Monday, 12 January 2015

A Piece of History

Here stands the sideboard that once graced my grandmother's living room and then the series of homes in which my parents lived in Dawson Creek and Tumbler Ridge and Victoria. 

An imposing piece, research indicates its design was inspired by British architect and writer Charles Eastlake whose book Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details led to a movement known as "American Gothic". 

Eastlake believed household items should be attractive and well made by people who took pride in their work. A close look at the sideboard shows this to be true. Furniture in the Eastlake style is known for low relief carvings, moldings, geometric ornamentation and flat surfaces that were easy to clean. My sideboard includes all of these features. A recent article in the Ottawa Citizen indicates that a similar sideboard was listed in the 1895 Eaton's catalogue for $15, back in the day when a large house could be rented for $6 a month.

At my grandmother's house
I do not know the origin of this particular piece. It has no markings that indicate when or where it was made. Did the sideboard come west with my great grandparents when they ventured into the Alberta wilderness from Paris Ontario, eventually arriving at their homestead over the Edson Trail in 1911? More likely my grandmother picked it up at one of the many auctions she attended as she and my grandfather moved from Lake Saskatoon, to Delia, to Monitor and finally Edmonton during the Great Depression. Perhaps it once belonged to a wealthy family down on their luck in the Dirty Thirties.

Aunty Peggy and Mom
I know the sideboard has been well loved over the 100 and some years of its life. It's been moved taken apart and put back together and polished and dusted thousands of times. A few times the carving on top has been removed so it will fit into a room with a low ceiling. It serves as a backdrop to many family photos. My mom told me that when she was a child, the dining room table faced the sideboard and for many years a piece of cardboard covered the mirror as my aunt Peggy could not resist making faces at herself during supper.

When I was young, we opened the sideboard at Christmas when we needed to find the special rooster shaped salt and pepper or the red glass dish for the hard sauce for Christmas pudding. For the rest of the year, the sideboard served as centre-piece to display family photos, fancy crystal bowls and other decorative items such as the ornate candy dish that stands there today which my kids believe still contains its original candy.
Family photo from the late 1980s.

One thing I know about the sideboard is that wherever it lives, it fits in. Despite its ornamentation,  it seems to suit its home, wherever it is planted. From the living room in my grandmother's renovated log home outside Beaverlodge, to my mother's custom-built Viceroy house in the mountains of Tumbler Ridge, to my own 70s style bungalow, the sideboard belongs. A few months after we moved it to our house, my daughter visited for the first time."What do you think of where I put Grandmother's sideboard?" I asked. "I didn't even notice it," she said. "It looks like it has always been there."

My home is filled with objects, like the Eastlake sideboard, each with their own story, evoking memories and emotions. When wildfires destroyed a good portion of my community in 2011, I felt deeply for those who lost irreplaceable pieces of their own past. The suggestion that these are just "things" infuriated me. Certainly,the loss of possessions cannot  be equated to the loss of life, but they are have meaning. They are worth more than their monetary value. 

Antique furniture is worth next to nothing on the market today. Unlike in the days of Charles Eastlake, people now seem to prefer furniture that is poorly made, cheaply manufactured and easily discarded. Perhaps we no longer believe in celebrating our history or recognizing our collective memory. In these times of disposable everything, our past is also easily thrown away. We tend to forget that history shapes us. Where do we belong when we let go of our roots and the forces that have made us who we are?