The first year I moved to Brooklyn, before I’d begun to obsess about money, I’d lain convalescent all winter on my new sofa (my first sofa) reading, filling spiral notebooks, scouring the texts like a medieval scribe to burn them into my brain. The low winter sun—that whole winter brought clear cool light—slipped over me, a silvery caul. I was at peace with the world, awed by simple sensation. Our niched-in living room sits at semi-basement level, too sunken for some but suiting me just fine—nacreous with sun but planted in the earth, secure. As an earlier tenant had opened the ground floor, leaving discrete indents rather than partitions, I could inhabit the whole without moving. See green to green, experience the room from its low-slung front window to its glass back door, Leonardo’s perfect span. Every so often I would look up from my book at the ribbed beams, rough plaster walls, red pine floors, brick fireplace near the kitchen where a bench was drawn if I chose to make a fire. The short-legged chair was the sort of seat Gary Cooper and his bonneted wife used for going to town on Saturdays in their buckboard and removed on weekdays to make room for hay. I’d been acquiring hearth clutter since I was thirteen and bought an immense stone mantle (with armorial bearings) in a Madrid antiques store which my Aunt had to forcibly return. Now I had a three-legged skillet, a waffle iron, a mortar and pestle, a long-handled toasting fork and a bed warmer, as well as the usual andirons, fire screen, tongs, poker etc. I was prepared.
Towards the end of my stay on East End Avenue when my need for things caught up with me, I’d stared for hours at a copper alloy pot as if it were the burning-log channel on TV, willing its gleam into flame, tindery conjunction, a hob to sit with my mate. I had bought most of the apparatus at auction shortly before moving to Brooklyn. Though you can’t see the fire from the living room, you can hear its purr and crackle, its piney fragrance permeating the whole expanse, the need to add logs a reason for getting up from time to time. From the sofa I can see the traffic-less street, the ivy-framed windows showing shrubs, the lower trunk of a tree, the legs of our postman, Louie, who bends down to wave before ringing the bell. Perfect peace, I am not needy, not frightened, not incomplete, each day the first morning, the solitude deepening the experience of present time. Even when I’m not in the space but only sensing it as I come downstairs, the room swells with its own sound. (I was startled, recently, when a film crew came out to interview Richard and the audio-man spent several minutes taping the “room sound” when he was done saying each room has its own harmonies, not counting ticking clocks and other appliances.)
By coincidence, people in Sikkim had finally sent my belongings just as I moved in, and though a lot was wrecked, dropped in packing cases without care for the long mountain and sea journey, I had all I needed and more. (“Shipped by the Lizzy Borden Packing Company” sniffed the movers at Manhattan Storage appalled at the smashed highboy, the knackered finials on the Sheraton mirror frame, the pie crust table warped like a huge salad bowl.) Now the POW bones were home to rest, I felt whole again. I’d been a veteran’s wife poking after them, building dossiers, complaining to Congress, lobbying for remnants. I was glad for the re-migrant things as well as myself, they were American, more so than me, and should not splinter apart unmarked, Boston cabinetry mulched back to forest floor.
I felt this deeply, but knew even at the time it was special pleading, jingoist patriotism, I’d longed for them simply because they were part of me, missing them like a limb. Most of the things had never been American in the first place but had become naturalized through affection. (The same provincial way I am shocked to find Dostoevsky translated in languages other than English, or hear a Chinese child speak French…) Even most of the American things were from past periods, plucked out of context, valued for aesthetics, their function no less strange, no more foreign to their original use than in Sikkim. Except for some American American pieces, the tiger maple bureau, the Windsor high-backs, candle-stand table, Newbury rocker, one or two more, the rest could have lived as consanguine there as here.
It was me they’d lacked to make them living breathing things. I had been faithful to them, buying no replacement, guarding their absence, polishing darkness, smoothing air. No furniture of convenience, Seven Eleven temps, just street discards, bare window views till our boys came home.
The belongings, which I hadn’t seen for ten years, took to the place at once, the house so familiar it was uncanny, my Sikkimese friends struck by the Buddhist symbols on the fence out front, (circa 1873), the rare bamboo filling our rear yard. Each chair and objet winging to its spot, Zen decorating—my Persian shutter, ochre, rose and blue, fitting bulls-eye between shelves the same (inherited) color. Admittedly, my things had fit the house in Sikkim too, found their niche there, their function, a reason I moved in: a reason I left the stuff behind. I have a talent for occupancy like some people dowse. When Sarjevo’s Jews quit Spain in 1492, expelled during the Inquisition, they took their house keys with them, handing them down father to son. I find homes unerringly, a global latchkey kid.
For years we had pictures of small blonde German children peering at us from the shelves of our living room. Despite adverse comments, it took time to scrap the sample ads in the Lucite frames and put up our own kids’ photographs instead. The substitution came gradually as our children left the house, grew kindlier, from absence (though “kindly” comes from “own kind,” and implies presence) and had room to grow sentimental, observant. Now we are ringed by smiling progeny. It is a peculiarly American custom, started in the mid nineteenth century when the middle class made “family” the bastion against life’s volatility and mothers massed daguerreotypes of household members on end tables, phantasmagoric doubles, eternally marshaled in place, un-played chess men.
