June 1999

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Old Houses

by Arthur Alexander Parker

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 different ownership.

"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 other room.

"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 head.

But I remember.


A sideboard 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 disturb it.

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 recollection.


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.


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