Impressions from the Land of Vanished Beautiful Things
By Stephen Mead
As I type the words Living Room that occasionally perverse, peculiar voice from a darkly comic, mad quadrant of my brain asks: “Yes, well what about other rooms? Aren’t they for living too, and what would be the opposite?” Come into the Dying Room, dear, you’re looking a bit a peaked. See these nice shiny vials of embalming fluid? Just relax and we’ll fix you right up in a jiff.
There were several entrances to the living room of the farmhouse I grew up in, all but one being offshoots from other living quarters, and one in particular which had the capacity for a allowing a person the semblance of a grand entrance. This was the large space from the dining room which had two recessed sliding wood doors that I never saw opened the entire time I lived on the farm. These were kept hidden by a horizontal pole running along the top, used mainly for clothes on hangers (either hung there for drying or waiting to be put on for “dress-up” occasions), the pole itself bolting the doors in place with tarnished black screwed in metal clasps. During the times we asked my mom if we could take out said clasps to at least see these intriguing doors she would respond, “Hell, no. They are dirty and full of dust. You’d have an allergic reaction. Don’t even think about it.” Thus these doors, that had the imagined potential of sliding back with dramatic gossamer magic, as if for the Loretta Young show, remained mysterious with their central gold plated slots where you could push a button and, presto, pewter handles would pop out. “Quit playing with that!”, was the accompanying admonishment mom’s preyed-on-nerves would spout as if by rote whenever we did this. Actually, even without access to the doors, there were a few times I can recall when my siblings and I put up sheets on this dining entrance pole and thus had makeshift stage curtains for brief plays and musicals we’d improvise. (What can I say? We didn’t live in the suburbs and had to come up with some means of fending off the delirium borne of boredom during shut-in days of inclement weather.)
Now that I’ve started to write about it I see that trying to describe the living room is like trying to describe a water color painting in process. Memories and emotions overlap transparently while nevertheless creating layers, this way, that, which shifts the substance of the views welling and disappearing first over here, then, over there. In order to frame the canvas so-to-speak, a person has to find a way to ground the surface plane, center it, and then see what details are strummed forth.
Let’s start with the wallpaper, balancing the scope of the room’s perfect angles into a cube of lightness. If memory serves, the wallpaper had filigree organic autumnal patterns trailing out and interconnecting through the light brushwork of bronze-tinged gold-leaf. The spaces between the shapes invited the viewer to do cloud-picture conjuring, to drift off in a kind of sleepy time calm contemplation. The drop ceiling with its dry sponge-soft square tiles forming a subtle grid augmented this sense of peace while ochre brown painted black oak floorboards gave the room gravity; a launching off point which hinted a person could, and should, often come back down to earth. Aside from polishing the lacquer-shimmer of this floor, the other distinctive memory I have are the few small smooth holes it had where copper heating pipes once were. I would make a game of dropping marbles or other such miniature worlds down them and listening for the far-off glassy kerplunk at the cellar’s other end.
Touching the wallpaper like Braille, as though suspended voices might emanate from it via fingertips, I can hover over what hung upon or rested against those walls. If I picture myself standing like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, (only clothed to keep this rated G), in the center of the braided oval rug overlapping the dining and living room spaces, I can start to count impressions as if I have the hands of a clock. To the immediate right before the kitchen entrance, (watch your step) is a very short wall that, in our childhood, created a gallery for our various crayon and marker drawings, though later only the circular thermostat remained. There were two dials in its curves of gun metal blue which, in close-up, when lined up, had the meter-like needle of some Grade B Sci Fi machine in miniature. In the winter getting the needle lined up with the proper number created the thrill of a little click as the furnace began from the bowels of the house, water gurgling as it moved up through copper and out radiator vents like some warming panpipe music.
