Saturday, 16 July 2011

A Tale Of Two Chests

In our hallway, there is a wooden chest with iron fittings and handles. It isn't an especially beautiful piece of furniture, but I prize it greatly. Not only is it useful -- you can put clothes into it and years later they will smell as sweet and fresh as the day you stored them -- but it was a real find: my husband saw it on the local rubbish heap between a rusty refrigerator and a set of broken plywood shelves. When he brought it home, spattered with rain and mud, we had no idea it was anything special.

The chest was relatively light but bulky, composed of three parts which could be neatly stacked on top of each other. I didn't appreciate it at first; it had obviously spent decades in somebody's kitchen, and while the wood wasn't warped, it was a dull, drab color from years of exposure to kerosene and cooking smoke. I wrinkled my nose as I opened the drawers, expecting the stale fug of old, damp furniture, but was pleasantly surprised by the sweet-resin smell of fresh-cut wood. Over the next few weeks, the chest only rose in my estimation: although clothes put into our other chests-of-drawers quickly dampened and furred over with mildewed in Tokyo's humidity, whatever I put in this one stayed fresh and sweet-smelling.

One day, a friend came over. As soon as she saw our new chest, her eyes lit up. "Where did you get the Paulownia chest?" she asked. I told her, and she shook her head in amazement. "You were so lucky! Those cost a bundle nowadays."

"Why would someone throw it away then?"

"It was probably some young person going through the effects of an elderly relative. Somebody who didn't know any better." She ran her hand over the top of our chest. "This is a really good one, too -- at least 60 or 70 years old."

My friend told me that her family's Paulownia chests were sanded down at the end of every year. The iron fittings and handles were removed first. Afterwards, the freshly-sanded chests looked and smelled brand new. "You can keep anything in a Paulownia chest," she said. "Silk kimono, pillows, bedding -- nothing will sour, and the moths won't touch it. Hang onto it." Even if she hadn't admired it so, I was already loathe to part with it. Because if something you pick up for a song is special, something you find on the rubbish heap is even more so: it reminds you of your good luck and your good sense.

We brought another chest-of-drawers back from Japan too, an even larger, heavier one that made us sweat and curse as we heaved it through narrow doorways and up the stairs. We bought it in a used furniture store in Abiko, in the summer of 1998, on a day so hot that the sweat rolled off us as we stood, fanning ourselves in the air-conditioned shop. In fact, the heat made us choose hastily: it was solid and beautifully crafted, but it was far too big for our tiny house. For years, it overwhelmed our cramped little living room.

The clerk who showed us the furniture was a personable young Ghanaian man who spoke English and fluent, unaccented Japanese. "I know he's wasted on us!" the proprietor of the shop told me. "He studies all the time, that's all he does. Up in that little room of his -- you should see all his books! Japanese, law, politics." She fanned herself with a furniture pamphlet. "If he was Japanese, he could be prime minister of Japan in a couple of years, I'm not kidding."

When we left Japan, we brought both chests with us to Scotland. The second year we were back, I took the handles and fittings off the Paulownia chest and sanded it with the finest sandpaper I could find. I like to think about the long life it had before it came to us. I try to imagine it in the kitchen of some Japanese family, where it no doubt saw out the war. I wonder if the family crouched near its bulk during air raids, if the woman who opened the drawers to put things in and take them out was as comforted and cheered by the sweet smell of its wood as I am. And I wonder what she would have thought if she had known the future her chest would have, going off on its own adventure with an an Anglo-American family.

I look at our large, sturdy chest-of-drawers too, and try to remember how hot it was the day we bought it, how freely we sweated, standing in that used furniture shop, running our hands over its wood. I wonder what happened to the young Ghanaian man, whether he is still in Japan, what he managed to achieve. My memory is stretched just trying to conjure up the heat of that day, what a headache it was getting that chest into our house, and how ridiculously oversized it looked in our living room.

And I can't help but wonder: what adventures will my furniture will have after we have parted ways?


Carole said...

Great post. Loved the word pictures. I am not sure I've ever felt close to my furniture. Well, I do have a cedar chest that my dad made when he was fifteen. It is pretty special.

Robin said...

It's funny - I was actually thinking of this very subject the last time I visited my parents. They have a living room sofa from the 70's Scandinavian craze that they love so much, they reupholstered it rather than get a new one when then moved. I grew up with this sofa. I wondered what would happen to it when the awful day comes that they die. I don't have room for it, but can't bare the thought of it with strangers. I can't imagine a day without my parents or their sofa around.

Vijaya said...

As always, Mary, you spark my imagination. I think a kitten might have made its home in the chest, on some soft woolen blankets.

I have an old piano that I've carted around everywhere. The wood resonates all the tones beautifully. My husband jokes that I ought to leave it behind this time (we're moving to SC very soon) since we have a keyboard as well, but I can't bear to part with it. I wonder if my children will think of it as a burden and dump it if I bequeath it to them.

Anne M Leone said...

What a beautiful post! Now I wish I had a Paulownia chest! It sounds absolutely incredible, almost magical.

It's funny, not only do we travel with so many objects, but with so many memories and stories. Sometimes I think about those stories that won't leave my head and wonder if it's because I'm supposed to do something with them, somehow use them in my writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

it's amazing some times how human memories get embedded in and attached to inanimate objects. This illustrates it perfectly. I have memories like this myself

MG Higgins said...

