My Chair (New American Family Style)
I was contacted by the memoirist Rebecca Walker, author of Black, White & Jewish and the more recent Baby Love. I have long admired her work, and so when she invited me to contribute a chapter to an anthology on "The New American Family", I jumped at the opportunity.
But we made a strange agreement. I was to write about anything but homeschooling. She thought she had someone else who was going to do that. Sounded good to me. As I writer and storyteller, I inhabit more than a few different personae (bet you haven't seen that one very often), and this was a welcome chance to flex my authorial muscles in a different way. Besides, I thought it would be fun! (which counts for a lot for me these days.)
So then I sat down to write. Out came something about…well, homeschooling? At least the way I think about homeschooling. I can't separate homeschooling from my family life, and as I learn about myself, I expect (actually, by this time I know) that the kids (hardly kids anymore, but they'll always be kids to me…) are learning as well.
In some very profound ways, just as we are embodied in the relationships we have with others so that sometimes it is hard to know where our own consciousness ends and another's begins (as every mother with an infant can well attest), so we are also embodied in our relationships with objects in our physical world. We change together, and it is consciousness of that change, and how we choose to take charge and structure that change, both in our minds and in the world, is what constitutes learning.
I am in my chair.
* * * * *
We moved into our current 1970s tract home (post-avocado and mustard periods) when the kids were still small. I brought my chair with me.
It was a recliner, purchased at the local Salvation Army store for $10. It was probably 15 years old when we first acquired it, and would last us some 15 more.
It was brown in color. Not brown as in chocolate. More like beefstew, in something resembling courderoy. It absorbed coffee stains and coffee spills well, and other than a little bit of café aroma, after a day or two, one couldn't even tell that something untoward had taken place.
The kids used to like to cuddle up on the chair. Occasionally dog number one, too, until she (Gracie being half-Airedale/half-German Shepherd, and winner of the Westminster Dog Show in the Resting Group) became too large and too old to lift herself up. Lots of articles, and more than a few stories were written from that chair, usually in black pen on a long yellow legal pad. And there were occasional dreams as well. It was my well-worn brown perch from which I came to widely peer out over the growing life of my family.
But after a decade and a half of bearing my weight (which I am more than willing to admit has increased over the years) in sleep and in wakefulness, the recliner was coming to the end of its natural life. The cushions were crushed, the now-yellowed polyurethane peeking out through the seams, the footrest worn through, the reclining mechanism giving out, the arms long ago having reached a maximum caffeine saturation point. It was time for a new chair.
My wife Ellen went back to school to become a nurse at the same time my older daughter Aliyah went off to college. We decided that as Ellen's graduation present - actually, for both of us, this being the final occasion either of us was likely to be able to celebrate earning a degree - we would purchase a new chair. Hey, we were both going to be working!
Graduation came and went. Ellen went to work at her new job. Aliyah prepared for her junior year in Italy. Meera, my younger one and serious gymnast since the age of five. was now back in the gym after finally having her knee heal. I ran around the country lecturing. We never managed to cross the threshold of a furniture store. (In fact, I can't even remember visiting one since the early 1990s, and performing a quick mental survey of our home, I can't find a single item purchased - by us - at a real furniture emporium.) A friend calls our odd assortment "New American Family Style".
Meanwhile, Meera, already a safer driver than I am, needed a car so she could commute between the community college and the gym, so we began shopping. We went to visit a 1990 Honda in a parking lot that turned out to be a clunker, but it was next door to a large furniture store. Ellen and I shrugged our shoulders, took a deep breath, and went in.
We were directed to the second floor - recliners. Oh, my! There was a room full of 'em, bigger than our entire house! There were blue ones and green ones, topaz and mauve, prints and stripes, leatherette and microfiber. There were chairs with rounded arms and square, curlicued and plain, arms accented in wood, or with cupholders on the end. There were wide ones and narrow, taller and squat, those that leaned back fully horizontal, and others meant to abut walls. There were child-proof and fire-proof (no dog-proof from what I could see), ScotchGarded and Wipe-Aways, electronic and springloaded, track-sliders and knobturners and vibrating.
