This essay was first published in Manoa, Summer 1997, Volume 9 Issue 1, pages 105-108.
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When we moved into the four-square house on a tree-lined city avenue, I lugged the ugly oak rocker into the sun porch and covered it with grandmother's yellow quilt, just as I'd decently wrap an aunt caught outside in her undies.
Two years later, I carried the rocker into the back yard. Sunshine outlined the shape of the back, graceful as a handmade fiddle, but shiny gray paint masked the chair's oak skeleton, and the seat was a slab of three-quarter inch plywood.
First I yanked off the seat cushion, remembering when Mother bought the oatmeal-colored wool speckled with red and green, on sale of course. I hated the ungainly skirt she made for me to wear to high school. Thriftily, she turned the leftovers into a pillow stuffed with odd pieces of foam. She used roofing nails, driven crooked, to anchor the ugly contraption. When I yanked at the cushion, powdered foam drifted like pollen into the breeze.
I stared at the chair, thinking of better jobs: cleaning house, revising an essay. Stripping this relic would take hours. No wonder my ancestors slapped on a dozen layers of paint. I could paint it in an hour, park it on the porch to decay in peace, if not dignity.
Instead, I attacked with rough sandpaper on an electric palm sander. Gray paint dribbled down as powder, revealing raw oak etched with dark lines from the original stain. Probably the chair fell prey to my mother's infatuation with the 1950s craze for blond furniture, called "limed oak." When she married a rancher, she bought a massive dresser, double bed, and two dressing tables heavy enough to be real oak. The unnaturally pale finish made them look, I thought, remarkably like plastic.
Determined everything would match, she stripped a Mission Oak buffet, smeared white paint over it, then rubbed until the surface was dingy gray.
The buffet loomed over my childhood, half-filling our narrow dining room. Before family dinners, I knelt before it to get out mother's china and silver, while she scurried around the kitchen reciting the names of the patterns and promising that when I married, I'd choose my own. Drying the china after Sunday dinner, I'd kneel before the gray hulk again, vowing to restore its golden youth with oil rubbed gently into pure unvarnished wood. Some evenings, I'd open the bottom drawer and stare at Grandmother's crocheted tablecloths, wondering how her gnarled fingers could weave such loveliness.
Neither of my marriages produced china, so mother begged me to take hers when she moved to the nursing home. When I cleared the house for renters, I left the buffet and table in the house. An expert says the white paint penetrated the grain so deeply it can't be removed. My partner and I already had furniture.
But I couldn't leave the rocker. Each time I looked at it, I saw Grandmother's brown fingers curved around the knot of oak at the end of arm rests bulging like her muscular arms. During the summers I stayed with her, she'd sit in the rocker on the screened porch before she fixed supper. I sat on the slab of sandstone she used as a step, listening for bobcats and trying to catch toads. Grandmother said if I picked them up I'd get warts. I was looking forward to the experience; I'd never seen warts.
The chickens hurried to catch every bug in sight before the world went dark. I looked across the valley at the shadows running up the cliffs, plunging into the crevices like dark coyotes. The cliff tops shone gold for a moment, then went dark. The air chilled, tasting dusky and wild. A sliver of deep red appeared above the cliffs, swelling until I took a deep breath to scream, "Fire!"
"Red moon," Grandmother said. "Feels like fall all right, doesn't it?"
"Yeah. Can't I stay here instead of having to go back to town? I could go to school with John and Susan, and then maybe they wouldn't close the school."
"Oh, your mother wouldn't like that. She don't think our little school is good enough for you."
"Did you ever go to church, Grandma?"
"I wanted to go when the children were small, but it was such a trip with the buggy that we hardly ever did."
"It seems like church but different when I'm out here. God must really like the world."
She chuckled. "Walt always said he served God by taking care of this land, and I served Him by taking care of the children. Since Walt's been gone, when I walk around the hills here, I feel close to him and God both." Darkness wrapped comfortably around us. "About time to light the lamps I expect," she said as I jumped up, ready. "Be careful with the chimneys, and don't set your hair on fire."
I left the door open to help my eyes adjust, and felt around on the cupboard for matches. The dark smelled of fried chicken. A row of jelly glasses gleamed with white paraffin on the counter beside the wood stove.
I gently lifted the lamp chimney, turned the blackened wick up a little. Then I inhaled, struck the match on the side of the box, and ran it along the top of the wick. It caught at once and the blue flame flickered up into yellow. Eyes on the wick, I blew out the match and delicately turned the brass knob until the flame danced along the edge of the brass.
With both hands, I picked up the chimney by its fat belly and placed it on the lamp, holding my breath. Often the fire flared up and sooted the clear glass. Then I had to get out my polishing rag and start all over.
Instead, the flame fluttered into a soft radiance, so the eyes of the cookie jar squirrel glistened. The light brushed the brass bedstead. Above it, pictures of Grandmother's children and their children watched me like ghosts.
Sanding in the sunshine, I find circular scars under the gray paint, where someone removed the original finish with a drill sander. Maybe my uncle, who worked Grandmother's ranch. Suddenly he stands in my back yard as I first remember him, laughing with youth nearly fifty years ago. I hear this is the year he'll sell his cows, give up the ranching that has been his life since he came home from war to help his mother.
After the first day's sanding, my shoulders and wrists throb for hours. But the chair rocks lightly when I carry it outside the next day. Sanding, I lecture my grandmother for letting this travesty happen to a lovely piece of furniture. Grinding deeper into the chair's history, I uncover a dozen nail holes around the seat, evidence of several replacement cushions after the original disappeared. I notice the chair's feet do not quite fit the curve of the rockers, which aren't oak but softer pine.
Getting a sunburn I won't notice until evening, I study the chair, deciding it was not originally a rocker. Perhaps my Grandmother got it from her mother when she went West with her young husband to work for a logging company in Oregon. I'd seen a faded photograph of her at sixteen, just before she married Elmer Harry Baker, who became my grandfather.
For a moment, I can see a dark-haired girl sitting in a stately oak chair in my sunny yard. She holds a baby with golden ringlets-- my mother-- and gazes up at her husband, the grandfather I never knew. Beaming, he says, "Cora Belle, I can make that chair rock for you."
Elmer died when he fell in front of a moving logging train in 1913. Not long ago, I found his obituary in a couple of papers of the time, saying he was beheaded by the train. Just twenty-four, he left grandmother a widow with a four-year-old daughter and an infant son. She rode the train to the home of his relatives in Wyoming, a few miles from where I live now. I can picture the rocker swaying with the train's motion among her few possessions. She must have repaired its worn cushions, keeping the chair to grace her household as she married again, and bore two more sons.
Rocking gently through long summer evenings, crocheting and listening to her granddaughter read aloud, maybe she saw her young husband's face, recalled past joys. That’s what I plan to do, now that the rocker looks as I remember it from my childhood.
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For more information:
Website for Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writers
Published by the University of Hawai'i
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