken, the one dish at which she excelled. I love this beat-up old table, and massage oil into its every dent and crack.
The wobbly gate-leg sewing table, which I polish next, bears the marks of the serrated tracing wheel that RV used to transfer pattern markings onto fabric. RV liked to sew. For my honeymoon she made me a two-piece bathing suit, white with green polka dots, that scandalized my parents, who couldn\’t believe that my future grandmother-in-law would sew me such a daring garment.
Lastly I turn to an item known in the family as \”Grandpappy\’s made-on-a boat chest.\” It\’s a vaguely Victorian piece made by a ship\’s carpenter as his steamboat sailed down the Mississippi. I have a vision of this carpenter, bored and sweating in the Delta heat, swatting mosquitoes and humming Negro spirituals to the beat of the paddle wheels as he sawed and planed.
It\’s the pathetic fallacy, I know, but I\’ll say it anyway: as I go around the cottage rubbing oil into wood with my rag I can practically sense the chests and tables relax and expand under my touch, can almost hear them heave a grateful sigh. When I\’m done, I look at the scented, glowing wood around me and heave a sigh myself. Fallacy or not, feeding furniture is not a bad way to pass the time until that day in mud season when I can finally turn off the heat, open the windows, and let in some moist spring air.
Oh, Lali, I love this – the stories around the furniture, and the sense of them relaxing! I've inherited a table from my mother, and I have my great-grandmother's piano, so I know that there are stories, and real people, behind each item. Your description of RV is wonderful.
Maybe some of the spirits that are supposed to live in trees stay in the wood when it's made into furniture.
Ruby Violet—what a wonderful name. Does Violette come by it partially that way? I love all these stories. And today, only five days later, it is 70 degrees—is the furniture happy about that too?
Wonderful to hear your voice again and smell the furniture oil. Hearing of Ed's people as Alabama people was something I had not thought before but it reassured me that indeed there must be some good folks down there.
We actually turned off the humidifier for 24 hrs., and came close to opening the windows. This morning: snow on the ground.
And I want to hear your voice IN PERSON. Lunch soon?