A formal beige wooden mantelpiece was the focal point for the next wall. At one time an actual hearth or wood burning stove must have been part of this now decorative feature for there was a stone chimney directly above it popping through the roof. The small tunnel-shaped center was now boarded and wallpapered up though I do believe, again in childhood, at Christmas time either gift wrapping was cut to fit the space or the replica of a roaring fire cut and pasted from various pieces of construction paper. Hand-knitted festive stockings of course hung from this mantel at Christmas too, and tinsel as well might outline its partially Odalisque border, but the rest of the year it naturally was a show piece for photos in frames. Aside from school portraits my siblings and I cringed over, two others stand out. One was a lovely black and white image of my dark haired Aunt Anne, my father’s sister, who died of rheumatic fever before reaching her twenties. The grace in her eyes and smile were haunting to me, like Gene Tierney’s mien in “Laura”. (Stored away we also had a couple pencil studies she’d done of flowers, complete with the actual flowers of inspiration sealed in wax paper, so I somehow grew up to believe any artistic intuition my sister and I had came from Aunt Anne via transmigration.) The other photo was of my father’s dad squinting in the sun wearing wire rims with the land he farmed in the background. He too died before I came upon the scene but knowing he built the house I grew up in added to his iconic stature on the mantel.
In addition to this mantel being a catch-all for things like baseballs, a smelly sea shell and an old toy red metal fire truck, at its center was an antique walnut clock. It had elaborate ball, conical, pillar and turret-like carvings and a glass door frosted at the edges in a feathery pattern. This door opened to reveal a face of elegant roman numerals and holes on either side where the key would wind it. This sturdy squat key had a black silk ribbon and resided at the bottom of the clock near the faux pearl pendulum. As kids, my siblings and I loved to make the pendulum swing with our small pale hands, listening to the tick-tock-ish sound as it bopped back ‘n for the against the wooden sides, and later, as either a Christmas or Anniversary gift to my parents, we actually paid to have it fixed. The tocking was pretty damn loud however, so between that and the cathedral crescendo of the hourly din, and the fact that my sister had a job where she had to get up by four or five every morning, the practical usage of this clock was pretty short-lived. Really, don’t try to get between us Meads and our sleep. We’ve never been morning people. Something growling and gremlin-ish comes out. Even my farmer dad wasn’t great at getting up at the crack of dawn to feed the animals. He’d gag the rooster and stroll out to the barn sometime between eleven and noon.
Above, on either side of the mantel, were two aerial photos of the farm. A small airport for privately-owned planes functioned up the hill from us and I don’t think it was the same photographer who took these aerial shots since they came from different time periods. One was in black ‘n white depicting dots of flocks (ducks or geese?) in a well-cared for meadow and a silo still under construction, while the other color photo showed not only the silo completed but fields surrounding the large connected barn, as being much more wild, left to clipping by the Holstein dairy cows.
Around the corner from this wall was a sort of open alcove-like area formed by the door leading upstairs to my grandmother’s room and two windows kitty-corner to one another. My siblings recall a metal bathing tub for infants in this corner but I can recall only another tinier oval braided rug and either a rocking chair or glossy heavy plastic palomino rocking horse filling this space, neither being particularly practical given the fact that the door to the upstairs opened outward. Actually, come to think of it, in my teen years there was a tropical aquarium that my brother (who’d claimed the upstairs room by then, my grandmother having passed years before), had to be very careful not to break with the doorknob when coming down to the living room. The aquarium’s light made the small space both organic and ethereal in the evenings as Angel Fish, Neon Tetras, striped Tiger Fish, even a glass wall-tidying catfish, swam through their private world. All in all, this corner was just one of those weird room outcroppings which should have been left empty for practical purposes but never was since apparently we had a continuous overflow of excess furniture.
In the front wall of the living room was what I considered one of the original front doors, but I could be wrong about this since legend has it that the house grew with additions as more Meads came upon the scene. In any case, this wooden four paned door had a white painted storm door in front of it which had to be propped open on summer nights to let cooler air in. This door also had its own lead-based key always in its lock. My siblings and I found this key somewhat fascinating; listening to tumblers work the bolt from inside, but we also tried to be amateur lock picks seeing if we could open this door with a hairpin. Though we pretended otherwise, I’m fairly certain we could not, yet we were even more fascinated when we came upon a ring of slender skeleton keys which fit locks for most of the doors in the house, including the inner doors to bedrooms usually left unlocked. I’m still not exactly sure what lay behind the fascination for this power bestowed by keys unless in some Henry Jamesian past lives we were super observant crime solving concierge sleuths. We certainly got a kick out of either being in league thick as thieves, or pitting ourselves against one another.
