My grandmother’s living room was not large but warm and inviting. One entered either from the dining room, through the main entrance to the house, past the secretaire in the corner with the oil portrait of my mother wearing a red handkerchief hung above it or –much more commonly– through the kitchen with its warn and warm sand-toned linoleum floor and corner bar and sink placed just opposite the door to the basement where my brother would one day live and hide for a spell. This would become just one of a series of long and short spells.
No matter which way you came into the living room, you faced a rather intricately carved wooden hearth whose bookshelves framed the fireplace. In front of these book shelves where books like The Italians and Italian Idioms lived, flanking the fireplace, were two oyster chairs. I don’t remember if they were called oyster chairs or if only my grandmother called them oyster chairs or if I just dreamt about their being called oyster chairs one day and there they remained in my mind as oyster chairs.
She’d had them recovered in the 80s with a soft velour in varying tones of pale yellows. Their shell-like shape swiveled on an invisible mechanism, hidden by the fabric. The arms were covered with protective sleeves of the same fabric. The chair to the right was nestled between the black, baby grand piano to the back of the room and the right side of the fireplace. It tended to stay put, never teetering, carefully placed on the carpet and just in front of the small window leading out to the screened-in porch on the side of the house. The chair on the right got little use, for the view of the TV was blocked by its twin. It would be used most often on holidays and visiting Sundays for unwrapping presents and conversation.
The swiveling, soft yellow oyster chair on the left was also positioned carefully on the plush red carpet which covered all of the living room, entranceway, staircase and dining room. However, it often shifted ever-so-slightly so just a tiny bit of its intricate, invisible base went onto the slate floor in front of the fireplace, causing it to be off kilter and not only swivel but tip. Here my brother perched and hung and jumped and swiveled. Yet he was not a little boy. He was a big, strong, high school athlete who, bowl of ice cream in hand would take a running lead from the kitchen and land on the delicate oyster swivel chair with a thump. His legs splayed over the protective sleeve, he’d swivel it around, still holding his ice cream in one hand and reach for the remote control with the other. My grandmother would make a plea to “go easy on the furniture” but to no avail. Not because he didn’t adore his grandmother but because he didn’t equate the running down of things with the running down of people.
For years I watched the once identical, soft yellow swivel chairs become different from one another. One carefully preserved, well-positioned and poised, the other tattered, unbalanced, bruised, its slip covers worn and threadbare, its bones creaking.