One of my mother’s favorite Yiddish proverbs was, “You can’t sit on two horses with one behind.” A fine observation, but growing up in Brooklyn, sitting on even one was unlikely. My own steed was the lid of a sewing machine, a rounded wooden case shaped like a covered bridge with curved corners. Heigh-ho, Singer.
As for places to sit, I mostly perched on the kitchen chairs in our two-family home on 58th Street. The landlords, my grandparents, lived upstairs and never raised the rent. The deal was that my mother would be nearby and available as her parents grew older.
There were four sturdy chairs in our kitchen, and four slightly different ones in my grandparents’ kitchen. On one of those chairs, my grandmother bent over that Singer, narrowing the legs of my dungarees and sewing aprons to be presented to my teachers as Christmas gifts, or practicing her signature on torn-off scraps of paper grocery bags. (She could neither read nor write.)
This was the ’50s. Families making the upwardly mobile leap from Brooklyn to Long Island were furnishing the kitchens in their split-levels with Formica and chrome, shiny mid-century splendor.
We stayed put and stuck with wood. “You couldn’t buy chairs like that today,” adults in my family said, at exactly the time when other people were throwing chairs like that away.
I was in elementary school when my mother brought up the notion of refurbishing the kitchen furniture. The response was certainly cool. My grandfather said that whatever was to be replaced was “good enough,” his typical rejoinder to any such proposal.
But my mother, the executive in charge of 58th Street home improvements, had clout. It had been she, after all, who had ordered the wallpapering of the kitchen ceiling, an endeavor deemed even more successful because the paperhanger had prophesied it wouldn’t last through the night. “Next morning, it was still there,” she liked to remind us.
After a few month’s discussion, my mother was taken seriously. The framework of the furniture was OK, but the wood was dark brown, mottled and rough. The seats, dark red plastic, were stretched and puckered in the middle, frayed at the corners, and dotted with cigarette holes left by a house full of smokers.