A Family Heirloom: In Praise of Imperfection

A Family Heirloom: In Praise of Imperfection and Memories

A simple family heirloom is treasured, not because of its trendiness or fleeting contribution to a home decor magazine lifestyle, but because its sturdy construction and utilitarian style have allowed it to endure long enough to have created family memories.

By Andrea Belcham

The sideboard – as that’s what I’ll call it here for the sake of clarity, though its maker may have had a different name in mind (hutch? buffet? cabinet?), and though for me what it represents belies nomenclature – the sideboard rests against a wall in my tiny dining room, beside a shelf laden with dog-eared books and facing the welcoming dining table. Its dark and aged wood dully reflects the light that filters through the window during the day, and the amber glow of the ceiling lamp every evening. Note that I said “dully”: I would be lying if I claimed to devote as much attention to its maintenance as its age and lineage probably justify, polishing and dusting its seams and carvings religiously.

I do give a quick wipe of its surfaces every week, however, and moved by the changing seasons, I may rub it down gently with an oil soap. But, in truth, I see little reason to conceal the fact that it’s a very well used – others may say “abused” – sideboard, for its imperfect exterior proudly tells the story of the many years that have passed before its present stop in my home.

A glance through almost any of the popular home decoration and lifestyle magazines produced today will lead the reader to this common conclusion: that a happy living space is achieved only through the mass and continuous consumption of goods. Their full-page, overt ads for “unique” and “finely crafted” furniture and home objects, and their more covert advertisements – editorial profiles of carefully styled interiors populated by the latest in home fashions, for instance – combine to imply that one’s purchasing power defines one’s individual expression. If we are to believe these publications, a bedroom set will expire after a season, and this month’s coveted painted-canvas floor cloth will have to be replaced in December by the newest in knotted-wool carpets. A closer look at these featured objets d’art often reveals quite poor craftsmanship, suggesting that the shoddiness of their manufacture has been intentional, necessitating further purchases in the near future. In the magazines, however, their arrangement is always exquisite and their surfaces flawless, part of the package of the perfect life being fed to daydreaming readers.

Where are the coffee rings, the chips, the frays, the ink stains, the little tears that are a result of everyday living? Only in pieces that are deliberately “distressed,” maybe, or in vintage articles being resold at prices rivaling or surpassing the cost of newer items. Yet what meaning can such goods, capriciously acquired, hold for the new owner? History cannot be purchased, nor can one expect to make memories with items that, due to their poor construction, are not likely to endure.

In market terms, my sideboard is probably of little value.

Stout and solid-legged and showing its age (one might even venture to call it “ugly”), it came to me via my parents, who inherited it themselves from my grandmother. I can say with all certainty – and perhaps a little chagrin – that there is nothing contrived about this finish. When it belonged to my father and mother, it served as a sort of large potted-plant stand, and its slightly mottled top attests to at least two decades of water splashes. I suspect that it served a more traditional purpose for my grandparents, perhaps storing tablecloths or decanters behind its two carved doors. While its exact role then is subject to speculation, I have little doubt that its rich veneer owes much to the fingerprints, tobacco smoke, and candles of their household.

Three generations, at least, have used the bronze teardrop-shaped pulls of this family heirloom; they jingle now as they did then whenever the doors are opened or shut. The sideboard’s interior emits an odor that has been steeping for decades – a sort of pickled woodiness that I’ve also known to haunt the folds of old linen kept long in hope chests, a scent that cannot be recreated by today’s manufacturers. It is a scent, too, that crosses continents, for recently a friend visiting from France opened the sideboard’s doors to fetch one of the bottles of wine within and paused with the sudden triggered memory of her own grandparents’ house.

I’m equally sure that its ornamental details would fail to please the eye of most contemporary designers: each door is framed by a border of elaborately turned wood that complements the sideboard’s daringly curvaceous legs. Once a part of a full dining room set at my grandparents’, it is now a separate entity – but also an integral part of the new “set” I’ve come to assemble for my own life.

Like the other furniture in the oft-occupied dining room, the functions of this family heirloom are various and ever-evolving. When it was originally passed onto me, a new university graduate, I used it to hold my nest of art supplies: decorative papers, brushes, bottles of ink and glue. And now, in this my first house, its inner shelves house a modest assemblage of spirits left over from my wedding, as well as a stack of documents regarding our mortgage and appliance warranties, two pairs of binoculars used for viewing the backyard’s birds and a large china plate inherited in my “bachelorette-hood” from my grandmother (accompanied by her strict instructions that it only be used to serve cookies to my gentleman callers).

Atop the sideboard, where once rested my mother’s plants, is an eclectic collection of past and present: an old wood-framed mirror with a streaked face; three watercolor studies of butterflies, which my husband and I uncovered at a yard sale; a slim vessel intended for serving sake, side-by-side with an earthenware vase given to us by my aunt; and on a glass tray with metal handles that have clearly felt the touch of many hands rests a cluster of decorative containers I’ve gradually amassed. When required, it is also a temporary repository for books and research papers, for a curious cat, a jug of fresh flowers, illuminated votives, or the messy pile of the day’s newspaper.

Maybe not a composition worthy of a magazine profile. Yet while it may not suit modern trends, this family heirloom is in complete harmony with my own life. Far from being that “special occasion” sort of furniture, untouchable for the fact of its cost, it is a part of my everyday routine, and as cherished as the most expensive of furniture would be. Accidental chips or dents, minute drops of paint, scratches from a pet’s claw are not fretted over, and only add to its emotional value. There is no other sideboard in the world like mine; more than varnish, its body is coated in real sentiment. So I ask you to forgive the dust and wear, just as you might accept the flaws in myself. I’m glad to say that my sideboard’s sturdiness will see it through the many more days — and occupations — to come for both of us.

Andrea Belcham is a writer living in Quebec, Canada. She is the author of the book Food and Fellowship: Projects and Recipes to Feed a Community. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.

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