The Great Divorce in our family took place in California back in the 1970’s. Along with moving herself and children to the bottom half of a stucco two-family house with a Spanish tile roof, my mother launched into her new reality by making a considerably pricey purchase of four bentwood Thonet Hoffman style cane chairs made out of beech, imported from Poland, along with a simple butcher block table. The clean, simple 1920’s design of the furniture, which is attributed to Austrian architects Josef Hoffman and Josef Frank, was (I believe) representing her desire for a new, clear, uncluttered start in life.
The purchase of these chairs was not made lightly. She was careful and frugal; the chairs were pricey back then, which we were reminded of often enough when she asked us to “stop rocking back in that chair!” , to “sit up right in that chair!” and to “stop kicking that chair!” Having come from a background of very little, my mother cherished and took care of her possessions and expected the same respect from us. Her furniture, along with everything else she owned, remained clean and intact for years.
Following his defection from the family, my father apparently also had plans for an uncluttered change. His new apartment in Santa Monica was filled with glass, chrome, neutral colors, a girlfriend……and a new set of four Thonet Hoffman style bentwood cane chairs imported from Poland – identical to my mother’s. Neither of them had any idea that the other had gone out and bought the exact same furniture upon separating. It was so odd that I was afraid to mention it to the other. They really were more alike than either realized.
After a number of years, my remarried father and his chairs eventually made their way east to the state of Connecticut. Due to a lifestyle change in both taste and income, a number of pieces of his furniture generously came up for grabs, including his four bentwood chairs. Although they were really not “my style”, ever the scavenger, I ended up taking them to where I was then living in upstate New York (having migrated east myself) and added them to the hodge-podge of mismatched furniture in my kitchen.
Over the following years those cane chairs survived a Then-Husband and two children, a toddler nephew who lived with us for a while, a Then-Fiance, two almost step-children, everyone’s friends, numerous Thanksgivings, birthday parties and gatherings. We have sat in them while drinking tea, glasses of wine, rolling cookie dough, coloring and drawing, dying Easter eggs, holding babies, doing homework and science projects, finishing taxes, mending clothes, sewing costumes, sharing secrets, arguing, laughing, crying. They have held up under a lot.
The most abuse they took actually came from a much loved almost-uncle Bachelor Roommate who insisted on regularly plopping his entire weight down onto any chair or couch instead of just sitting down like a normal person. Because of his propensity for doing this, despite being constantly reminded not to, the cane attachments on the seats of a couple of the chairs began to break. He also used to come home from his job in dirty clothes and sit on the furniture, which caused the cane seats to begin to darken, despite my diligent cleaning. Considering these chairs were coming into their third generation of use and had survived shipping across the ocean, transport across the country, been moved in the back of pick-up trucks, endured years of oatmeal, smashed peas and fidgety children and still held up well, it was a bit upsetting to have that happen. Sigh. Some guys, I swear…..
The other four chairs, my mother’s bentwood chairs, eventually also migrated east when she did, from California to Pennsylvania Amish country. They remained in pristine condition until the day she died, when I took them home with me to upstate New York and united them at the table with my father’s more battered but otherwise identical chairs. Now I had eight of them, and I admit there was an odd satisfaction that although my parents were never together again, their chairs were. The chairs continued to survive teenagers, their girlfriends, boyfriends, family events and my Significant Other, who is also a bit rough on furniture.
Oldest Daughter grew up, moved out, married and had children. I gave her the butcher block table and her grandparent’s eight chairs, which headed up to New England and ended up in the state of Rhode Island, where they have endured yet another generation of swinging legs and spilled sippy cups. The initial damage done by Bachelor Roommate has been exacerbated by a pack of little boys who are constantly in motion while they play with their trucks and Legos, causing the cane on some of them to finally give way. The others – probably originally my mother’s – have seen considerable use, although they are still intact. Eventually Oldest Daughter decided she needed something a bit more solid for her kids to sit on, and so she returned them to me – complete with crayon, oatmeal, milk, Play-Doh and other unidentifiable substances dried onto them. In my mind I can see my mother’s face of disapproval at their condition, although I know she would have been happy they had gotten so much use, all the way down to her great-grandchildren.
The chairs have now made their way from Rhode Island back to upstate New York again, to the big old Victorian house where I presently dwell. They have traveled through at least two countries, resided in four states and witnessed a whole lot of life.
I wish I had a bright, airy sun porch or another room where these chairs could be utilized, but I don’t. They could be cleaned up and repaired, but the simple design of these Josef Hoffman style chairs are dwarfed by the high ceilings, large window frames and a fireplace mantle with heavy columns and roaring lion heads that adorn this old house.
They just don’t work well in this space. Subsequently, they ended up in a storage garage, and most recently, dragged up to the attic. Sadly and a bit surprisingly, other family members have no interest in them.
I kept thinking that “someday” I would be able to use them somewhere again. I appreciate the simple design a lot more now than I did when I was younger. Aside from the fact they once belonged to my parents who are no longer here, they also represented the new hopes, changes and fresh starts that each one of us who has owned them had experienced. I have learned though that sometimes “someday” never comes. (Conversely, I have also learned that often as soon as you get rid of something, you are suddenly in a position where you really could have used it). However, feeling burdened by “too much stuff,” I decided it was finally time to let them go. But this is not the type of thing you just put up for grabs out on the sidewalk. The chairs are still made today by Thonet and they are still expensive.
There are eight chairs lined up in the hallway downstairs at the moment, awaiting the scrutiny of a possible buyer who has expressed interest but may or may not show up, which seems to often be the case when trying to sell something these days. If that falls through, they will probably end up at the local auction house. I am anticipating there will be a feeling of lightness from unburdening once they are gone, but right now all I am feeling is a bit sad.