by Margaret Shafer
I have a clear sensory memory of reading curled up in the big wingback armchair in my childhood living room on a summer afternoon. Its smooth forest green Naugahyde felt cool. I ignored the matching hassock. One armrest served as my headrest and I draped my legs over the other, with the book balanced on my stomach. Content, I rested in the dim light, coming back from whatever world I had been absorbed in.
Real life returned noisier and busier. Upstairs, my older sister hung out in our shared room, while my two younger brothers squabbled somewhere in the house, and my mother cooked dinner in the kitchen, until the outsized presence of my father arrived home from work and took possession of the green chair.
The armchair was paired with a pumpkin orange Naugahyde rocker, my mother’s place to sit, no doubt because of the ten years when she had one child or another in diapers who needed to be rocked. I can still hear the squeak of the springs, feel the tilt, rocked back, feet up on the hassock.
The pair of chairs seemed a stand-in for my parents. My father’s dark green armchair with firm wings registered masculine; the rounded orange rocker suitable for soothing a child seemed more feminine. I think it’s quite telling that my mother had to share, while my father filled his chair all on his own, watching TV or reading the news. But the rocker was also my mother’s refuge, with her spare moments spent feet up, engrossed in a mystery novel.
On Sunday afternoons, Dad sat in his green chair reading the paper. I’d sit nearby, reading the funnies, if I got to them before my siblings grabbed them. Sometimes, with the hassock between us as a table, Dad and I would play cards. He patiently taught me the game of casino. The chance to have his undivided attention made the challenge of the complicated rules worth it for young me.
As the breadwinner, my father reigned supreme, the undisputed head of household. Dad’s moods, alternately affectionate or furious, ruled the roost. As a preteen, I felt loved, but often angry back at Dad. Mom stayed consistently calmly present, at least when Dad wasn’t around. When it came to discipline, they were sometimes a united front, but, just as often when my father bellowed his displeasure about something, my mother yelled right back.
My parents made financial decisions together, but it fell to my mother to ensure that four kids were fed, clothed, educated, and transported. She also had a set of tools she kept in the pantry which she used to tighten loose screws, replace broken hinges, or rewire a lamp. Her sewing machine regularly whirred — patching pants, mending seams, and sewing curtains and bedspreads for both humans and dolls. Laundry was done on an old machine. She used a wooden dowel rod to lift the scalding clothes from the wash basin to the spinner. I promised myself I would never have her life, endlessly in service to others.
My parents’ decorating style was eclectic. Every room was painted a different pastel color. The living room was a perfect example of their taste. Their only goal seemed to be to ensure that the furniture they purchased was well-made and solid. Along with the green armchair and orange rocker, a small brown sectional couch completed seating for six; it was bordered by solid-wood end tables and a number of walnut bookcases. The colors seemed compatible but random, as if opposites could attract in decor as well.
The year I graduated from college, my father passed away. One child was still at home, the rest out in the world. My mother assumed the role of breadwinner for this much smaller household. Tempers that had previously flared now sputtered out. Knowing what we knew of each other’s loss, we gave each other a little more grace, and the arguments and discord all but ceased.
My mother adjusted to the new normal. I watched with pride as she went back to school, commuted to work, expanded her life.
The sectional couch eventually wore out. Mom replaced it with a shorter one — still brown. For along time, the green armchair and the orange rocker seemed eternal, but eventually they wore down too. Seams split. The rocker had a broken spring. The armchair’s green seat tilted. Sometime after my youngest brother moved out, my mom, now living alone in the house, decided to get them repaired and reupholstered.
When I came home for a visit, I was surprised to see the upholstery colors she had picked. The armchair’s Naugahyde had been replaced with a textured, woven fabric in burnt orange. Her rocker was now covered in forest green.
Art by Steve Johnson. Find him on instagram @artbystevej.