The Garage of Last Resort

My identity recently got a jolt from one of those things nephews say when they aren't really talking to you and you aren't really listening. I didn't hear what Wes said until hours later, when I was collapsed in a chair with my feet up, later in the evening. My sister had asked him to bring me some chairs she was giving me, so he'd driven them over. We'd met in my garage. He's tall, charming and laconic-- not a big chit-chat kind of guy. He'd grinned, brought the chairs in and stacked them in the back. Straightening up, he'd looked slowly left and then slowly right, paused, and said, "Lots here."

A smile, the engine starting, gone. "Lots here." I hadn't really heard him, since when he said it I was edging my way between his chairs and a table stacked with a case of champagne, three white fake poinsettias, a rolled rug and a box of over-wintering potatoes, while sort of muttering to myself about whether I needed more Dry-Z-Aire. But I thought about what he said-- as I say-- later that night, when collapsed in the old wing chair. Truth is, up until that "Lots here," I had believed myself to be a minimalist.

Minimalism is part of my identity. I know I say a lot of mean things about Modernists, particularly the Germanic sort, but they got their aesthetic hooks into me when I was young, and I must say I like things spare. A lot of craposis around the house drives me nuts. Not for me the Pottery Barn candlesticks. Not for me the faux-rustic painted signs that say "Beach -->" or "Just Another Day in Paradise." I don't like stuff for stuff's sake. A nice table, a couple of chairs, perhaps a few blossoms in a vase. That's all she wrote.

My love of the minimal dictated that I prefer beige. My living room is so beige that certain people have mentioned a Sahara-like quality, a sand-blindness that prompts them to crawl to the refrigerator for a beer. But beige or no beige, Wes's comment brought a truth to light. Something happened to my minimalism in the last twenty years, and it happened slowly, like the accretion of pounds around the waist or the silent, secret progress of spider veins. Sitting in my wing chair, I thought back to when the erosion must have begun.

I was living in Providence. Living as I did in a student apartment, I didn't own much. One afternoon I received a large, unexpected crate. It turned out to be Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa, a Victorian try at Louis XVI that had graced my parents' home for twenty years. Evidently, in a rare a mood of renewal, my father had crated and shipped it 3500 miles to get it out of the living room.

Mrs. Malurevsky died years before, after escaping from the Russian Revolution, getting stuck in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion, and finally settling in San Francisco with a lot of other Russian refugees. And after a long life, when I was a teenager, she began dying piecemeal of diabetes in the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in Terra Linda. Talk about a let-down type of death, after all that surviving. Before she died, she gave my sister her old car and my mother her old sofa.

So I now had her sofa. Hearing that I now had Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa, her old friend, George Corwin-- a Russian who had changed his name to better suit Americans-- began to make a habit of calling me up to tell me his and Mrs. Malurevsky's exploits in Shanghai in the Thirties and about the Japanese prison camp he'd been sent to when the Japanese took Shanghai, because he was Russian, and about how he had learned his mathematics and statics and dynamics from other prisoners while they were all slowly starving to death. "That prison camp was my university!" he'd say, and then he'd put down the phone and play something long and romantic on the piano while I did the dishes or told him I was getting off the phone.

An 85 year-old Russian calling me up in Providence and playing the piano at odd hours really didn't phase me, because I had grown up with George calling my mother and insisting that she listen to him play something romantic on the piano. He'd been calling her since he first fell for her in Palo Alto in the Fifties, when my father was sweating through Wallace Stegner's writing classes and she was home, taking care of my infant oldest sister. So it was sort of a usual thing for us growing up, every now and then, hearing her on the phone protesting, in her soft, Southern way, "Gow-age, Gow-age! That's lovely, but I'm goin' to put the receiva' down now-- I've got things to do!"

By the time it got to Providence, Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa was about all that was left of Mrs. Malurevsky, and what was I going to do-- fling it out on the street? So I kept it, and it did look nice, I must admit. I thought of it as a deft stroke of eclecticism. True, Gropius wouldn't have approved. But I figured he'd been love-lorn over Alma at about the same time that Mrs. Malurevsky scrambled out of Russia, and while she dealt with Shanghai and the Japanese, he'd been hiding all his passion and heartbreak and grief by telling everybody to make very straight lines. I figured she had lived the more authentic life, even if her sofa was a Victorian copy of a Louis XVI. And then, of course, she was not a German. "Starting from zero" is pretty much impossible if you're Russian. Too many sticky, entangling family ties. Too much blood and guts and emotion. Lots here.

Because I welcomed in Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa, I started attracting sofas. It was like the time I bought a cookie jar that was in the shape of a chicken. Soon, every relative I had thought, "Aha! She likes chickens!" When, in fact, chickens and country life really hadn't been part of the cookie jar's appeal-- it had been something in the glint of the eye and the questioning tilt of the head-- but people thought they had me pegged, and gave me chicken-related stuff from Target from then on, for years-- chicken head hooks for towels and chicken napkin rings-- until I finally made a stand and called a halt to the poultry.

Anyway, people knew I had Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa, so they started thinking I would like other sofas. After my mother died, a handmade 1850's settee appeared, this one from her mother, who got it from her mother, who got it after her father died on it from an unexpected heart attack. Captain Richardson, a captain in the Confederate Army, who "fought the War over again every Sunday afternoon on the back porch." Who had broken his hip in his sixties, climbing up to get mistletoe for the delight of his grandchildren at Christmas, and who had had that hip set on the kitchen table, his daughter assisting, holding the morphine drip in one hand and a lamp in the other, while the settee looked on.

The hip wasn't set right. One day, out of the blue, the doctor who had set it returned to ask Captain Richardson's forgiveness for setting it so badly. Seems he had been addicted to opium, under the influence of opium at the time he set the hip-- and so he vowed to my great-great-grandfather that he would not practice medicine again, and promptly pulled up stakes and disappeared. Years later, during the flu epidemic of 1918, they saw an article in the paper about a town out West that had survived the epidemic with very few deaths. A stranger had come out of the rough country and set up a makeshift hospital-- had doctored the sick and kept the infection from spreading. Afterward, he wouldn't talk to the reporter, went back into the hills, but the picture proved it to be the doctor who had set Captain Richardson's hip.

So you can see why I'm keeping the Richardson settee. Unfortunately, the two sofas don't get along. The Mrs. Malurevsky sofa thinks it is far more elegant than the Richardson settee. The Richardson settee feels it has honest craftsmanship on its side, and accuses the Mrs. Malurevsky sofa of pretense. They can't be in the same room with each other.

But that's true about other furniture I've been willed. The spool bed and the trunk and the hassock can all be the same room, but I can't put the poudreuse in there or a fight will break out. The wing chair and Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa shoulder along all right together, but only if the blue Empire chair is with them to smooth things over. Instead of a nice, clean minimalism, my house has become a Rubik's Cube of furniture and relationship.

As the upholstered pieces mounted in my garage, my sisters began to get ideas. When it's time to rethink the old family furniture, they now have a place it can go: my place. Consequently, they have spare, minimalist houses, and I have enough furniture in my garage to make a squatter comfortable. If only there were a bathroom down there.

I am not a hoarder. I do not keep thirteen used purses in the garage in case of a rainy day. I am not one to stock up on box upon box of cocoa puffs. I do not keep the shoddy or the flimsy. I fix the broken and reupholster the exhausted. My garage is populated with stories I never expected to be keeping: it is the garage of last resort. Since Wes's comment, no longer do I call myself minimalist. My view has changed. Like taut skin and a flat stomach, I now believe that minimalism is the province of the young.