Stories in Old Furniture
As published in Silver Sage Magazine May 3, 2021
None of the furniture in our house is particularly valuable but each piece priceless in terms of the memories and history it represents, and each has its own story. There’s a stuffed armchair where my brother sat, me curled on his lap covered in a big quilt while he read me bed-time stories. There’s a cedar hope chest, now serving as a coffee table, that belonged to my partner’s grandmother. It once held her trousseau but now protects intricate quilts she fashioned from scraps of worn clothing. We have a tiny stool that my mother-in-law paid twenty-five cents for so she could be seated while waiting for the then Queen Elizabeth (later better known as the Queen Mother) to walk by during a royal visit to Toronto in 1939. My mother-in-law, and her father before her, were born on the pine bed in our guest room. So many stories are connected to these artifacts of family life.
There are far fewer pieces from my side of the family. My parents emigrated from Holland and were restricted as to the things they could bring with them. One item that made the journey was a small oak side table. We recently had this piece taken apart, repaired, and refinished by a cabinetmaker who specializes in restoration. It was important to me that it would be well preserved for the next generation.
Hand-made about 1930 by my Opa (grandfather), the table is fashioned in English oak and is one of only two such small pieces made by him to survive the war years. Much of the rest of the furniture he crafted was burned to heat the house during the Nazi occupation. My mother brought the tables with her when she came to Canada in 1956. The one we have was Opa’s smoking table, and he kept his round brass “tabak” (tobacco) tin on top. You can still see the faint circle in the centre, and there are scorch marks from his pipe and some small cigars. My cousin has the original tabak tin. It is shaped like a large acorn and is quite ornate.
In the photo, you can see the pieces of the table when it was taken apart. The workmanship utilizes three different joints, all beautifully executed with hand tools. According to our restorer, the piece demonstrates that Opa was a master craftsman. The style of the table is Art Deco and indicates that he also had a very good eye for design. The table would likely have been a showpiece to demonstrate his skills. It has now been re-glued and given a hand-rubbed finish to replicate the way in which it was originally assembled and completed.
In many ways, the history of our little table is the history of so many of us. Whether we have chosen, or even been able, to hang on to objects that have been passed down through generations of our families or not, most people will eventually wonder about the value of those things they leave behind. Legacy is something I find myself thinking about from time to time. Like many of my friends, I have undertaken some serious (albeit intermittent) decluttering. We’re giving away boxes of books, clothes we no longer need for a working life, and things we simply don’t use. But these special pieces of furniture and the stories that they represent are not things I can ever part with. In fact, I’m writing down the provenance for some of the most special ones and placing the records in our family photo album in order to preserve the stories for the next generation. They may or may not choose to cherish and keep these pieces as we have done. I will at least know that there is a possibility for the stories they represent to be told and re-told, so that the threads that join the generations will have been recorded.