Today, except for the odd wedding portrait, representation of adults (forget ancestors) are absent, portraits grown embarrassing in most circles unless they are sketchy abstracts—the merest rustle of the sitter rather than his literal form. Only one friend my age has had her portrait commissioned, tenter-hooked herself to canvas, a response I think, to her mother’s several (to her) galling face lifts. Even this person doesn’t inhabit the frame but sits uncomfortably to one side turning her head towards the empty center, the artistic negative space.
Palden and Kesang have stuck Richard’s photo on their shrine table in Bronxville along with others of their immediate family. I’m choked, frightened by their generosity, the accrual of connection as fragile as breath on windowpane. I want to rove around drawing simple hearts slashed with arrows, I love you my children, I love you Richard, the connection at once so perishable and grand.
It took me years to buy a couch as I suffered from sofa anxiety, the fear of buying the large central item, a badge of selling out, settling in, the perceived symbol of coming of bourgeois age. (I clip stories about this fear in the Times‘ home section on Thursdays, a condition more common than you might think. By coincidence, today’s paper bears two articles on the subject, one saluting Gloria Steinem for coming to terms with upholstery at age sixty, the other a rather smug Peter Pan piece by Wendy Wasserstein about her furniture neurosis.)
It seems buying a sofa is the last thing some otherwise mature people can get themselves to do, just as acquiring a sofa is the first thing some youngsters rush to do to lend themselves credence, bolster self esteem. The subject bears more emotional freight in this country than in Europe, where the possessing classes tend to simply have their sofas rather than buy them. We feature sofas more, the big piece looming primal in our living rooms printless, in pristine new world style, no sign of human hand let alone bottom on the taut foam pillows. Actually, two sofas generally loom, dressed until recently from the same bolt, big sister and little sister, the three-seat variant and the two-person “love seat.” (Have you ever seen two people sit in one? Erving Goffman could write a book about the phenomenon should it occur, two heads turning towards each other in the confined space, ratchet, ratchet ratchet, or, two heads talking straight ahead, words streaming out to meet at an imaginary vanishing point.)
Personally, I get sofa-communicating anxiety even on a three-seat sofa unless I’m sprawled on it slung like a teenager on the phone, legs over back, head sweeping floor, not a winning self presentation in your fifties if you don’t know the person next to you reasonably well.
If becoming one with one’s sofa is not part of our cultural norm, in modified form it is slightly less frowned upon in the east where most of these seating arrangements began. (We didn’t get sofas as we know them until the 1890s: during the Victorian era middle-class seating reflected the prevailing gender/power structure—gentlemen in large armchairs, their wives in mini versions of the same, visitors on, not in, straight-backed seats, and children on foot-stools.) Anyway, to return to the origin of the furniture style, sofa derives from “sufi,” the sect of swirling mystics that came to the West’s attention through Shah Abbas (mistakenly—plus ça change—called “the great Sufi” by Westerners as like the mystics, he wore a turban) who ruled his Persian empire casually, but effectively, from soft upholstery. Divan comes from “Dewan,” prime minister, a functionary who reputedly also governed recumbent. (There was a Dewan in Sikkim, a title devised—and insisted upon—by the Indians as it sounded more feudally decadent, less upright, less sovereign also, than Prime Minister. Guests were always ribbing the man—who was rather venal and lent himself to the suggestion—about lying down on him.) Cushion comes from the Hindi “Kushee,” soft, comfy, hence “cushee job,” an expression once popular in Britain, now probably on its way out as Empire wanes, as do jobs, for that matter, too. Tibetans from Lhasa, where rules were tight, called Sikkim “Kushee Lumpo,” the free or lax country.
Today, under western influence many Indian families have also given up the more casual way of sitting, adopting our straightened fashion, or combine both customs by sitting on the floor in front of sofas lolling back against their support. The Lucknow family I lived with in New York reclined this way and I must have also as I was startled some time ago when a prim Philadelphia friend of mine remarked how unnerving it had been to pay calls as we sat serried below her legs, our backs to the baseboard of the Castro convertibles talking up at her. A creative movement teacher told me my urge for floor-sitting came from my lack of laps as a child, that I perceive the earth itself as a lap, fear separation. She may be right. I can sit on almost any surface, subway platform, sidewalk, whatever and feel at home. In contrast, my son was carried well past two years of age, went from passive portage to full walking, missing the crawling stage which the woman surmises may have left his emotional growth uneven. Whatever the case, it is too late now as Palden initially resisted remedial crawling (50 bucks a pop), and the teacher has since quit exploring the mind-body connection going heavily into the latter, even winning the Mrs. Universe contest, renouncing earlier pronouncements about muscle-tone as armature.
