Of Murphy’s Oil Soap and the Patina of a By-Gone Era…

Used furniture 1
Today is a Murphy’s Oil Soap day. Today I am cleaning some brand-new used furniture.

This is how we came to buy it.

**************

“Solid oak table,” says the posting on Facebook. “Three leaves. Top shows mild wear. $25.00.”

It is exactly what I want for my dining room renovation project. I’ve been prowling on-line second hand sites, wandering through local stores–antique emporiums, junk shops, and re-purposers’ paradises. I’ve gotten lots of great ideas, but nothing has been the bargain I’m seeking.

I want a sturdy round table that can be extended for parties and holidays. I do NOT want the chairs that go with it–my vision mandates three pairs of chairs, different styles, maybe even different colors. One set will have arms and be, when the table is at its full length, anchors at the head and foot. The others, strong and comfortable, but in some yet-to-be-discovered funky, fun design, will slide up to the sides.

And I want it all, of course, for next to nothing.

Nothing too matchy-matchy, I tell Mark bossily. I do NOT want to go out and buy a ponderous dining room suite. I want something unique, something we assemble. I want something we can spin in our own special style, but something that, put together in a new grouping, has not just a history, but a future, of its own.

Mark rolls his eyes. (He has been known to ask, a little plaintively, “Do you think, someday, we could have bedroom furniture that matches?”) He is intrigued by the idea of the mismatched chairs, though, if we could just find the right pedestal table to anchor them.

And then the ad pops up on my FaceBook feed.

“What do you think?” I ask him. “Should we go and look?”

“Why not?” he says. I message the seller.

**************

We thought we were so organized. We took both cars. We’d cleaned out the trunks and folded some soft, old blankets into them. Mark carefully selected tools he might need for dis-assembly, and we were off, convoying to a set of storage lockers thirty miles away. Young James rode along with his dad to provide extra muscle.

The seller–we’ll call him Tom–was waiting for us. He was a big, bearish, youngish man with a broad, open face, glazed in sweat; he’d been moving furniture on that hot summer afternoon. The table was at the entrance to the storage pod; we inspected the pedestal and the top and the three leaves that would extend it. We looked at each other.

“Yes?” said Mark.

“Perfect.”

Money changed hands. We opened both trunks; Jim and I carried the leaves and slid them into mine. Mark removed the pedestal from the tabletop and angled it carefully into his back seat. Then he and Jim rolled the top itself to his trunk–his trunk being broader and deeper–and hefted it up to slide inside.

There was no way. They slid it back down and got the measuring tape. They looked at back seats and measured them. They rummaged in the toolbox.

Meanwhile, I was talking to Tom in the storage pod.

“I got to get rid of a lot of stuff by Wednesday,” he told me on that Monday afternoon. “I got a sale in Columbus, and I’m gonna need the room. Is there anything else you need? I got a nice dresser back there.”

Part of my dining room vision was repurposing an old dresser,–painting it, adding fun hardware, and then hanging shelves above it for plates–kind of, I thought, a home-assembled china cabinet effect. But the ‘dresser’ Tom referred to was, actually, a china cabinet. It had a glass door and three shelves and a drawer. Swirly bulls-eyes marched down the sides, and the carving was in mint condition: not a flaw or a chip.

It was gritty and dusty, but it was the perfect shape and the perfect size for the space I had in mind. I hesitated.

“Fifty bucks?” he said.

I thought of badly damaged cabinets I had seen in stores and on-line with tags that read, “Solid wood! $300. Great project!”

I bent to open the drawer, and Tom said swiftly, “Oh, that don’t open.”

But it did, revealing plastic place-mats printed with pictures of wine glasses, a deck of playing cards, and a child’s toy, unopened in its plastic bubble.

“Well, I’ll be,” said Tom, and he quickly scooped out all that treasure. He nodded at the cabinet.

“You want it?” he asked.

“I’ll talk to Mark,” I said.

***************

But Mark and Jim had determined, meantime, that there was no way the tabletop would fit into any area of either car, and that dis-assembly was beyond the tools and inclination Mark had brought along. Tom rolled the top back into the pod, and we drove off to reconnoiter at a Wendy’s we had seen down the street–to make a plan to get that tabletop moved and to talk about the cabinet.

