In my fifty-some years of adulthood only once before have I had to furnish a nearly-empty home, and that was when I was 19 and the apartment was so small you could roll a desk chair across it without the chair losing momentum.
As a child, of course, the furniture in the room I shared with my sister was chosen by our mother. The whole house was furnished with heirlooms and refinished antiques and pieces that Mother hand-painted in the Pennsylvania Dutch style.
My college dorm room was furnished, though at that time I was so slovenly that it was difficult to find the furniture under all my stuff. When my boyfriend, Joe, and I decided to elope, our possessions consisted of our clothes, two milk crates, a coffee pot, my portable record player, Joe’s car, and my collection of Storybook dolls. We furnished our first apartment (the very small one) with castoffs, some literally found out on the street on garbage collection day.
Through the years, as children came and Joe was hired for better-paying jobs, we moved through a series of very similar three-bedroom “rambler” homes. Whatever furniture we had collected in one home fit in pretty much the same place in the next home. The criterion for selecting this furniture was not comfort, nor style, but cost.
A few years after Joe died I sold my Michigan house and its furnishings and moved to the West Coast. In Berkeley and Oakland I rented furnished apartments while I earned my masters degree and worked among the street people of San Francisco. When I moved to Whidbey Island in 2001 I bought a furnished house.
In 2009 I sold that small house, furnished. I had bought a large, totally EMPTY house; but not to worry: this would be a house-share with a friend who believed, as I do, that it’s silly for just one person to live alone in a house, using all the appliances and space and utilities that could better be used by two or more. The new house would be filled mostly with her furniture, while I would contribute a hutch, a couch, and two chairs, plus my great-grandmother’s four-poster bed for my bedroom. Now, in 2015, my friend and her furniture have moved on to a smaller place of her own.
I couldn’t bring myself (to say nothing of my credit card) to buy new matching furniture for my large, now-nearly-empty home. No matter how beautiful, such furniture would feel lifeless because there would be no story, no history imbued in it. Besides, my sense of style is more . . . “mixed,” shall we say, or maybe “mongrel.”
So now I’m buying used furniture, other people’s furniture, one piece at a time, from thrift stores, or friends, or one of the websites of things for sale. This evolving furniture “motif” has no single name, like Jacobean, or Colonial, or Victorian. Instead it comprises a question: “what pieces of furniture make me happy?” That’s what holds the “style” together: whatever I buy “matches” whatever else I’ve bought, simply because it pleases me. And it feels as if it has a history.
And so it is that lately I find myself listening, at quiet times during the night, to see if I can overhear one piece of furniture telling another what its story is, as they marvel together at the unexpectedness of meeting in a house that welcomes them all.
I look forward to listening to my next housemate’s stories in the same way, against the background hum of stories murmured by well-loved furniture.