Friday, August 17, 2007

devil wood

I grew up at Joe's Auction House on South Pine in a tiny little town, home of Continental Oil Company and the thickest collection of scientists and engineers and brilliant people west of the Mississippi. Joe's was Daddy's escape from the rigors of the lab. Every Wednesday night, he'd load up the three of us and and off we'd go. In my younger years, I'd often fall asleep by 8:00 or 9:00, dozing off on Daddy's lap while the ceiling fans turned overhead and the auctioneer's chant colored my dreams.

The auction house was full of old stuff, used stuff, ordinary household goods. But Daddy was after the antiques and there were plenty of them. It was 1962, the first year I went, and folks rolled their eyes and laughed at my dad as he bought Stickley sideboards for $10 and 1800s American bookcases for $15.

He was after clocks, but he couldn't resist the furniture ~ magnificent solid walnuts and exotic bird's eyes and rich mahoganies of every stripe ~ and so we hauled it home. Sideboards, dressers, beds, chaise longues, roll top desks and clocks and clocks and clocks. The stroke of midnight in the house on Elmwood loosed a cacophony of chimes as German, French, Belgian, American and Canadian tick-tock-ticks gave way to delicate ringing and deep bongs and rapid, quivering dinnnnngs.

I laugh when I tell my customers that I inherited this madness ~ this antiques obsession ~ from my papa, but I did. It is in my blood, this love of old wood, of all things previously owned by another. I can't polish up an antique bed without thinking of where it's been, what it's seen. I imagine these pieces holding fast during the bombing of two world wars, anchoring their families with the solid familiarity of home. I wish they could speak to me, and I sometimes whisper to them as I'm working to make them perfect. I stroke their smooth parts and carefully clean their carved accents. I love them and I let them know. It is a madness.

I am especially enchanted by European furniture, though the exotic American maples are divine and nothing beats a huge golden flake tiger oak. I adore French, but also the sleek and modern English furniture from the '30s and '40s. That style doesn't fit in my house, but pieces like this one still make my heart beat faster:

It is so striking, with that superb golden burled walnut exterior, and this one, this glorious thing, is constructed of almost 1" thick solid oak, with the doors delicately bending to give it that sexy, curvy appeal. It's the inside, though, that just kills me: I want to crawl right into it to live. It reminds me of the tiny little woman who lived in a tree ~ it's a house unto itself, this incredibly well fitted piece ~ and I imagine setting up a miniature home in that glass-fronted drawer.

I never mention to my customers anything that would give away who I really am, me in all of my wild-eyed radicalism and my frothing-at-the-mouth hatred of Rethugs and the Bush crime family. I don't chat about religion, though I thank the (many, many) who promise to pray for me. Who can't use a little prayer?

But I sometimes wonder whether I should say something about the demons that live in this old burled walnut. It makes sense, really. Burled walnut comes from a disease which afflicts the walnut tree, creating this crazy pattern of grain which becomes this most highly sought after of exotic woods. Disease, a bad thing. And as a result of the disease, there he is ~ Beelzebub himself, subtly trying to disguise himself in the doors of the armoire.

Do you see him there? There at the bottom of that door with his evil dark eyes, his quartet of horns? This one is subtle ~ a lesser demon, perhaps ~ less threatening than the darker burls. In the darker toned burled woods, his visage can be frightening, so much so that I hesitate to walk alone down armoire row in the warehouse at night. Devils. Devil wood.

Would you want this pointed out if you were buying a piece from me? I think it would be dreadful to be drifting off to sleep in the twilight, gazing about a well appointed bedroom only to realize that someone was watching, some thing, some creature, a being, alive and angry, glowering from the armoire door. Frightening.

I sell them anyway, always sending them off with a silent prayer that my customers have a little less imagination, are a bit less given to flights of fancy and fear. But I imagine how I would feel, stripping the exterior packaging of my dream armoire, only to find that an evil creature lurked within. I am conflicted. What would you do?

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Anonymous Mark H said...

Once again....NOW I DO HOPE you'll come out, we take you too the antique towns down in the valley we "think" are good and you educate us on what's junk and what's a great deal. FABULOUS STORY, I WISH MY DAD would have been like that. I DID love the old cattle auctions I was dragged to by my beat staying home.

Beautiful pictures.

August 17, 2007 12:20 PM  
Anonymous tater said...

I loved this post! It explains a few things I have been curious about where you are concerned, but never thought to ask. I think its lovely that you are following in the footsteps of your father's fascination with antiques. I wondered what drew you into that arena (besides the obvious). I love that you are so into collecting and treasuring these items that you purr to them and caress them. It is so telling of who you are with the things you cherish. Lovely writing, and I love the armoire! The devil face could be dismissed as a totem to frighten off evil spirits. Much more romantic than thinking its actually old salt himself. Thank you for taking me to another place this afternoon.

BTW, if you wind up going out to visit Rodger and Mark, you better be prepared to take me with you. No way am I missing out on all the fun antiquing, cooking, and sightseeing. Perhaps we could even hook up with Cowbell, Eric, and the Hat as well...

August 17, 2007 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Kamrin said...