***************

Friends are a wonderful gift. Sitting in the blast of air conditioning at Wendy’s, I texted Terry, and I asked if there was any way her patient husband Paul would have time to drive his truck and Mark out to those storage pods the next day. And Terry messaged back almost immediately: Sure. What time?

Mark and I discussed the china cabinet all that night; by morning, we had decided to buy it. So we messaged Paul that the load had just gotten a little heavier.

Tom was available at 3:30; Mark came home from work and changed, and Paul picked him up. James went along, too, which meant that Mark scrunched into the bumper seat behind the driver.

He had only twenties in his wallet, Mark did, and Tom did not have change. In the dickerings for the china cabinet, poor Paul, who was already donating his time and gas and resources, had to loan the boy ten dollars.

I was off that day on a wonderful road trip that is another story in itself. When I came home, the tabletop was leaning against the dining room wall and the china cabinet was perched in front of the fireplace. Mark was grilling chicken, and he and Jim were pretty pleased with how the whole day had worked out.

I’m not quite sure how Paul felt about everything.

 

Used furniture 2

****************

So this morning, I will get to know the newest members of our furniture family. I’ll fill a plastic bucket with hot water and sloosh in a glop of Murphy’s, sudsing it around with my fingers until it melts completely. I’ll take my little hand vac and clean out the china cabinet, suck the loose grit out of nooks and crannies of the table, and then I’ll wipe everything down. And then I’ll dip a soft, white cloth into the bucket of suds, and I’ll begin the long, slow, exploratory process of getting to know my new china cabinet and table.

I’ll work from the inside out, shoving the rag into the smallest corners and nooks, making sure any dirt and residue is washed away. We’ll talk to each other, those wooden fixtures and I, while I scrub and massage and polish.

The treasure Tom scooped out of the drawer already lends me some clues to the china cabinet’s past–that the folks who owned it were practical types who liked a place-mat they could wipe down instead of laundering and ironing; that there was a special child worthy of a new toy (I imagine a grandma seeing a little something she knew the five-year old would just love at the dollar store, bringing that gift home triumphantly, putting it in the drawer, and maybe, forgetting it was there–the right time never quite arriving to give that treasure to the little guy.)

That pack of cards had been well-used; I imagine the china cabinet overseeing long games of euchre at the dining room table.

Washing the cabinet will tell me more–the soap may draw up and wash away layers of tobacco gunk, for instance, and I’ll think of a home like my parents’, blue with cigarette smoke and loud with jokes and laughter. I will imagine card games and jokes and laughter, smoke-free, in this cabinet’s future.

The wear on the top of the table will tell its own tale, about meals and other projects. Did a woman drag out her portable sewing machine and load it onto this table, shoving the corded foot pedal underneath, mending knees of jeans and sewing curtains for the Florida room and whipping up a special dress for her sister’s youngest’s wedding?  Are there marks and indentations from years of kids wielding sharpened pencils, intensely doing homework or drawing epic scenes of imagined historic battles?

I’ll imagine someone’s joy in getting this piece of furniture new, a long awaited purchase made possible by her hard work at a weekend job. I’ll think of the china cabinet coming into, maybe, a young couple’s home, a gift from his parents, a gift that had stood for many long years in his beloved, and now-deceased, grandmother’s dining room. I’ll imagine that cabinet settling in and watching the young couple become parents, the children growing, and the years passing–passing into a time when the cabinet, loved but no longer needed, gets passed away itself into strangers’ hands.

And I will sluice away the grit and residue of recent postings. If these pieces were kept in dank basements or spider-filled barns, moved about from pod to pod–THAT, I don’t particularly want to know. I want to bow my head to the rich history the pieces exemplify. I want to wash away any storage unit past.

I love used furniture–love it, of course for its bargain-rightness (I do believe that, somewhere out there, just the piece I need is being sold at a fraction of its ‘new self’ price; my challenge is to track it down and bring it back to  vibrant life.) I love it for its workmanship–for the careful joinings, for instance, so different from the glue and staples of discount buys. I love it for the use it’s had and the care someone has taken and for the future it offers us in its new home. I love it for its environmental responsibility, for the re-use of a resource that will not have to be harvested and stripped for my vision to take fruit.

