`BREAKING up housekeeping" is a Southern expression whose meaning is not quite what it seems. It means that you stop doing something you've been doing and start doing something else. But in the process, you generally have to shed some of the stuff you've been carrying around with you - literally or figuratively.
For instance, for years I've been hauling around a particular chair that once belonged to my Uncle Doyle. For as long as I can remember, the red chair sat next to the fireplace in my family's "old house" and nobody, but nobody, was ever invited or encouraged to sit in Doyle's chair. The chair was sacrosanct. But in the fullness of time, my aunt and uncle grew older. The old place was sold, and my Aunt Bardie invited me to come back to Alabama to see if there was anything from the house that I could use.
I was living in New Orleans with my husband and son at the time, and we rented a truck to go over to pick up the pieces of furniture that were left over from the old life. Bardie and Doyle were "breaking up housekeeping" and moving to a smaller, more manageable house. I was offered the red chair. I couldn't believe it. "He only wants his leather chair," Bardie said. "The old one doesn't fit in the new house." We loaded the truck with the red chair, a bookcase that had held my beloved copies of "Jane Eyre " and "Wuthering Heights" that I had read on hot summer afternoons, my grandmother's dresser and mirror, the carved ladder-back chairs that had always sat at the big dining-room table, and a spool bed so high that steps are needed to climb into it.
When we'd finished our work and we were ready to make the long drive back to New Orleans, Bardie gave me a pot of her "hens and chicks" plant for my porch. We looked around the old place for the last time."There's still plenty of stuff left," she said. But I was unable to accept it. It was as though I had already trespassed, gone where I shouldn't have gone and taken what I shouldn't have taken. The acceptance of the furniture was also giving credence to the move, accepting what had been, for me, at leas t, almost unacceptable. The old house had been the home of my childhood, and I didn't want other people living there.
As we drove down the winding gravel drive under the dappled shade of the pecan trees, I looked back. I felt like Lot's wife - my heart turned to salt. Bardie and Doyle were standing on the steps of the screened porch, waving goodbye. I smiled, far enough away that they couldn't see my tears. My uncle suddenly seemed frail and old. He didn't want to leave the old house, but the stairs and the acreage and the big old rooms were not kind to people who could no longer "do" for themselves.
For several years, the chair sat in a high-ceilinged room in New Orleans whose French doors opened out onto a balcony where, on hot nights, the scent of jasmine and night-blooming lilies perfumed the air. The Victorian slipper chair, in its original dark red velvet upholstery, seemed to belong in that upstairs parlor. And it was in that upstairs parlor that I first discovered that the red chair was a comfort chair.
It's the kind of chair that you can curl up in, tuck your feet under you, and hide when the world gets to be too much. I huddled up in that chair to do rewrites on a book when it was so cold outside that the water pipes burst. Inside the house, it wasn't much better. When my son, Mark, got his driver's license, it was there that I waited, listening to the city's sirens, until I heard that comforting sound of his key in the front door. The chair was a haven when I was going through a bad time. In my mind,
I'd walk through those beloved rooms in the old house, recalling the cabbage roses on the walls of my grandmother's room, the hall tree where Doyle hung his battered straw hat when he came in for lunch, the bowl of roses on the dining-room table.
WHEN we moved back to Georgia, the chair underwent a major change. It was reupholstered in a terra-cotta velvet that seemed appropriate for the "new" old house into which we'd moved. Then everything else changed, too. Mark joined the Navy, my husband went back to law school, and I went to work for a newspaper. There seemed to be more furniture than there were people to use it. The chair was relegated to a guest room. I don't remember what I used for comfort.
A few years later, we "broke up housekeeping." And in Alabama, my sweet Bardie and Doyle died within three days of each other. That same year I moved to Savannah - to a narrow, three-story rowhouse in the historic district. There was more furniture than house, it seemed. I don't buy much furniture, but I seem to accumulate it. I stuffed it everywhere I could. Doyle's chair, still covered in terra-cotta velvet, ended up in my studio on the third floor. And getting it up there was no mean feat.
My studio is just a loft, with books on three walls and three desks taking up most of the floor space. I know that three desks seem excessive. I don't need three desks; I only use two of them on a regular basis. One holds my computer and its accouterments, another is where I actually write, pay bills, and do research. The third desk is a student desk, small, wooden with a hinged lid on which is carved the poignant words, "Hans hates school." The desk is from a old school in north Georgia that was being d emolished. Inside I keep rejected manuscripts. It seems fitting. These furnishings, along with a couple of file cabinets, take up most of the room in the loft.
When I decided that my sedentary lifestyle was going to be the ruination of me, I ordered an exercise machine. The problem was, where could I put it? It certainly wouldn't fit downstairs; besides, the thing is ugly. It needed a dedicated space but I didn't have any. On the day the thing arrived, I walked from room to room trying to find a place for it. Finally, despite my better judgment, I looked at my studio as the only place it would fit. Where it needed to go was where the old chair sat.
I wasn't using it for comfort so much anymore. It was actually holding part of a collection of teddy bears given to me over the years by my son. Along with the newer, better-looking bears is a ratty, moth-eaten bear that I made for Mark the year he was five years old. My husband was in graduate school at Chapel Hill, and we were poor as Job's turkey. I'd discovered the plush lining of an old raincoat that was the perfect soft brown for a bear. And now, here Bear sat, his ribbon tie faded and worn, his on ce-plump tummy sliding somewhere in a southerly direction.
Then I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't get rid of the chair for something new, however necessary. I love old things: old houses with their old memories, old clothes that grow softer with age, like tweed jackets that finally fit after years of wear, old books that fall open to a favorite poem or beloved passage, old chairs that comfort. No. I'll keep the chair and walk around the exercise machine. I'm sure I'll crack my shins more than once trying to get to the printer, but so be it. Someday, when I "br eak up housekeeping," Mark can have the chair. And if he doesn't want it, then one of my nephews will be "setting up housekeeping."
Then I can tell how, when I was a child at the old house, I'd lie on the floor while Uncle Doyle listened to the Jack Benny Show on the radio. I'd watch tree frogs, bright as bits of emerald, cling to the window panes of the long windows with tiny, red-veined feet. I'll tell them how Doyle sat in the red chair and read the funny papers out loud to a small girl who thought that the house, and all it contained, was safe forever. And I'll tell them about the comfort zone of that old chair.