Golly Gal! You sure make a piece of wood sound so sensual! I love wood, and am the type that sees pictures in the burls and knots. That might be why I stick to Quaker and Shaker-nice smooth wood! My imagination is far to active! I WOULD NOT want someone to add to it by pointing out something I might not have seen on my own. I hope that if Tater does get a antiquing going, I can come tag along. I love all that old stuff and I know ya'll would be some fun in an antique shop! Next time I head up North, you are on my stop Lynette!

August 17, 2007 3:32 PM  
Blogger SubtleKnife said...

I want it, I COVET it! I don't care about the devil.

That is exactly the kind of furniture I love.

August 17, 2007 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Michele said...

That's a stunning piece - and post to match. My dad was a finish carpenter and (therefore) wood fills my veins as well.

August 17, 2007 7:35 PM  
Blogger evilganome said...

I worked for years as a custom framer, and I used to love the birdseyed woods and the burls. There is something very sensual about wood, I agree, though my days of coveting collectable things are pretty much over.

I would actually love finding a face in my wood, though your devil could just as easily be the green man. Just a way of looking at it.

August 18, 2007 8:22 AM  
Blogger Red7Eric said...

I'd go ahead and tell them the story. There will be those who thank you for warning them away from such a piece, and will certainly return to buy other pieces in the future, now that you've earned their trust.

On the other hand, you'll get a few (just a few, but enough) sick freaks like me, who will squint before the devil in the wood comes to life, turn to you with beaming, wild eyes, and exclaim, "That totally ROCKS! How much?!"

Or something to that effect ...

August 18, 2007 9:57 AM  
Blogger more cowbell said...

I love how you think! What a great read. (aha! That's how the antiquing got in her veins!) I lived near the cattle auction place -- The Stockyards -- in high school, but that's not exactly the same thing! I have a bigass Chippendale style desk in my garage (won't fit in my tiny house) that I snagged at a used furniture place, ahead of a line of ladies on cell phones waiting to spring on it. I'm sure it's a reproduction, but hey, it would still be some sort of small income help. I just don't know beans about it. I definitely think you should Head West, Young Woman!

The burled demon -- fantastic! Hmm, as a customer, I think I'd like to be told that someone is in there -- I think for each person that entity might be a different reflection. Maybe not a demon, maybe a strong and and mighty Tree Spirit. A tree mermaid who swims through a wood world. Something different for someone else.

Then again, it could be Dick Cheney's soul.

August 18, 2007 3:17 PM  
Blogger here today, gone tomorrow said...

What a perfect post, lynette. Thank you.

August 19, 2007 12:11 PM  
Blogger SubtleKnife said...

Yay for Tony, the Green Man, that's it!

I'm still loving it and wondering when you can ship it here... ;-)

August 19, 2007 2:48 PM  
Blogger Doralong said...

Wow, I thought I was the only one that saw odd things in the wood ;) My Grandmother's house was chock full of huge pieces of ancient furniture and as a child there were rooms I hated going into because of what I saw in the burls. And rooms I loved to sit in because I saw such pretty things.

She never could understand why I loved dusting the parlor and my Mamma's old bedroom and the sun room, but hated a number of others. I expect they all thought I was a bit weird because there were some pieces that I just loved to stroke and look at. But then again, I always was a rather peculiar child.
"Fanciful" they used to sweetly term it.

August 19, 2007 2:55 PM  
Anonymous lynette said...

y'all are so sweet. we definitely do find the green man in a lot of these. but the pointy-chinned, behorned fellows? demons for certain.

fanciful . . . love that term. works for me. as i'm more fanciful than most, i'll just hush up about these things to my customers, probably proving that beneath my progressive, activist exterior lies the cold and evil soul of a capitalist.

August 20, 2007 7:18 AM  
Anonymous grrsteve said...

And you've given me yet another reason to hold you dear to my heart, Lynette!

I "see" things everywhere. In linoleum, random tile patterns, clouds, tree branches.

This piece you've featured is gorgeous. I'm sure it has some stories, mundane or otherwise. In my family, I'm the one who's inherited the old stuff by default, pretty much. I pull things off the curb all the time, like interestig old windows, chairs, vanities, and polychromed iron floor lamps. Nearly everything I own, from fans to cufflinks to dishes to coasters to some of my favorite clothing was once desired and owned by someone else. (My favorite piece is a very nice large Strobridge litho of Jonathan and David in its original frame with no foxing or fading.)

I'm working on a small kneehole 30s-deco desk for my mom that I found at the downtown Goodwill for twenty bucks that had been stain-varnished to a dark, sticky cloudiness. It's slowly coming back to its neatly matched mahogany drawer fronts with a brightly ribboned desktop.

Should I lose my job tomorrow, I'd look into hooking up with my favorite vintage clothing store contact and a couple of friends who deal in estates and reselling. I'm compelled by the potential for redemption. In all aspects of living.

August 20, 2007 10:56 AM  
Anonymous lynette said...

damn, steve. that was beautiful. and perfectly put into words the way i feel about this old stuff. i am increasingly disenchanted with this throwaway society. rescuing, rehabilitating, turning to new use old treasures feeds my spirit.

August 20, 2007 11:12 AM  

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