Saturday, January 23, 2010

From the Bowels of Antique Stores

Down here we love antique furniture. I think a lot of this comes from all those stories we grew up hearing from our grandparents and great aunts about General Sherman's troops looting the old family home place of all the old furniture and carrying it up north. (Although I never understood what they were going to do with it, because part of my rearing was that Yankees had no taste. So they certainly couldn't appreciate the fine mahogany and cherry furniture they stole from us. But I digress.)

My mother loves antique furniture and to give her credit, she likes the beautiful English pieces, not the primitive early American stuff. Her home now reflects years of searching for and buying individual pieces. Now, none of these are museum quality, but they are all solid wood with well worn patina and in good shape. As for the provenance, she may not be able to tell you the historical background, but she can tell you where every piece came from and how it was procured. And most of it was extremely painful - for my brother and me.

Now, today I appreciate her collection. However, when you are 6 or 7 years old, and the main goal of your day is to get to the beach to start your vacation, or to your grandmother's house as soon as possible, shopping for antiques is not a top priority. But when we were children, to get anywhere in the rural south, you did not take the interstate, you took the back roads. And, these roads were full of two things - motor inns (the old long one story motels that catered to the tourists (the yankees from up north) heading to Florida, with names like "The Stonewall Jackson Motor Inn", "The Sand Man Inn", and my favorite "The Dixie Dew Drop Inn") and antique stores (where we southerners were given the opportunity to buy back our purloined possessions.)

My brother and I could spot an antique store a mile away and had a whole bag of tricks to attempt to detract Mom and Dad's attention so they would not notice one of these emporiums as we passed. Of course their desire to stop was even greater than our desire to continue and since Dad was driving, we rarely succeeded. Therefore, we spent an ungodly amount of time in the dimly lit, dusty bowels of roadside antique stores. Dad was always on the lookout for books to add to his collection on the history of the War Between the States (or War of Northern Aggression - which ever you chose to call it) and chess sets. Mom was always eyeing some chest of drawers, bed, or odd table.

I would follow Dad around. He was always very patient and would point out things of interest as a way of rewarding me for having some patience. Looking back on it, there was always something odd or peculiar to look at, a dentist's kit from the 1800's (a true box of torture), a butter press that put the impression of a flower on the freshly churned butter, or some odd tool I had never seen (before or since). Occasionally, he would find a chess set that interested him and we would buy that. He enjoyed talking with the owners of the stores. He struck up a conversation about chess with one proprietor that lead into a lifelong friendship. They played chess by correspondence for years, exchanging moves with the board and the pieces clearly marked on post cards.

Meanwhile my mother would locate some piece of furniture she wanted, bargain with the owner, and after she bought it, come to Dad to figure out how we were going to get it home. (Usually this required another trip.) On one particular adventure, Dad asked her if she was sure she only wanted one piece. When she questioned him, he smiled and said that he was sending a trailer the next week and would have plenty of room for furniture if she wanted to put an extra piece or two on it. As it turned out, in going through the books in the back room, he had found so many that he thought were valuable, that he had made an offer to buy the entire room of books. When Mama asked him what he planned to do with all the books that would not fit his collection, he just smiled and said he had already thought about that. He was going to donate them to our school library.

Mama took advantage of the delivery opportunity and bought a cherry bed and wash stand she had seen. Dad finalized all the arrangements and picked up two or three of the books to read while we were on vacation. "Dad," I asked. "Do you think I can get one of those books to read?" "Sure, just go back there and pick out one or two." We all climbed back in the car and hopefully headed for the beach. I watched the country side go by and my brother was ever vigilant for another antique store. Dad asked, "Did you find something you wanted to read?" "Yes, sir." Not that I had a choice, I thought to myself. You can't write your "What I did on My Summer Vacation" essay about Dad buying a room full of books if you hadn't read any of them.

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