Your posts are always beautiful, but this one especially touched me. Our house is 110 years old and I often think of the people who lived here at the turn of the century--what their lives were like and how different the area must have been. Some of the interior woodwork in the house has never been painted, and it amazes me to think that I'm seeing the stair banister, for example, exactly as the original owners would have seen it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

There is a show on public television here called "Antiques Roadshow" where people bring in their antiques and find out how valuable (or worthless) they are.

A recent episode were things that people had recovered from other's trash or the dump. Remarkable things like the trunk you speak of.

Often it is the old people who throw things out. We were helping an elderly set of grandparents move from their lifelong rural home. Things there weren't going to take they threw out on the "burn pile". On was a beautiful pendulum school clock. The younger relatives pounced on the clock and rescued it before it was burned. The grandparents were apparently far more happy with a plastic battery operated clock from the local WalMart they didn't have to wind up over that "old thing"!

Vijaya said...

I had to go look up what this Paulownia chest is ... lovely.

I have a rosewood chest that my husband brought home from India. Usually my daughter puts some stuffed animals in there :)

I lovelovelove cedar boxes.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Lucky you! When I was a kid, I was told that if I ever went back to my mother's hometown in Kentucky, one of my cousins would make me a cedar hope chest (that's how old-fashioned we were -- girls in our family still got hope chests). I never managed to go back during the time my furniture-making cousins were active, and I still long for a cedar chest.

Robin -- My best friend's parents had Danish modern furniture in their house too. Every time I see Danish modern furniture now, I remember how happy and comfortable I was sitting in my friend's house.

In our house, we had Green Stamps fake wood furniture. It just wasn't the same.

Vijaya -- When our first daughter was born, we bought an old pine chest-of-drawers to put her baby clothes in. I fantasized that she would take it off to university with her, but in fact, she loathes this chest-of-drawers and wants nothing to do with it. That makes me sad, but we can't expect our kids to treasure the things we love, especially bulky stuff like furniture. The ideal thing is to find somebody who will prize it. I hope your piano goes to someone who appreciates its worth!

(You're moving to South Carolina? Argh, the packing!)

Anne -- It really is beautiful wood, aromatic, light-weight, and very similar to cedar. What I really covet is a sandalwood chest!

Charles -- Mercifully, my sister took all the stuff from the house we grew up in. I didn't want the plastic coffee tables or worn-out couch, but it would have broken my heart to see them thrown out.

MG -- I feel exactly the same. I put my hand on our stair banister and wonder how many people before have stood just where I'm standing, waiting to go up the stairs. When I look out the windows, I think about all of the people who have enjoyed the view of sheep and rolling hills.

All the woodwork in our house had been painted, dozens of times, it seemed: I sanded it all down by hand and it took forever to get all those layers off.

Robert -- My mother did the same thing with a spinning wheel and her old washboards (which she actually used once when our washing machine broke down). She was amazed that anyone could consider such things worthy of being collected. For us kids, they had a novelty appeal -- we'd never used them ourselves -- but for our mother, they represented backbreaking toil. She'd definitely have preferred the plastic wind-up clock to some old pendulum number. Sad, isn't it?

Vijaya -- Me too! Cedar is my favorite wood of all -- I have a whole collection of cedar jewellery boxes.

Bish Denham said...

I've never heard of that kind of chest before, but I feel that I'm just on the verge of being able to smell it.

I have a grandfather's clock my grandfather made in high school. It works like a charm. And my sister has a mahogany truck made by our great grandfather for our grandmother. These things are dear and I hope they will be passed on to a member of the family who will appreciate them.

Pat said...

'Hope chest' sounds much nicer than 'bottom drawer'.
I must google. I love the thought of a sweet smelling chest.

Turquoise Diaries said...

Hello Mary,
lots of funny and lovely posts on your blog.. I enjoyed reading them on this hot summer day..
See you soon again..

angryparsnip said...

I felt I could see the chest as I read your post today.
What a lucky day for you when your husband was walking by that rubbish heap that day.

cheers, parsnip

Adrienne said...

I love old trunks and all their mysteries, and I was curious enough to google Paulownia - pretty tree and furniture!

I have an antique rocking horse I bought on impulse in New York, then spent a fortune shipping to CA. I can't help wondering who once played on it.

Angela Ackerman said...

That's interesting, isn't it--thinking about what will happen to our treasure once we pass on. I hope that thing I care about go to a good home, be it with my kids or elsewhere.

Almost six months ago now, my grandmother passed away. We went down for the memorial (a funeral was out of the question due to the time of year and the wintery roads) and stayed in her home. It was tough, especially when I came in and saw my Aunt and Uncle had put out all the contents of her life on every available counter and table so that loved ones could go through and choose things to remember her by.

It was...surreal to see the sum of one's life laid out bare like that. I broke down and cried when I spotted the chipped crystal-like bowls my Grandma would make jello in...dinner at her house always finished with jello and Bananas. And of course, I took them home with me too.

Hugs Mary! I hope all is well with you. I know I don't get here as often as I'd like these days, but know that I am always completely captivated by your life stories when I do pop in. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us. :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse