I started the day so well. Before 9 a.m., I finally ironed the candle wax off the tablecloth that had been in the laundry basket since October. For good measure, I ironed the cotton dress from August and the 12 linen napkins from Christmas dinner, too. Time is short; finished projects are few. That’s the beauty of ironing. It can get done.
The real task of the day is harder. I am removing my mother’s treasure trove of furniture from her home. It hurts me that my mother’s wonderful tall chests-on-chests and armoires, her dark walnut dining table and Sheraton occasional tables, have no true market value in today’s minimalism and IKEA mobility. Today the movers came and started breaking up the careful if idiosyncratic symmetry of my mother’s 60 years of antique and whimsical curation. Gold mirrors galore and Persian rugs. Masks from Kenya, stacks of Antiques in America, and a pretty complete collection of The New Republic. I found a whole drawer of gray knee socks left over from our school uniform days. Right next to the drawer that still had each of her three kids’ report cards, starting with kindergarten. (Revelation: My first-grade teacher’s comments tell me that I was doomed to be a problem from the get-go. “Frequently talks out of turn.”)
We’ve done all the right things so far as a family. We’ve had everything appraised. The five grandchildren and I have marked our choices with a rainbow of painter’s tape. My tape color is new-grass green. My nephew Henry’s is powder blue. Katie is purple, Evi is evergreen, Nick is yellow, and Carter is orange. Trash and giveaways are red. There is a lot of red.
I have been rationing the time I spend in my mother’s apartment. She never moved from the day she and my father came back from World War II with my brother as a baby. Over six decades, she collected and collected, and never edited. Her house is a sort of archaeology of what people liked in the second half of the 20th century. I can sit in the living room and remember how we kids played jacks on the rug. The painful piano lessons and the family trios and quartets, supervised by our mean music teacher, Miss Clarke. My sister and I with our Ginny dolls on the floor of the library. The time my brother fired a BB gun through the window by mistake. I look at the ashtrays and can smell my father’s after-dinner Garcia y Vega cigars. My job was to keep the little thing in the cigar box moist so the cigars didn’t dry out. I also used to wash the table after our noisy and messy family dinners.
I’ve been mourning and remembering for four months.
But today was different. It started to be OK. And my mother’s passing is helping me through a passage of my own. I’ve decided I want to reclaim some of the “priceless/worthless” antiques and bring them to my house. My grown daughters aren’t coming home. They visit and are generous with their time. But there’s no need to maintain their bedrooms as shrines. They don’t work so well as shrines now, anyhow; the chaste twin beds were long ago replaced by king-sized beds that accommodate lovers, husbands, and children. A king bed looks a little funny with a toy chest at the foot, like an anklet on an elephant.
So, back to today. I spent last week tearing out all the white IKEA-style built-in desks and armoires in each kid’s room, and discovering how much painting and patching needs to happen when you unbolt built-ins that have been in place for a couple of decades. Everything my kids have left behind is piled on the aforementioned king beds. As painters go to work, white and pink and powder blue give way to warm sesame and summer melon. One room is getting the peachy velvety fainting couch and a tall dark walnut chest. The other bedroom is getting an elegant white settee and my father’s leather topped bill-paying desk. (OK, I’m not so sure about the desk. We might go with the French inlaid secretary bookcase instead.)
But that’s not the point. Furniture can play musical chairs. The house is big. The point is: I am moving on, and so is the furniture. New rooms for guests and my girls when they visit. A new look at the objects my mom loved so much. Thank you, Mom. For all of it, and for the big ugly chests-on-chests that I promise to try to love.
Louisa Kasdon ’72 is a freelance writer and editor based in Cambridge, Mass.