Heirlooms

I have two pieces of furniture in my home that I consider heirloom: an 18th century secretary, or ladies’ desk, and a massive chest of drawers probably owned by a French bourgeois family in the 1800’s. Both have crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times, coming from France in the early Sixties, then back in the Eighties when my parents moved back to Paris after two decades in the States. In the early Nineties when my mother died and I decided my father would be better off in America with me, the desk and chest of drawers returned to America one last time.
The desk has an elegant folding top and six small drawers, plus a few vertical pigeon-holes for paper, blotter and envelopes. There is a fake front drawer, and a ‘secret’ compartment beneath a horizontal sliding door. The chest of drawers is a massive, looming thing, scarred and darkened by time, its top cracked and badly filled by several generations of do-it-yourselfers. Unlike the desk, it is not elegant. Its ornamentation is basic, workmanlike and utilitarian.
Even as a little kid in Paris, I knew both these items had mystical powers. I believe, though I am not sure, that they originally belonged to my maternal great-grandfather, an architect of some note reputed to have designed the Banc de France and, family legend has it, ornamented the building’s gables with gargoyles bearing the likeness of people he didn’t like, notably other architects. Hidden from view and sculpted in granite, I was also told, is a likeness of his mistress’ torso, her naked stone breasts overlooking the City of Lights.
The desk figures prominently in my earliest memories. My mother hid packs of her American cigarettes–Pall Malls–in its secret recess. There were also decks of cards there, along with score pads, since she was an avid bridge player; a fountain pen set whose ink had to be replenished every few days; photo albums of her family (but none of my father’s whose forbears were a mystery); old war-time cigarette lighters with black wicks; and assorted colored pencils with which my mother sketched the streets visible from our apartment windows. On top of the desk, where other families might display travel and vacation mementos, was a fired clay replica of a Tang Dynasty horse. This was a gift from my mother’s best friend Marie Louise, a hugely talented but impoverished and alcoholic artist who often spent the night on our living room couch.
The chest of drawers was in the dining room. My mother kept table cloths and linens there, as well as heavy, inherited silver-plated place settings–three kinds of knives, four sorts of forks and spoons of varying size–used when my parents entertained. The drawers were equipped with massive lion’s jaw handles that I suspect were not original, and I remember my father using candlewax on the drawer’s tracks to make them slide more easily. The middle drawer–where tablecloths and napkins were stored–always stuck. Sixty years later, it still does.
Now in America, both pieces of furniture have found different uses. The desk, in my living room, holds the collection of clippings from my newspaper days, Moleskins notebooks in assorted colors, a shiny assortment of state-issued quarters in small cloth pouches, and a half-dozen empty wallets. The secret compartment holds a cheap pair of Japanese binoculars and those small, black power supplies that come with wall-mounted vacuum cleaners and other rechargeable items that I have lost or thrown away. The Tang horse is still there.
The chest of drawers has winter wear–sweaters, heavy socks, flannel shirts and leather gloves. Atop it sits a menu from an old French brasserie, and two oil-lamps dating back a couple of hundred years.
Sometimes I get sad thinking that at some point in the relatively near future, these relics of a much earlier age will probably be sold and lose their histories. But for now they’re a link to a very real past, a different era in a different country without television, computers, modems, microwaves and self-cleaning ovens. I might never be able to go home again, but these reminders of a simpler time are strangely comforting. The past isn’t gone, it is alive and safely stored in the antique drawers.

About epiphanettes

Writer, songcrafter, possibly the best French pedal steel guitarist in Virginia.
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