My parents were “antiquers.” But they didn’t call themselves that. It wouldn’t have even occurred to them to call themselves that. My father would have punched a guy who called him something like that. No. They just liked looking for things that would last.
In the seventies, when we still lived in Queens, my parents would escape scorching outerborough summers by taking weekend drives to New England and upstate New York, to take a look around at things. This was long before Martha Stewart got her grubby little pierogi paws ahold of the antiques market, and brought about the causation of everything manufactured before 1965 to have a twenty-thousand percent mark-up.
Back then, my parents scoured roadside shops along Route 7 in Connecticut, or gingerly stepped through dusty horse barns in Vermont, to find long-abandoned treasures. My father would light cigarettes out in fields and talk to weathered old men about the best route to take back to the city. My mother would hold carnival glass bowls up to the sunlight, and show me the bubbles trapped in its curved sides. Such imperfections were the marks of human hands, forming the parameters. My mother had an eye for beautiful, broken things.I learned about dovetail joints and inlaid mahogany on those trips. This was their shared pleasure. This was their language of love.
My father was — and still is — quite handy. He learned such things from other men — his father, his brother-in-law, his uncle, his cousins — because those were the only things they talked to each other about. He taught himself how to refinish tabletops, how to tighten and balance furniture legs, and how to restore the luster of dulled brass hardware, on sideboards and dressers long abandoned by their owners. Some things he could make right. Some things he could fix.
When I was small, my father would often let me help him with his restoration efforts. He only had me — a girl, not a boy who rightfully should have inherited such skills — but that didn’t seem to matter to him at all. He’d take me on Saturday mornings to the gorgeous, old hardware store on Myrtle Avenue — the one that isn’t there anymore, the one with rows and rows of old bins and drawers, with latches and screws and handsaws all sorted and exacted in tight, new bundles. I’d run my hand along the edges of paintbrushes, watching the shimmer of light move across the bristles, as my father lingered at the counter and asked the hardware store owner for advice. We’d return home with solutions to problems in brown paper bags.
At home, he’d show me the differences in grades of sandpaper, and explain how to sand wood along the grain, how to follow its lines, or risk damaging the beauty of its natural pattern. He’d ask me to hold things – like the Philips-head screwdriver that he’d borrowed from — and mistakenly never returned to — his super in the apartment on Cooper Street in Inwood, the one that my parents had lived in when they were newly married. “Gimme Horko’s screwdriver,” he’d say to me while underneath something, arm outstretched, and I’d know exactly which tool he meant. It had a yellow plastic handle, and a few paint spills, and he’d often compliment its size and grip for proper torque. This was a good one. This should be kept.
I was only banned from our basement when my father was shellacking something, trying to protect the fragility of the surface. The smell was too toxic for me, but he’d be smoking all the while, with dinged metal cans of turpentine at his feet.
He’d unscrew metal pulls and hinges, the pieces holding things together, and I’d sit and watch them lighten in the chemical bath in the old bucket he kept in the basement. I’d witness the hand-tooled filigree emerging, the dirt and damage of a hundred years, the fingerprints, the marks, the proof of time — all dissipate into nothingness.
In an era when everyone was “going Mediterranean” or “going Colonial” via Macy’s and Levitz, my parents sought out quirky artifacts from the past to decorate the two-family apartments we rented in Queens, and finally, the small attached Tudor house on Doran Avenue that we could finally say was ours. They didn’t have much to spend, but my father thought that their money was far better spent on well-made furniture that had survived decades of use. “My sister can go see Seaman’s first,” he’d say, smirking with a Marlboro out of the side of his mouth, “but I’d rather get something made out of tiger oak.” That was right after my aunt’s pressboard Seaman’s dining room table collapsed during Easter dinner. Ham and jellybeans everywhere.
In a counter move to most of their married peers, my parents never sought the spinning-wheel and antique crock look so commonly adopted in seventies-era home decor. No eagles or shields, or little Revolutionary War-era drummer boys decoupaged on wooden plaques. Instead, they bartered for stained glass crow-barred from the window sashes of churches, and for retired preachers’ pulpits from defunct congregations in New Hampshire.
They wanted things to last.