There’s a patina and there’s a promise to the right piece of used furniture, lovingly restored.

*************

Oh, we have projects. Before I buy the paint for the dining room, I need to finish up the details on the almost-painted car port, and then we need to get the drop-cloth curtains hung and the tables covered and the chairs arranged, and invite dear friends, and celebrate.

Before the painters come to start the house, we need to paint the garage and the long fence that delineates the way back part of our backyard. We need to cut back rambling neglected bushes. We need to root suckers from the lilac tree and buy some hydrangeas and sink them into sad, neglected garden spaces so that, in a year or three or five, there will be, henceforth from that time, an annual bloom of exuberant flowers.

There is a lot to do. But in there, in the near-enough-to touch future, we will be cleaning,  spackling, and prepping the dining room; we will be rolling on bold new paint color. We’ll be repainting the existing low boy. We’ll be treating the venerable wood floor, and we’ll be beating the dust from the heavy carpet.

And then I’ll be moving in the new pieces–new to us, but seasoned in their experience of dining rooms, bringing years of service to this new story we’ll unfold. New story for us, but new chapter for these venerable pieces, lovingly cared for, lovingly restored.

Used furniture–the right used furniture–brings with it a sense of past, a comfortable present, and a promise for the future.

And it brings a smile to my frugal face.

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22 thoughts on “Of Murphy’s Oil Soap and the Patina of a By-Gone Era…

  1. Oh how exciting. This is how I like to decorate too! And you have the pleasure now of being retired and can leisurely enjoy the project. Have fun. Can’t wait to see!!

  2. Patty Roker

    You have really made me miss the bounty of wonderful pre-owned (always did sound better than used) furniture that America offers. Unfortunately this little 21 mile x 7 mile paradise does not provide the plethora of spots to find such treasures and the prospect of flying to the U.S., driving around to uncover wonders and then, somehow, get them packed, delivered to a boat and shipped here daunts me beyond words. So thanks for the elusive and impossible and wonderful dream of finding and restoring such beauty. At least I can enjoy reading about it!

    1. Now there’s a trade-off you wouldn’t think about when moving to paradise… Some smart young entrepreneur could make a business out of bringing pre-owned (you’re right: siunds much better!) to the islands!!!

  3. Kimberly Allen

    Enjoyed reading about your latest project Pam. I have been making batches of bread and butter pickles, a new experience for me after making one batch last summer. Opportunity met with opportnity as I received lots of cucumbers from my CSA and friends and I had the time. A different kind of creativity.

    1. Different and wonderful! I love having a CSA–it pushes me out of my comfort zone as far as using produce goes…I am too frugal to waste a thing, so we have found some new favorite recipes. You inspire me–we’ve eaten a lot of tomato and cucumber salads this year. Not once did pickles cross my mind. Next year….

      1. Kimberly Allen

        So true about CSAs. Kohlrabi. Who knew. I have a feeling you like stories. I do too. Have to share this one. After getting a lot of “unlimited cucumbers” from my CSA, I gave 2 jars of pickles to the owner of the farm the next time I got my share. Their farm started in a place I remember well. It was run by an older couple, the Smiths, of Smiths Gardens, for years and I would go there with my mom to buy flower and vegetable plants. When the couple passed, after their children and grandchildren tried to keep it going, it was sold to the present owner who used the greenhouses to “sprout” his farm business and CSA. I had the opportunity to let him know that coincidentally, my pickle recipe was given to me by a friend, who got it from Mrs. Smith. “Full circle! ” he said. You just never know where new paths will take you by serendipity!

      2. I think it stands for community supported agriculture..,it’s kind of like buying a share in a farm for a growing season. I pay a sum at the beginning of the year. Every week, the farmer delivers a basket with whatever is ripe from the fields. I have learned to cook with kale and make slaw from all kinds of interesting veggies as a result!

  4. What a fun project. I always feel like if you sat next to a piece of old furniture it might whisper stories in your ear. I get the same feeling about old barns. Thanks for sharing!

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