My grandmother had a sofa, which I’m pretty sure she thought was the most beautiful piece of furniture she had ever seen. The idea that she owned such a piece must have been a continual source of pride for her judging by how she kept it entombed in a thick plastic cover that was never removed, not once, not even on every third Thursday when the Hadassah ladies came for cards. It had a high rosewood back, carved legs and was upholstered in white brocade that remained unblemished over the years, pristine; virginal even, frozen like Snow White in its sepulcher of clear plastic. I remember every detail because some time after my grandmother’s death, the sofa became mine.
I dropped out of college in my sophomore year and went to live with a guy I hardly knew in a little town about half way between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. The town was called Beaumont and we went there to work in a poultry processing plant owned by my father and uncle. Yes, these were questionable choices…dropping out of school, living with a guy whose sole possession was a pair of rubber boots and working in a chicken slaughter house, but I was young, stupid and driven by forces I didn’t understand.
We rented a house on seven acres of cherry trees and went to work in the plant. Unfortunately there was no work for us to do. They had all the employees they needed, so we were given make-work projects. My boyfriend was sent up on the hill to measure daily water levels in a waste pond and I was given the job of counting tools. After a while, he graduated to the maintenance crew and learned how to fix the machines that kept the ling going, while my job kept devolving, until eventually all I did was show up on Fridays to collect a pay check.
One day my uncle called me into his office and, while chickens squawked their last just outside his window, he asked me if I wanted my grandmother’s furniture. It was still in her apartment, even though she had died some years before. She and my grandfather had owned the building, but now it was being managed by a Russian lady from Kiev. I told him that of course we wanted it. We didn’t have much, only what we had managed to find at the Salvation Army, so we could do with a table and a lamp and maybe even a chair or two.
That weekend my uncle rented the biggest truck that U Haul had to offer, a twenty-four footer, and handed me the keys. Later that morning my boyfriend and I pulled up in front of the apartment building on Olympic Blvd in West Hollywood. It looked like a miniature castle with fake turrets and a fake hand-hewn stone façade. There was a smiling ceramic deer out front with broken ears, grazing on a dead lawn.
The door was answered by a round turnip of a woman, who didn’t seem too happy to see us. She said, without apology, that most of the furniture was gone. She didn’t offered an explanation, just that we were too late. Then she took us on a short tour of what was left, which wasn’t enough to fill even a corner of the truck. Even though she acted as if she couldn’t care less whether the furniture stayed or went, I knew that wasn’t true. I saw the wistful look in her eyes as we loaded the sofa up onto the truck.
We drove back, unloaded the truck and took the plastic off the sofa the moment we got it into the house. We sat down to test it out. It was comfortable. The cushions were stiff and the back offered just the right kind of support. When we got up, I noticed two dusty butt prints marring the white brocade. I tried to brush them off, but they were made of U Haul dust, dirt mixed with oil and they only smeared. A week later we got a dog, who loved to run through the seven muddy acres of cherry trees, bound through the screen door before I had a chance to open it and jump on the sofa. It didn’t take long before the fabric was ruined. After that I covered it in a madras bed spread, then a tartan blanket, and finally I tried my hand at re-upholstery. In the end, the sofa was abandoned in the back of the Salvation Army store with a note explaining that it still had life left in it and would be good for somebody.
It wasn’t until years later, long after I said good bye to the guy in the rubber boots, after I met my husband and my two wonderful step-kids, that I realized what I had lost in the back of that Salvation Army store. By then I was already working on the novel that would soon become The Little Russian, a story of survival, based on my grandmother’s life in Ukraine. My research led me back to the snows of Russia, to the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, to the grinding poverty and marginal subsistence, to the bloodshed and terror that gripped the country at a time of cataclysmic change. But mostly it led me to my grandmother’s story; the story of a young wife trapped in Little Russia at the beginning of World War I; a young mother’s struggle to keep her children alive through the war, the cold, the hunger and the terrifying uncertainties of war. The more I learned about the period, the more I realized what kind of a person my grandmother had to become in order to survive and to keep her children alive. She had to be brave, steely and resourceful. She had to be a survivor. I never knew that part of her. To me she was always the little round woman cooking in the kitchen. She was grandma who roasted chicken and got her hair done every Wednesday. She had a box full of costume jewelry, a mink stole and a gold watch. She certainly wasn’t the stuff of heroism, until I did my research…and then she was.
One day I was pouring over a book of old photographs, Before The Revolution, by Kyril Fitzlyon and Tatiana Browning when I saw the sofa on Page 86. “The naïve Empire style of armchairs and sofa is characteristic of much nineteenth-century Russian furniture.” It was in the sitting room of the country estate of Countess Brassovo. Think of it, my sofa in her sitting room. Well, it wasn’t exactly my sofa, because mine was a cheap knock-off from Ethan Allen. But there was probably enough of a resemblance to remind my grandmother of a time when everything was certain and she was safe in her well-appointed sitting room. It would have been before the two revolutions and the civil war, a time of privilege when she could sit on her comfortable sofa and ring for tea and honey cake.
Fifty years later I imagined her late at night, taking off the plastic cover and sitting down on the white brocade, running her fingers over the satiny surface while she hummed a dance tune from long ago. I wish I had kept that sofa entombed in its plastic cover, like a rose frozen in liquid nitrogen preserved under a glass dome. Perhaps knowing what I know now I could have sat on it, closed my eyes and heard the same dance tune playing in my head.