On the front wall, between the front windows and the door, hung two hand-carved frames. The edges of each formed crosses held in place by little tacks. The edges were flat on one side and scalloped on the other. In the left-side frame was an MGM magazine cut out of Jesus in profile, with tawny wavy hair and gorgeous baby blue eyes; in the other was a magazine cut out of a painted robin on a branch. In retrospect I believe this image had an His eye is on the sparrow connotation but maybe robins were the artists forte instead. Next to this was the dull gold panel with its push-in-push-out buttons that controlled the porch light. Actually only two of these four buttons did anything at all in regards to the porch. We figured the other two buttons controlled something more fantastical and top secret; rockets perhaps on a distant celestial plane.
The front windows which had radiators beneath them; great on winter days for drying mittens and socks wet from sledding, were covered with sheer smoke-grey curtains I remember playing with. They retained warmth from either the radiators or the sun and dust motes danced in them. They were also transparent as veils and I could stand with them against my back, faced pressed to glass, like a bride or a ghost. I could also spin in them, and spin out, like a monarch or moth unless my mother caught me at this and yelled knock it the hell off!
From the left interior wall, set between two doors, hung a fairly good sized rectangular mirror. Metal picture wire ran along its back but what held the mirror to its grooved backing were four metal round knobs. There was a silvery outline etched along the mirror’s border which could refract prisms when the light was right. We were also able to pretend the mirror was yet another secret door by swinging it up, watching as the contents of the room flashed within it to realign in symmetrical order on the other side. Behind the mirror, almost as a perfect rectangular fit, was a hollow place in the wall which once contained a dumbwaiter. We would thump this hollow with wonder, and I believe that must have been what informed the mirror’s otherworldly properties for not only did that mirror act as a portal we could imagine climbing into, but via the invisible dumbwaiter hidden behind, we could rise and descend not only between rooms but between dimensions. Other times our pretend games were not so grandiose. We were simply servants putting goods from the larder into the dumbwaiter and working its ropes for the ladies-in-waiting living in romantic Victorian opulence upstairs.
The last wall before one circled back to the opening for the dining room is one I actually remember with the most fondness. Spare and elegant, two thick, nearly black, wooden oval frames, made of groove upon groove, were nailed up salon-style one slightly lower than the other with a good two feet in between. In circumference and diameter they were at least twelve inches long with simple botanical paintings inside, one of Bachelor Buttons and the other…Poppies I believe, some flower with dark drooping petals anyway, set in maroon as if for remembrance. Later, either my mom or sister switched these out for bouquet-laden Renoir women from a lush Impressionists calendar. Next to them, hugging the frame which surrounded the dining room opening, hung a small wall lamp with a frosted sort of mushroom-cap glass shade circled in tiny clear spots. The bulb under this shade reflected its own radiance due to a crenellated gold disc backing, and perhaps this lamp was my favorite since it was most often the one shut off before heading to bed on nights when one or more of us had been out.
I can go for broke here and imagine that sconce as a fairy lantern in my hand as I approach various furnishings in the room. Really, aside from the upgrading of sofa and chair sets, though the arrangement of things may have changed a bit, the antique places to sit or place something on, did not. Below the oval portraits of Renoir women was what I would call a cherry wood table since anything stained red to me was either cherry, mahogany, cedar or maple. It rose to about hip-length on an average-sized adult, being perhaps three feet long and having both a drawer and then a second shelf further down. This table was carved as ornately as any of the other antique pieces in my memory, as if some expert with a jigsaw lovingly pieced it together with all its various polished knobs, miniature buttresses and intricate decorative openings. It is true, we drove our matchbook cars over this table, pretending they could levitate from the second shelf to the top, and also played with our plastic green army men though the Staunton rook patterns were actually more castle-like than any sort of Flanders trench. As I got older and had more dusting-duties, the aesthetic beauty of the piece was not lost on me, especially with its hand-embroidered runners and the avian-filled foliage of its Chinoiserie porcelain lamp.
