I descend from women with white living rooms.
Gramma Esther came from the Old Country, Prussian peasant stock, who never in her life imagined she would own a home with brand new furniture to say nothing of indoor plumbing. To protect these amazing treasures that made her feel like royalty, to keep it "for new," everything was covered with tough clear plastic slipcovers -- the sofas and chairs, the lampshades and the draperies – and the white carpeting was crisscrossed with hard acrylic runners like garden paths throughout their small suburban bungalow. It was as if the contents of her house were encased in condoms, meant to protect them while all the while turning the white to a dingy yellow. At least we kids were allowed to sit on the furniture, even though in the agonizing heat and humidity of our Midwestern summers, in the years before central air conditioning and color television, peeling yourself off the sofa was like ripping bandage off of blistered skin.
Mother, gleefully preventing Sister and me from entering the Sacred Space. That is not a hug; that is a death grip.
The next generation, the mothers in our neighborhood including my own, also had white living rooms. The sofas were white, the chairs were white, the carpets were, and the drapes drawn to the sides of the big pictures windows were white. This generation dispensed with plastic slipcovers and acrylic runners. The houses in which my friends and I grew up had family rooms; family rooms were rooms in which a child finger-painted, spilled glasses of juice, made forts out of the cushions of less expensive, tweedy couches, and put sooty feet on yard sale coffee tables and no one cared. Dogs, cats and kids could shed and vomit and no one went into cardiac arrest.
Living rooms, on the other hand, were reserved for grown-up parties and for sitting shiva. My mother had a carpet rake for our living room to keep the nap from compressing from the footprints of the imaginary people who evidently trampled the fine pile while stomping through the living room in the dead of night. One time, I was walking home from the school bus stop and, from the end of the driveway, spied a group of people sitting in our living room in the middle of the afternoon. I panicked. I raced up the driveway, threw the front open in hysterics, crying, "Who died? Who died?" It turned out my mother was hosting the other mothers from my Brownie pack.
Like Gramma Esther, like Mom, the first piece of new furniture I purchase with my own money is a white sectional. I can't help it; the white living room gene gallops through my family's DNA like the deviated septum we all share. It is so pristine, so symbolic of this crazy rite of familial passage. It makes a museum of the living room of the small, crappy two-bedroom apartment I finally make enough money to afford. No one is allowed to sit on it. No one can eat near it. Look but do not sit, touch, or enjoy. This includes me.
My White Sectional At Birth
When my very English boyfriend-future husband moves in, he doesn't know my crazy rules – why would he? The English are eccentric but they have nothing on Jewish mishugina. So, he sits on it. He stretches his long body out on it to watch the Spanish-language channel that broadcasts all the European football games. He enthusiastically throws his arms in the air, Guinness bottle in hand, every time the announcer cries out: "Gooooooooooooooooooool!" I bite my tongue. Love my couch, love my boyfriend, love my couch, love my boyfriend. Oy.
Eventually, his two young daughters begin spending a lot of time with us, and they sit on the sectional. They eat jelly sandwiches on the sectional that leak globs of purple jelly on the cushions. I take a Valium and bite my tongue harder. One of them gets up to get a glass of milk in the kitchen, and, like a crazed Hamlet the Housecleaner, I race with a cloth and fabric cleaner to try to scrub out the damn spots.
I get lost one day in a maze of one-way streets in the bowels of downtown trying to find the office of an agent. I pull into an alley between two towering buildings to look at my Thomas Guide and figure out where I am. I see a young, skinny, brownish dog at the end of the alley eating trash near a dumpster. We aren't allowed to have dogs in our apartment, but he jumps happily into the back of my little brown Toyota station wagon, and I bring him home. When I call my boyfriend-future husband at the theatre where he works in the pit orchestra, I mention I rescued a puppy. I don't mention that the dog is the size of female Mastiff. In the dead of night when my boyfriend returns home, the wee puppy he expects to wiggle cutely at his feet instead "greets" him by standing on his back legs, pressing his big front paws against the boyfriend's chest, looking him square in the eye and licking him on the nose. We name him B.J. (after "Bad Joke"), and pretty soon, B.J. sleeps (and drools) on the white sectional, too. My tongue is numb and calloused from constant biting.
"Sheesh, that sofa looks like hell," mentions my boyfriend-future husband one day.
The sectional is on life support. The voices of my Gramma and my mother are pleading, "Save the sofa! Throw the heathens out!" and "The sectional is the only thing that matters, Katie Scarlett!" I weigh the pros and cons of pulling the plug on the sectional, on the boyfriend-future husband and his children, the dog. Or simply bucking my genetic coding and telling my Gramma and mother to beat it. My tongue asks for some consideration.
Why does it always come down to a choice between a white sofa and true love? Why, why, why?
The day the jelly-stained, dog worn, cat-scratched, flat-cushioned, dingy off-white sectional sat in pieces at the curb waiting for bulky pick-up to haul it away, I know I have made the right decision. I finally have a family of my own.