This I Believe

Lonnie - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Entered on June 9, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65

I Believe We Learn What Matters

Lonnie Bell

Somewhere along the line I fell in love with flimsy tea-stained fabrics and cracked leather chairs. Maybe it comes from second children marrying second children, but my husband, Rick, and I tend to like cast offs. We’ve never bought new furniture.

So while J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured his life in coffee spoons. I seem to be meting mine out in slipcovers.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had little money when we got married and that our first sofa was given to us for free by Rick’s grandmother. Circa 1940, the davenport was compact, gray, and yellowed with what I could only hope were coffee stains. It had metal bedsprings and weighed as much as a ’68 volkswagen. But my husband and I were young and so were the friends who lugged it up three flights to our apartment. I transformed it with a gold polyester slipcover from Sears.

After our first child was born, I ordered a custom slipcover of orangey-red floral chintz, a tangle of flower designs. Rather than hiding the sofa’s flaws, this cover dignified the davenport. Having weathered our baby’s first years, however, the cording and seat cushions wore thin. And when our friends balked at moving the old sofa one more time — and Good Will didn’t want it — I seem to recall that my husband took an axe to the couch and left the pieces in the alley by the garbage can.

When we bought our first home, we acquired a camelback sofa and matching chair — these circa 1930 — from the house’s previous owner, Hilda. Hilda had moved into a nursing home, and having no relatives, she’d left most of her belongings behind in the 800 square-foot house. Many of the treasures she’d brought with her when she emigrated from Finland. We found silver fruit knives, a museum-quality roasting pan, a table with round legs. In the garage was a hand-hewn oak armoire, which was painted white and used as a potting shed.

And she left her wedding photos. I studied Hilda’s solemn face, and tried to do justice to her garden. But back then, I was learning to nurture things, and the garden became a mess of perennials growing in compacted, asthmatic clumps.

Gradually, we folded Hilda’s practical beauty into our lives. When we moved for what I proclaimed to be the last time, I rescued a tangle of primroses, and planted them, with a promise, in my new garden.

I also ordered white slipcovers for the brown velour couch and chair.

“White?” recoiled my friends. “White?”. By then, we had two half-grown kids and a black and white Springer spaniel named Fetch, who had squatting rights to the chair.

But I believe in taking some risks.

That same year, as guests arrived to celebrate our wedding anniversary, I pulled out one of Hilda’s embroidered table cloths, set out pieces of silver, plumped and smoothed cushions and said: “We’re serving only white food.” Our three-year-old neighbor, Ryan, had other ideas. He circled the table eating strawberries and cherry tomatoes, spun out of orbit, made a beeline for the couch and threw up red. His dads were dumbstruck. The little boy’s face said it all.

I swooped down to reassure Ryan and wipe his hands and face. Rick removed the cushion covers. “See, they come right off,” he said on the way downstairs to the washing machine.

Those slipcovers wore out as our second child was leaving for college. This time, I went online and found Joe the slipcover man. Joe — whose father had started a family business covering car seats in the 1940s — talked about the fine lines, underment and good bones of old furniture.

“Have you ever met a sofa you didn’t like?” I asked him as he chalked a pattern for my couch.

“Well,” he replied through a mouthful of pins, “There was the one that got thrown out of a second story window by some guys who couldn’t get it out of their apartment. When I showed up, it was on the lawn. But you know? Even that one turned out pretty well.”

Joe delivers my slipcovers early in September. They are white and crisp as January snow. “Not to fear,” he says. “They’re washable.”

In the morning, I drink coffee in the white chair. At dusk, trousers rolled, I water the garden, luminous with primrose.

In the evening, my college roommate stops by, her eyes alight, cheekbones sharp. We drink dark wine on the couch. As windows turn to mirrors, she glimpses her reflection. Straightens her wig. “I always wanted to be a red head,” she says..

I reach for her hand. “We’re growing old and beautiful together.” It is impossible to say what I mean.