We sat in a few. They all seemed fine to us. Most cost around $500, give or take, about the same amount necessary to feed two entire families involved in projects in India my family supports for a whole year (for more information, visit www.lafti.net ) No guilt, though - we could afford it, and this chair was going to last most if not all of the rest of our lives. But which one?
On the way out, there was another room, this one filled with sofas. We had a perfectly fine $50 sofa that both dogs seemed to like. (The dogs don't seem to know the difference between a sofa - a word which comes from Turkish and smacks of the orientalism of 18th Century Paris and seat cushions encased in transparent slipcovers in my grandmother's parlor - and a plain old-fashioned Middle English couch. Neither do I.) We got to sit on it, too. But here were sofas in their various and sundry sizes, colors, fabrics, and mechanical incarnations - with recliners on each end!
What a vision! In my reverie, I could sit in the lefthand recliner, coffee cup on the left arm, computer on my lap, papers and books and telephone (and dog - this one at least nominally Meera's, an unkempt little West Highland White Terrier named Duncan) on my right side, Ellen seated, feet up, fantasy novel in hand, on the recliner at the other end. Familial bliss! How could we ever have lived without one?! Thousand bucks - food for four families; but food is hand-to-mouth while furniture can last a lifetime!
We left the store. Single recliner or couch? What size? Would a sofa fit in our small family room? What would we do with the old one? Would the dogs be offended? It all made our heads hurt.
Ellen went to work that evening. Aliyah and I decided to see The Merchant of Venice at a little semi-professional playhouse near our home. On the lawn in front of a house two blocks from ours, there it is. "Take Me," it reads, "$30." Aliyah sits in the chair. Seems fine to her. I sit in the chair, and put my feet up. It doesn't smell of cigarette smoke. Nothing torn. The reclining mechanism works. It even rocks!
By eight o'clock the next morning, the recliner is in our family room. Only then do I realize it doesn't match anything and, I suspect, it didn't match anything in the home of the previous owners either. Is that why they got rid of it? The fabric is some sort of nubbed tweedy (worsted?), rather roughish to the touch, in fading wedgewood and aged dijon, a little brown, taupe, and yellow thrown in. Factory leftovers, or was it actually planned this way? The reclining mechanism handle is oak. In the family room, the walls are bright yellow, with a green leafy wallpaper border. The curtains are maroon, with leaves in orange-gold and emerald. The linoleum somewhere between aqua and slate; the aforementioned couch is gray with embroidered flowers, though Ellen suggests that at one time it might have been off-white or cream. There is a cherrywood chest with a snake aquarium on top, Tassel and Silk the cornsnakes inside. (Aliyah used to breed snakes; now that she is off to college, we seem to have inherited them, and we still keep frozen microwaveable mice in the freezer for their fine dining pleasure.) The bookcases are white pine. Echo the bunny is busy at work within his wired cage, scattering hay beyond his confines. The black treadmill stands upright in the corner. There is a 19-inch "Konka" TV (I kid you not) in cheesy silver plastic, with a DVD player and the cable box below, on white shelves. Posters of wolves and owls grace the walls, reflecting the naturalist interests of the kids now mostly dormant. Boris and Sylvie, the Dino-pillows on the couch in green and gold (Boris long missing an ear until Ellen sewed it back on) date from the year Aliyah was born.
Then I realize that nothing here matches anything else. A domestic archaeologist could have a field day. An appalled interior decorator would probably throw it all out, and start over.
Ellen had a dream last night that we somehow had acquired all new furniture, and it all matched. There was even a corner sectional, especially amusing as there is no corner in our current family room in which it could be placed. "Very bizarre," she said.
Anyhow, my new perch sits in exactly the same place as my old one once did. Its color, as noted, is still a bit indeterminate, and a lot more difficult to describe. The same could be said of my hair, relative to the black of my younger days, and my moustache gets scruffier every year. The chair doesn't fit with anything else in the room.
But it fits me just fine. New American Family Style.