You know you've
moved on in the world when you see the furniture of your childhood
put to work doing other things. When I see something that reminds
me of the white-frame house where I grew up or my grandmother's
white-frame house where I also spent a lot of time in my younger
days, I want to stop and nod to it just as I would on meeting
a country acquaintance in downtown Richmond.
Not long ago,
I was sitting at the bar of L.A. Rick's Cafe on Broad Street,
a jazz place that you'd think is about as far away as you can
get from your childhood, when a stranger sitting next to me pointed
something out. It was a long antique sideboard behind the bar.
This guy spoke in a Greek accent that got thicker as he tossed
back glass after glass of scotch and soda. He told me that he
used to come to this place thirty years ago when it was under
"That goddamn sideboard had been there then too,"
he said, "and in the same goddamn spot."
I allowed that it was a hell of a sideboard.
"Goddamn right," he said.
We looked at it, drinking, while a jazz band played in the
"Everything else in the place has changed around,"
he said. "But that thing still sits there like an anchor.
Damn--you'd think they built the place around it."
He looked around. Most of the people in the place could have
been half his age.
"Nobody remembers but me," he said, shaking his
But I remember.
is a sort of half-cabinet, half-table on which the servants--if
you believed your relatives who said that, like all Virginia
families, yours used to have money--or, if not the servants,
then maybe your Aunt Edna would place trays of drinks or food
before serving the table. It has drawers in which liquor or linen
were kept, with locks whose keys were in the keeping of the mistress
of the household. And it usually has an ornamental mirror running
along its length that, in another time, duplicated in its reflection
immense bowls of cut crystal, silver trays and fluted glasses
holding stems of roses or sprigs of forsythia.
I sipped my beer and nodded. There I was, sitting in a bar
with a jazz band, a nostalgic Greek and a piece of furniture
from my childhood. Go figure.
Not that I remembered that particular sideboard, of course.
But I knew the kind of place you'd find one.
Once I was drinking
with a friend in his parlor in the Northern Neck. It was a white-frame
house at the end of a dead-end road. Out there, houses didn't
have living rooms; they had parlors This parlor had a sideboard
too, no doubt moved from the dining room decades ago, but the
finish was faded with dust, the knobs were missing from the drawers,
and the cracked mirror made a reflection that looked like something
out of a funhouse. When I stood up to go, somewhat unsteady,
I found myself staring into the eyes of a medium-sized chicken
in the top shelf of the bookcase. It was nesting between the
Shakespeare and the Gibbon. My friend told me it was a favorite
of the mistress of the household and that not even the dogs dared
That was the sort of thing you'd find when you visited old
houses: a chicken staring wordlessly down at you all evening,
like Poe's raven.
Then there was the night my father and I went into a deserted
house to catch pigeons. No one had lived there for twenty years,
but the place was filled with furniture. There were immense sofas
that looked as if they had been standing there before the house
was built, and there were chairs with spindly legs that looked
apt to creep up on you if you turned your back.
My father left me in the parlor, went off somewhere and came
back with a pigeon. He handed it to me and said, "Be back
in a minute." He went off again to explore, not wanting
to take me where he thought the floors were bad. In the flashlight
beam, I stared into the eyes of an astonished pigeon and a future
Back in L.A.
Rick's, I nodded at the sideboard. For sure, that sideboard wasn't
built for a place like this. It was the sort of thing you'd find
in your grandmother's house or your aunt's or in one of the thousands
of white-frame houses that still dot the Virginia countryside.
Such houses could be defined as much by what was no longer
there as by what remained. They were chock full of old furniture
but still felt empty. The big families and the help were gone,
leaving them to be tended by solitary matriarchs. Like the oak
or walnut trees overspreading the yards, formidable aunts, mothers
and grandmothers stood over the accumulated memories and belongings
of entire families.
Sometimes, driving in the country, you can spot where such
a house was by the trees that still give shade to its foundations.
There is a kind of hole in the atmosphere, a clue to what was
there by what is not there now. It's like when you throw a rock
down an empty well. The dry echo still splashes, somehow, with
the memory of the water.
There was an
old piano that stood for years in the house where I grew up.
It was an ante-bellum piece that my father, a rummager through
deserted houses, retrieved somewhere. That thing stood in the
front hall like an anchor. The ivory keys were as yellowed as
old bones. It had long ago ceased to play, but sometimes in passing,
I would hit the top of it with my fist. If I hit just the right
spot, sepulchral tones would rise, a protest from long-silent
strings. After my father's death, Mother said the piano was taking
up too much space and got rid of it.
Not long ago, I came to help close up the house after Mother
died. It was a two-story place with shingles of green tin and
a lightning rod topped by a vane that pointed where the weather
was coming from. Maple trees leaned over the place protectively,
like old aunts swaying over a baby. On my last night in the house,
I turned off the hall lights and stood for a moment in the dark.
Without thinking, I put out a hand to steady myself against the
place where the piano had stood. It passed through empty air.
But I thought I could hear the outraged tones of a piano after
the lid has been slammed shut.