Both ships on one wall of our living room head the same Byzantium-bound direction—the only things I have from/of my grandfather. Though the ships are static, stiff as brass, they are fully rigged, white-capped waves lashing their prows. The waves are additions painted on when my great-grandfather’s young wife (his trained nurse), inherited the pictures and set out to sell them in Europe. Before auctioning the pictures, the enterprising woman, whose husband was ninety-four when they married (sniffed my family), had commissioned storm clouds and theatrical highlights on the sails to create drama around the stalled craft, double the return they were expected to bring.
Getting the pictures back had taken some perseverance on the part of my grandfather’s family. Determined to retrieve the paintings, dispossessed heirs had combed sales rooms in towns throughout the continent, the redress of patrimony over matrimony.
When my turn at stewardship arrived, I’d found that hanging on to the pictures had taken some doggedness also as various family members attempted to safeguard them from me.
During my childhood most of my mother’s belongings had lain locked in a dark shingled outbuilding on the grounds of our Long Island house, cooped in barrels. I could see the crates through the cobwebby windows, but hadn’t known what they held though I knew it was stuff my mother had bought for her two marriages. I felt sorry for the locked belongings and felt they should go out for an airing into the sun. The idea came from one of my mother’s childhood books, The Japanese Twins, by Lucy Fitch Perkins, a children’s author around the time of World War One, that were still shelved in our summer house. In the Twins book, Perkins had described how custom required noble children to store their dolls and kites until they were allowed to “play” with the ritual toys at annual festivals. I could see or, rather, sense myself bowing stiff at the stomach, holding things brought out to me one by one. In her book, the children hadn’t been permitted to touch the toys, but I could feel the offerings squeezed in my hands, my fingers wringing them like wet clay.
The ship paintings were different. Though willed to me when my grandfather died, they had hung in our big Long Island house until my Grandmother died a few years after her husband. I expect it was this on-view aspect and the paintings’ importance as family signifiers that made my cousin Marshall believe they belonged to him.
At first, my cousin’s charge that it was near criminal waste for me to hang on to the paintings, sheer willfulness at the least, was borne out when I boxed them in storage having no place to put them (or me) after my grandmother’s death. But when I took them out to take to Sikkim when I married, he grew angrier still.
“What will you do with those paintings in the mountains, Hope?”
What would I do with them indeed? I would flank myself with the static seabirds from America, show evidence of land beyond. My land. My husband was pleased. “The boats belonged to Hope’s family,” he would tell people who behind our backs called me a “chippie,” “ship-owners from New England. You must have heard about the Mary (actually he said Marie) Celeste, the ghost ship that also belonged to her family, the empty brig found plying on course for the Azores in 1872, cargo intact.” “In fact, people now think it was probably just an insurance scam,” I would interject modestly at this juncture, deflecting the story’s status affirmation even as I elliptically detailed it. “The captain probably conspired with another skipper in port to offload the passengers and crew mid ocean. The ship-shape log, the absence of mutiny (though they did find a small hatchet in the mast), the routine breakfast leavings speak against the sea-monster, UFO theories. I’m not quite sure how the story goes, but my great-grandfather had to sail to Gibraltar to sort it out…the Brits naturally claimed the ship as their rightful prize.” By that point, the logic of the insurance scam theory had disappeared as completely as had the 14 passengers from the pristine ship. “Some blamed it on the fact a woman had been aboard (they found her sewing machine, a piece of ric rac half done), the Captain had taken his wife along, bad luck invariably followed.”
I’m still ambivalent about the ships, proud to have an inheritance, embarrassed by my vanity, the two feelings equally strong. A Sixties friend of mine, the WASP heir to a marine painting trove that includes the great clipper, “The Flying Cloud,” reproved me, “Would you hang the portrait of a sneaker, Hope, if your money came from shoes?” In atonement, to reconcile opposites, I let one of the ship paintings warp quite badly. An elderly friend of ours, an unworldly socialist, whose house, nonetheless, is steeped in mementos, awards, family memorabilia, peers at the oil and says exasperatedly, “Fix it, Hope, for Gawd’s sake, it’s driving me nuts.” She refers not only to the warp, but to the hole my kids punched in it when they were small, testing me, no doubt, as they knew how I valued it under my feigned indifference.
At her say so, permitting myself, I took the painting to a famous restorer who worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art who kept it a year, refusing to surrender it the Christmas Eve I went to reclaim it, pleading he needed more time, more money, to make it completely “pur.”
After some minutes the argument descended into a literal wrestling match, me pulling the oil through the half-closed door into the street, him pulling it back into his dark shop, both of us seesawing awkwardly through the half-closed door. On his side he had stuffed pheasants, cavaliers, amber-lit taverns, cracklelured busts. I had bemused passersby carrying gifts, maids pushing children asleep in their prams. Even as we seesawed, I noticed that he had erased some clouds on the painting, and moreover, had begun, uninstructed, to work on the stern of the ship which had begun to ebb under his ministrations. “Please,” he begged, and for a minute I considered. For only a few thousand dollars more he could stay illusion, rub the canvas completely “pur,” nudge me grasping and reluctant toward enlightenment.