It’s late July, and we’re getting ready to move. My husband and I are looking to trade in our ornate apartment on the second floor of a huge suburban complex for something quieter. Something that feels like home. We’re leaving behind the perfectly sized deck, the gas fireplace and the community pool for something altogether different.
True, if our plans work out we’ll actually be happier, with plenty of space, cheaper rent and sprawling sunset walks. But the search for a new place to call home has been eye-opening.
Drowning in excess
With a move-out date looming, I spent the better part of the week touring strangers’ homes.
Some of them were empty, but many of them were not. Instead, the kitchens were lined with dishes waiting to be cleaned, the living rooms were cluttered with yarn and magazines, and the nurseries were still in tact. A few of the bedrooms were made to look neat and tidy just inside their doors, but the back of these rooms were packed full of broken toys, torn blankets and discarded furniture.
In more than one townhouse, the items were piled so wide that they stretched from wall to wall, and they were stacked so high that they literally touched the ceiling.
Worse than this was the “tandem garage” I witnessed. The idea is to pull two cars into a deep, narrow garage, one behind the other. But who wants to constantly shuffle cars with their partner? So, in this particular garage, the second car space was stuffed to the brink with unwanted items from the house. I couldn’t even see how deep the garage was, because it was chock full of random old stuff.
The sight frightened me.
In a moment of truth, I was forced to stop and ask myself why I need more space. Why does one American couple need more than 900 square feet to feel content? Aside from my obsession with art, which takes up plenty of space on its own, I asked myself to vow that I will never own that much stuff.
After all, it’s not the material things in our lives that make life special. It’s the emotional things. It’s the people in our lives that do.
Stains in the wood
Still, I understand the desire to have nice things.
Looking around me, I can see that many of the things I own date back to my college days. Some of them have even traveled to Minnesota from my parents’ house back in Ohio. The night stands that I know and love were a purchase by my parents. Two oak-stained pieces to match, and they still work just as well as they did when I was a kid.
The big blue chair my dog has claimed as her daytime retreat was free — something we inherited in our college years. It may be showing some signs of wear and tear, and some shedding from its favorite fuzzy sleeper, but it still works. In fact, it’s as comfy as ever. The TV stand was something I picked up for $4 at a yard sale. The plywood piece creaks in agony under the weight of the flat screen, and it is no doubt begging to be replaced.
The coffee table is perhaps the oldest of all. It’s real wood, built sturdy and strong. But the finish is peeling, and because it predates our college years, the varnish is pale in spots revealing water stains from days gone by. This morning I thought about discarding the old thing and replacing it with something more attractive. At the very least, I could get a tablecloth to conceal its age.
But maybe that’s not the way.
Turpentine and resin
Before my father died, he tried to start a business in furniture refinishing and repair.
He acquired old lumber, measured and sawed it, and turned it into a book shelf or table. He moved in and out of a maze of circular saws and band saws, propping his work up on a pair of sawhorses. He worked out of the garage or the basement, mixing turpentine and resin to create his own varnishes.
I remember the fumes. Whenever I would venture under the fluorescent lights to find my dad, my nose would be greeted by a powerful whiff of something akin to nail polish remover. To this day, when I smell turpentine, I immediately think of my father, the carpenter, sanding away at a piece of wood, preparing it for a finish.
For a bevy of reasons, my father’s dream to work in furniture refinishing was never realized. One of the obstacles was that people just weren’t interested. Who wants to have a piece of furniture refinished when they can just throw it away and replace it with something new?
In an intriguing turn of events… I do.
If my father were still alive today, even as frantic as he was, I would give him a call and ask him to take on our coffee table. ‘Sand it down, apply the polymer base, and finish it in your favorite stain.’ Dad could touch up our wooden dining table, also a relic from college, and build matching chairs. He could stain the 9-foot-tall book shelf that our friend built for us a few years ago — it holds hundreds of tomes on its exposed arms.
Wooden furniture is timeless. All it needs is a little tender loving care.
Refinishing and repair
With all the changes in my life, I can’t help but think of furniture in metaphor.
What if instead of discarding the things we didn’t like, we put in a little time to make those things better? Put a wooden plank under the cushion to repair the broken couch. Lighten the load on the old night stand and reserve that space for things that are truly meaningful. Polish the old cedar chest instead of throwing it away.
With a heavy dose of elbow grease, even a banged up old coffee table presents a new face. Sure, it’s vulnerable. It can be damaged by something as simple as a change in the weather, but by shedding the old scrapes and splinters, it opens itself to the possibilities — and the possibility that it could lead a new life.
Are we still talking about furniture? Maybe.
But there really aren’t that many benefits to having excess, in my mind, especially if it doesn’t change the nature of our lives. The unwanted items eventually become garbage, and the rooms fill up with stuff where the people should be. A memory or an experience is so much more valuable.
My father was far from perfect — and so am I. But as he once said, we have to break free from the mold to become who were meant to be.