‘Southern Voices’ is a reader-submitted platform for stories from the heart. Today’s submission comes from author and writer Elizabeth Passarella, whose new book, Good Apple, is now available wherever books are sold. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines for submission here.
My house is filled with a lot of antique furniture, passed down from my Southern grandparents. By “house,” I mean a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, where I live with my husband and three children. And by “antique furniture,” I mean the weird stuff that my older sister didn’t want. There’s the living room set that my paternal grandparents bought on a trip to Chicago in the 1950s, which was extremely modern at the time and not at all my mother’s taste. After they died, it sat in my parents’ attic for years. My mother always said, “It’ll fit in in a New York City apartment,” and she was right. I have my grandmother’s two barrel-shaped, cane-backed chairs in my small living room. Her travertine coffee table — we called it the amoeba table because the heavy, stone top was an amorphous, kidney bean shape — sat in front of them for a while. But eventually, we bought a taller, iron base and are now using the amoeba as a dining table. It is unique and tough and will knock you unconscious if you bump into it wrong. My mother would probably say the same for me. We belong together.
The piece of furniture that is my favorite, though, is a couch. It’s the ugly duckling of our antiques. My dad bought it in the 1960s before he even met my mother. It has a long, low frame with narrow, straight, mid-century arms and velour upholstery in a spectacular orange, rust, black, and white plaid. Yes, I said an orange, rust, black, and white velour plaid. Please imagine my mother trying to figure out where to put this couch in our home, as she curated an English country vibe. Why didn’t she just tell him to get rid of it? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that she, like all of us, felt an inexplicable, magical attachment to this couch. The fabric is like the fur of a baby rabbit. As a kid, I would lie on it, spread-eagle, and wave my arms and legs back and forth, as if I were making a snow angel, just to feel the cool, velvety swish. Because the couch is so long, a tall, adult male can stretch all the way out and not touch either end. Two teenage girls can lie opposite with plenty of room to spare. Dad’s couch had a hold on all of us. My mother would occasionally talk about reupholstering it, but the rest of us would protest. Lose the velour? Never!
For a few years, the couch was exiled to my maternal grandparents’ lake cabin in Mississippi. Then, when my parents moved to a larger house with a suite for my dad’s mother to live with us, the couch went to her room. Her nurse slept on it at night to be close to her towards the end of her life. (“Best bed in the house,” my dad would say.) Eventually, my parents moved again, and the couch went to the attic. Then I did something terrible.
My husband and I got engaged while he was in law school at Tulane University. I moved to New Orleans, rented an apartment that would eventually become ours, and decided I could tame the couch. Make him more presentable. Wouldn’t chocolate brown velvet be easier to decorate around than orange plaid? I ordered a custom slipcover for the couch, and, well, despite the fact that an upholsterer measured the couch and sewed the slipcover to fit, it never did. I’d walk into the living room in the morning to find folds of brown velvet drooping off one side or the skirt hanging at an angle, as if the couch was trying to squirm out of it. And the couch won. I tossed the slipcover. When my husband and I moved back to New York after law school, we loaded up the couch along with the barrel chairs and a small chest from my grandmother. Getting the plaid beast into a freight elevator and up to our eighth-floor apartment was brutal. As my husband says, we may never be able to move, because the couch is stuck here. It now lives in our kids’ bedroom. I re-painted their walls and bought new bedding just to coordinate with the velour. Like I said, the couch has persuasive powers.
Few of my friends in New York have furniture that’s been passed down through generations sitting in their apartments. There is the logistical issue, for starters; we simply don’t have huge houses with lots of rooms to fill up, and New Yorkers are always looking for compact pieces. It’s hard to make room for something bulky or decorative that doesn’t also have hidden drawers for LEGOs. I’m an anomaly. But having these pieces around helps me feel close to my grandparents, who are all long gone. The fact that most of the chairs and chests and tabletops are a little odd, not quite right for traditional Southern decor but special nonetheless, feels fitting for a Southern woman who cherishes where she’s from but just seems to fit better elsewhere.
My dad died last year, and right around that time, the couch began falling apart. The upholstery, the cushions, the springs inside … everything had held on bravely for decades, and in a matter of months gave out. It doesn’t help that my children use the pillows for forts and jump on the ancient frame like a trampoline. But there are now tears in the fabric. Metal coils are poking out in spots. And I am heartbroken. I imagine this is how people feel when they have a very old, very loved dog that gets sick and needs expensive, life-saving surgery. How much money am I willing to spend? (I should note that I do have a very nice upholsterer, and he is approximately 1,000 times pricier than anyone in the South.) I have actually said to my husband that maybe it’s time for us to move to a bigger apartment if we are going to have to move the couch anyway. To be clear: I am considering a huge life change and a larger mortgage to keep a couch in my life.
We haven’t decided yet. The couch hangs on. I lovingly tuck 60-year-old stuffing back into the frame at night before I put my kids to bed. I ask them to please be gentle with the couch, that their grandfather loved it and so do I. And then I lie on it and swish my arms back and forth and remember him.
Elizabeth Passarella is a contributing editor for Southern Living, where she writes the “Social Graces” column and author of Good Apple, now available nationwide. A former editor at Real Simpleand Vogue, she has written about food, travel, home design, and parenting in outlets including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Parents, Martha Stewart Weddings, Coastal Living, and Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn. She lives in New York City. Find her on Instagram @espassarella.
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