There are roses, small sweetheart-style variegated ones, stuck one or two at a time in small vases on the coffee table. Maybe you’d seen it on a design website—maybe one of Martha Stewart’s magazines, though you’d be really embarrassed if that was the case. Especially since the rest of the room is a mish-mash of hand-me-down furniture.
First, there are your mother-in-law’s 1950s modern sofas, loveseats, really, impossible to sleep on, although the TV doesn’t get reception anyway, so there’s no point in trying to snooze under the influence of infomercials. There’s a Swedish-style folding rocking chair—the brick red canvas sling faded to Nantucket pink or whatever they called that sunbleached color—in need of a new cover, as the one you’ve got is torn at the corner, from that time you sat down at the wrong angle, and the decades-old fabric tore at the corner. Both the rocking chair and the blonde wood coffee table—the one with the annoying carvings and lines that are impossible to keep grit out of, even with a toothbrush, and you just aren’t the toothbrush type of cleaner—come from your sister-in-law, who had them before she had her grown-up life. The magazine rack was something a friend was going to toss when she moved. The baskets with the rest of the magazines another cast off from your sister in law.
The bookcase, the solid one, not the blonde Swedish style folding ones you bought at the big-box kitchen and bathroom store, is actually yours—a present from your father when you were thirteen. He bought it unfinished, and one late summer into early fall, the two of you sanded it on evenings and weekends, he with the belt sander and you with your paper-wrapped block. Once it was ready for staining, you argued, not seriously, over the color—you wanted the lightest pine stain, knowing even then it would fade to a honeyed amber that was as dark of a wood color as you wanted. Cherry was nice, but the wood stain color has bad memories for you—it’s the color of the cigarette smoke-infused boards in the box-frame bookcases your mother put together, and which had to be taken down and apart, then put back together, every few years, when you moved to different apartments—when the rent went up too high at the old one, or the downstairs neighbors brought cockroaches in during an uncontrollable infestation, or the other downstairs neighbors smoked too much pot and had screaming fights that required calling the cops. Cherry wood didn’t have good associations for you. It speaks of an itinerant life.
Each layer of stain, each coat of varnish thereafter was something you personally supervised. You took care, sanding the varnished surface again with garnet paper before the next layer when on, under your father’s supervision. You didn’t really need it—you were careful, even at thirteen, deliberate, meticulous in your actions. A grown up, even before you were out of your training bra. It came out beautifully, and the bookcase followed you from bedroom to itinerant bedroom, to college and law school and now your married home. It’s been a constant through your growing-up peregrinations, a solid home for your books—some new friends replacing old ones, some old ones that have stood the test of time.
There’s a mish-mash of CD towers, more from your husband than you. He’s more of a music junkie, though you’ve both found new bands you like together that let you tease each other less about your pre-marriage music selections, from Bruce Springsteen to Bon Jovi—there are lots of new CDs that give you something to listen to, together. You bought a TV stand, together, to hold the TV that was a hand-me-down from your father, when he bought a new one. It gets lousy reception, but that’s irrelevant, since you both agreed your first year of marriage that cable wasn’t worth the expense. You got out of the habit of watching TV, then, and instead, the two of you read on the sofa or web-surfed to your technophile’s heart’s content on the laptop. The TV stand does hold the VCR/DVD player you also bought, together—and the weird assemblage of movies that you watch at random intervals. Mostly, the TV’s become an extra place to put CDs, now overflowing from the towers you both brought into the marriage. Your music runneth over, so to say.
There are those folding bookcases, one on top of the other, every shelf bearing a mix of books, all acquired since your meeting and marriage. Some books you each read on your own, some you’ve both read and bonded over. The shelves are overflowing—books stacked on top and in front of the neatly-shelved ones, the angles precarious and threatening to fall on the various knick-knacks that you’ve both acquired over the years.
You’ve got a collection of throws on the sofa—one a gift knitted by friends, one an almost-heirloom hand-me-down from a great aunt, and the last a fleece cast-off your father had in his car and was going to get rid of. They sometimes flop over the side table you took from the friend who was tossing the magazine rack—it was the right size, even if it has a walnut finish and doesn’t really go with the rest of the mish-mash, which at least has the benefit of being in the same color family. But you’ve made room for it anyway, and it’s useful—it holds more books, more bud vases with discount roses, and provides someplace to shove more magazines under.
It’s a motley assemblage of furniture, and very little of it is something you personally picked out. For a long time, you’ve wanted things of your own—that you picked out, haggled over with your spouse, bought to replace the things of the past that bear the weight of experience, other people’s and yours. As if the purchase of new things is enough to wash over the past, and usher you into a grown-up life where the signs of wear and tear are replaced by shiny new surfaces. But these old pieces of furniture, inherited from family and friends, still house your heart and mind, even if the shelves run over sometimes—your heart and mind in sound and paper, in talking and laughing and reading aloud to one another, and in nights and weekends spent under blankets on couches too short for real comfort, but which you’ve learned to accustom your body to. When are any of us, really, totally comfortable? We’re not—we learn to adapt to our environments, and make them our own as we can. We add things that reflect who we’ve become as we got older, new pieces of furniture that meet new needs, new embellishments and accessories that show the way we’ve tweaked ourselves over time.
Making do with what you’ve already got, learning to live and be comfortable with it, while not being afraid to add finishing touches and rearrange the already existing furniture—that’s the real sign of a grown up life.