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Furniture needs a fairy godmother

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Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2003 10:00 pm

I have a soft spot, an undeniable weakness for old furniture. And, well, how do I say this without sounding crazy? Furniture speaks to me.

I don't mean that it actually speaks to me. I'm not hearing voices. But when I see particular pieces of furniture, especially old furniture, my imagination takes flight.

Who first owned this piece?

Theresa Larson

What journeys has it taken during its lifetime?

I only wish it could speak and tell me of its history.

My love affair with old furniture began at the age of 11. Moving into our newly rented house, I noticed a small, red, drop-leaf desk in the corner of the garage. Curious, I walked over and opened the single drawer below the hinged lid. The interior was rough hewn and old.

I opened the hinged front. It lowered to form the writing surface. Pigeonholes spanned the interior. A single, small drawer fit between the pigeonholes. Pulling out the drawer, I noticed faint penciled handwriting on it, but I couldn't make out what was written.

Why, I wondered would anyone leave such an interesting piece of furniture behind?

Why had it been relegated to the garage?

It was love at first sight, and after pleading with the landlord, I bought the abandoned desk for $5.

That desk was my first furniture purchase, but not my last.

From the moment I parted with my hard-earned money, I was hooked. Throughout my life, I've rescued other pieces of furniture. I feel sadness at their misfortune. They've been abandoned, sometimes abused and greatly neglected. You might call me a "furniture whisperer," I have the gift of vision, the ability to look at a piece of furniture and see its former glory hidden beneath thick layers of paint or dingy, crackled lacquer.

As a young mother, I rescued a mahogany-mirrored dresser from a former boarding house in Alameda. After stripping layers of awful green paint from the surface, it was reborn. The dresser served our family well - it held my children's clothes for many years. Coveted by my daughter, the warm mahogany-colored dresser has earned a well-deserved rest and now resides quietly in the guestroom of our emptying home.

Hanging in my entry hall is a simple maple-framed mirror. I found it many years ago in the dusty corner of an antique shop, and purchased it for the amazing price of $10. It piqued my curiosity. Who before me gazed into the reflective glass? Did the former owner sit before the glass and spin dreams of the future? Shortly after bringing it home I realized that human madness, not dreams, may have been reflected in the glass. For the side of the mirror's frame held a brass identification plate - "Agnews 108". It was the I.D. plate from the former Agnews State Mental Hospital located a few miles from the antique store.

Much of my appreciation for old furniture comes not from the history of the furniture, but the artistry of their design. Despite years of neglect, these pieces are sturdy and made of solid wood. Their drawers are dovetailed, not glued together like their modern counterparts. This much-loved classic furniture will continue to stand the test of time, unlike the flimsy, modern day pieces manufactured from plastic veneer, staples and particleboard.

Recently, I came across an old mahogany desk at a thrift store. I examined the sorry looking piece carefully. Some of the veneer had worked its way loose and the lacquered finish was chipped. Water rings stained the top, and the ornately turned legs were battered. But, overall, the construction of the desk was solid. I just knew I could return it to a state of beauty and give it to my daughter for her birthday. My family laughed at its ugliness. No one but me could see the possibilities and appreciate its hidden beauty.

I painstakingly removed all the old lacquer. Beautiful, rich wood began to glow with each pass of the steel wool pad. I wiped it clean, lightly sanded and began to redress the surface. As I worked, I wondered where this desk had been, whose papers it had held, and how it ended up looking so forlorn and rejected in the thrift store.

Finished, the desk positively glowed. Melissa was thrilled and I've made her promise never to get rid of it. Just like Cinderella, the desk simply needed a fairy godmother to return it to its former glory.

A few weeks ago, I bought an old bentwood chair to accompany the desk. My husband teasingly asked if the thrift store paid me to take it home. But, the chair "spoke" to me. With a little help, it will be beautiful once again.

Nearly 40 years have passed since my first furniture purchase. I still have that old drop-leaf desk. It never revealed its secrets, the penciled writing on the drawer is still indecipherable. But the desk has followed me faithfully, a quiet observer of my daily life. It's history, and mine, continues.

Theresa Larson is the Lodi News-Sentinel's administration manager. She is married and the mother of five children. Her column appears the first and third Wednesday of the month. She can be contacted at 125 N. Church St., (209) 369-2761 or via e-mail.

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