To the right of the table was what was called a gentleman’s chair though it looked more feminine to me, that had originally been stuffed with horse hair. When reupholstered my parents went with an off-white fabric that had a bumpy red fern pattern swirling through it; and it seems to me this chair was mainly meant for good company as opposed to us grubby ragamuffins in our play clothes patched from the ragbag. It is mainly my dad’s mom or her equally elderly sisters that I can picture in this chair, with blue-white coiffed hair and dresses as floral as the chair’s fabric, their legs of sturdy flesh-colored stockings crossed at the ankles in sensible orthopedic shoes. For all I know these Great-Aunts may have been middle-aged since this was a time of powder compacts instead of skin-tightening creams. Kissing their cheeks was like kissing pink clouds of ineffable softness, the fine netting of their skin making kisses all the softer.
Other antique furnishings were a washstand I think we later put a TV on, storing videos (Beta, a salesman hoodwinked us), underneath, and a black oak magazine stand whose sides looked like lyres. Mom said our living room had what was called the “lived-in” look, and many surfaces were covered with stacks of newspapers, magazines (Readers Digest, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, dad’s various agricultural digests…), and paperbacks ranging from mysteries (Agatha Christine, Ellery Queen, even P.D. James later on), to Harlequin Gothic. I can remember those vivid dog-eared covers of heroines in peril usually being embraced by some hunky swashbuckler, his wind-rippled shirt open to the waist. Yes, we all knew reality was going to turn out to be just like that; either that or poison in the Billiard Room courtesy of the Mint Juleps.
In the left corner of the room right next to a posh brass ash tray stand with its removable amber glass insert, was my father’s huge army green chair that had a thick cushion which was great for playing trapdoor or peek-a-boo with. Later, with the foam stuffing spilling out, this chair was traded in for a series of recliners, one of lovely brown imitation leather great for cooling skin on hot days, and the other a felt periwinkle blue perfect for dozing in, as dad often did later in the evening, mom continuously adjusting the television volume with the remote so we could hear over his snores. When Mom wasn’t pointing out the cartoon size of dad’s uvula, we’d note the twitch of dad’s nervous leg syndrome, one leg occasionally jumping so high as to startle him awake. Mom sat on the far left side of the couch (always a sleeper sofa for what occasional overnight guests we had), quite often playing solitaire when not reading or knitting and casting cursory glances at the boob tube. “Could you bring me the board?”, mom would ask and from the kitchen one of us would come with this heavy varnished tray kind of thing with two wedges underneath to snugly fit either side of her lap. Then, clackety-clack, mom’s shuffling would begin, her dexterous hands dovetailing and forming bridges as if she spent her weekends sidelining at Black Jack in Las Vegas.
Near the rarely used front door of the living room across whatever coffee table was then in fashion; (never the glass-topped kind again, that one inevitably cracked in half and us kids could get hurt), stood for years my grandmother’s wine-finished rocking chair. This had long knobby spindles under the arms and down the back, perfect for playing cowboys and Indians with, or even turning upside down to create a makeshift jailhouse. What was that old childhood game we would pretend a paddy wagon with, something which included crawling as quickly as possible between the taller legs of adults trying not to be lightly spanked? Was it something unique as an heirloom to our farm life existence, like playing farmer-in-the-dell, duck-duck-goose or London-bridges-falling-down as if we were orphan waifs during the Blitz? In any case, the rocker (later replaced by a sturdier cranberry colored vinyl one from my other grandmother’s house), was of course always moved during these occasions, as it was for games of Twister or practicing cartwheels or forward and backward rolls up and down the center of the carpet. I’m not sure why mom let us get away with this indoors, or hula-hoops, or jumping ropes, but over time our rambunctiousness most likely just wore her out. These amateur calisthenics literally did often shake the house.
There were at least two different carpets I recall all this activity occurring on, one a grayish applesauce mix with foam backing, and the other an autumnal-hued pastel of deeper, yarn-thick weaving and a border which featured tiny turquoise bulbs in its design. We had quiet times on this floor too, lying stretched out to do homework, playing a board game with intense interest, or collapsing before the metal rectangular cooling unit used only in the summer. This contraption served as our air conditioner and made a delicious soothing humming sound as water was poured into its back and little flaps of compression slowed rotated from its front. We could adjust its vents like shades to determine where the airflow would go and also its speed so we could blow our hair back when weather was especially hot.
Around Christmas-time of course, anything by the rarely used living room front door had to be moved for the tree. We had natural Spruce of Pine for years, (often having to re-cut either the base or top in order to get the whole thing to fit), until it was discovered I had allergies to everything so an artificial tree would have to do. What gorgeous bickering we had in organizing and setting that up, and then during the decorating process. Its central pole was composed of differently sized holes which the color tipped branches had to be matched up with. This got harder to do over the years, especially when the white or light pink paint which went in the holes, got to look more like the same shade as more and more paint wore off. Untangling the Christmas lights was another project unto itself, as was finding the bulb which was loose or dead and causing the whole strand to black out. When younger I recall we had the larger multi-colored twist-in bulbs used in night lights, but I believe these were eventually deemed a fire hazard so we went with the smaller kind, one set in particular being very floral, as if miniature plastic gardenias held bulbs in place. Of course, in our younger years, the more lights flashed like neon rainbows and sometimes made the sounds of train whistles or cuckoo clocks, all the better, but by our late teens we were kind of seizured out and went with calm unblinking yellowish white. By then, sitting in the dark with only the tree glowing, was the best part of this yearly ritual, or even lying under the branches, looking up, increasingly myopic as light bounced like a miniature constellation amid the glistening icicles and shimmering bulbs. (Of course occasionally one of the cats would climb up amid the decorations too, batting a stuffed cotton mouse about, and that was also an entertaining diversion.)
There are times when I still have dreams about the rooms I grew up in, including the living room, dreams which I’ve come to call the familiar unfamiliar since the resemblance to how things were blurs and shifts both with other places I’ve lived, and even jobs I’ve had, versus the imaginary, the even as-seen-on-TV. It’s as if objects of the rooms, the rooms themselves bob up and down like corks in an ocean. A wave unfurls and the burgundy cardboard table we had Appian Way pizza on while watching the “Wizard of Oz”, comes in to focus. Then my mother’s voice arrives announcing “Now this is where everything becomes color!” as Dorothy opens the door to her tornado-carried house, now landing in Cinemascope Country but still black ‘n white on or old TV set. Sometimes there is the percussion between dad’s snoring and mom’s card shuffling, or shouts I hear from the kitchen, busy with making chocolate ice cream sauce, while they are whooping over the latest home run or touchdown occurring in the next room. I may even see their tall frosted beer glasses in close-up, hear the sizzle of the frothy heads as salt is added, or see one of our childhood dogs, a furry blur of exuberance, wrestling with dad on the rug, the two of them making pretend growls. Other times some festive occasion is going on, a reunion perhaps, and the room is full of people I intuitively know as family though I do not recognize a soul. They are murmuring. They are carrying a message but if it is for me I never can quite make it out. I wake, groggy as usual, blearily entrenched in the wonder of where time and all things but perhaps love, just goes and goes.
About the Author: A resident of NY, Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he’s been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. In 2014 he began a webpage to gather links of his poetry being published in such zines as Great Works, Unlikely Stories, Quill & Parchment, etc., in one place: For links to his other media (and even merchandise if you are interested) please feel free to Google Stephen Mead Art.
Image Credit: “Man and Woman in a Living Room” Unknown Artist (1880s) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.