My Grandmother’s Legacy

Helen D’Arcy – my grandma!

In 1994, the Northridge earthquake tore apart the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. And I happened to live less than a mile from the epicenter. I lived with my boyfriend in a 400 square foot… house. Well, it wasn’t exactly a house. It was a small converted, one room clubhouse for a single tennis court on the property. The kitchenette was so small that we had to keep the refrigerator outside. But it was perfect for two people that owned little to nothing.

But the one piece of furniture of note that I did have was a china cabinet given to me by my grandmother.

When I moved from St. Louis to California six years prior to that, my grandmother had insisted I bring her old china cabinet with me. For years it had been the centerpiece of her dining room, always drawing me as a curious child to its display of Hummel House figurines and Royal Dalton mugs. Standing six feet tall and five feet wide, it loomed over the room, much as my grandmother, a sturdy confident woman, watched over her family. It would be the only “real” furniture I had for many years, and I couldn’t wait to fill it with my own treasures. So the movers loaded it on the truck, and we set off for the three-day trip to Los Angeles.

My first seven years in LA proved to be pretty unstable. In that time, I moved eight times. Hiring movers was not in my budget, so I mostly moved myself (sometimes with the help of a few bribed friends). My first move was within a half-mile, and since I didn’t have much, a few trips in my boyfriend’s pickup should have done the trick. And it did – until we got to the china cabinet. I soon realized the unintentional curse my grandmother had just passed on to me. It was it was one solid piece, it was fragile (glass doors and mirrored shelving), too heavy to carry, and too wide to fit in the bed of the truck.. It cost $80 to move that cabinet. 

After that, the china cabinet played a prominent role in every move. Apartments were eliminated or chosen on the basis of whether or not a wall could hold it. And friends refused to help if they were expected to move it. I usually had to fend for myself, spending extra money on a large truck and sliding it along the ground one inch at a time. 

On the move to the “clubhouse,” I finally decided I needed to break away from this cumbersome piece of furniture. While wading through my possessions and preparing my yard for the onslaught of strangers hoping to find a good deal, I pressed a little yellow sticker to the glass door of the cabinet. But when a man asked to take a look at it, I realized I was not ready to part with it, despite its burden. It had become a part of me. I slowly peeled off the sticker and explained it was not for sale. Then I dragged myself into the kitchen and turned to “Truck Rentals” in the Yellow Pages. 

In its new home, it stood in a dark corner next to the bed, not as a punishment for all of the trouble it had caused, but because it was the only space with a wall large enough to hold it. 

But I couldn’t live there forever. My boyfriend and I had gotten married, and I was pregnant with the first of what would be my two children. Unless we planned on setting up the baby’s bassinet in the bathroom, we had to find larger living quarters.

After months of diligent searching and a growing belly, we finally found our house on a quiet cul-de-sac in the suburbs. The living room was a nice large rectangle that allowed for one end of the room to be set up as a dining area. I finally had a spot the china cabinet deserved. We still had not accumulated enough furniture to warrant hiring movers, so once again I had to rely on U-Haul to move that cabinet to the new house.

Not too long after the move and the birth of my daughter Emily, my grandmother quietly passed away in a nursing home. The last year had been a tough one. 

She had flown in from St. Louis to attend my wedding, and stayed in a two-bedroom suite with my parents. Grandma was the life of the party, immediately bonding with the new in-laws. Sunday morning, unbeknownst to me for I was off on my honeymoon, my grandmother came into the living area of the suite wearing all of the clothes she had brought for the weekend, layered one on top of the other. And she did not recognize her own daughter, my mom.

My parents flew home with her, and she spent the rest of her life in a nursing home. 

My mom had the grim task of going through Grandma’s things. Hidden away in her condo were piles of unopened boxes with a return address for QVC; she had clearly been declining for a while. My mom kept some pieces and called my sister, who lived nearby, and let her take anything that might have some significance to her. 

But I lived on the other side of the country. So my mom pulled out a few things she thought I might like (I did end up with a Royal Dalton mug). More importantly, she decided I should have the dining room table and six chairs that had been part of the set containing the china cabinet. She would mail them to Los Angeles.

My dad thought she was crazy. And I felt guilty considering the small fortune it cost to ship it all halfway across the country. But my mom was determined. Grandma would want me to have it.

Me as an infant with Grandma and Grandpa

When the table and chairs arrived, one of the carved table legs had snapped off. I did hire someone to repair the break, allowing us to celebrate many Christmas dinners with family sitting around the table, but the scar was evident and the table a bit wobbly.

The chairs arrived with seats of gold fabric topped by a vinyl protective cover that was tinted yellow with age. I immediately ripped off the seat covers and replaced them with a fabric that had an ivory-on-ivory design. That didn’t last long with two children and numerous careless spills. Every few years, I would make a trip to JoAnns for a new design, dig out the staple gun, and get back to work.

The top of the table has had a rough time. Boy Kitty (one of many creative names we had for pets over the years) enjoyed sleeping on top of the china cabinet. I had no problem with that. I even placed a blanket up there to make him more comfortable. The problem was he couldn’t jump all the way down to the floor, so he would leap first to the table. But the slick wood did not allow him any traction. So as soon as his paws hit the surface, he released his claws in a futile attempt to stop himself from sliding across the table only to fall off the other side. This left gashes across the cherry finish. 

Not only that, but despite every precaution over the years, the china cabinet shows the scars of daily usage and many moves. One drawer handle mysteriously disappeared, and the carved ornament perched at the top snapped off long ago. Cracked mirrors line the inside, and nicks and scratches pock the wood.

Unfortunately, my marriage was not able to withstand the blows as well as those Grandma’s furniture has withstood. When the divorce was finalized, we had very little worth haggling over. Most of our furniture had come from garage sales and relatives who were redecorating. The only pieces I really cared about were the china cabinet and the dining room table and chairs. As far as I was concerned about the rest, he could take it all. 

After the earthquake, which managed to destroy most of the collectibles that line the cabinet’s shelves, my grandmother tried to reach me for three days. This was in those pre-cell phone days, and home phone service was spotty and stretched to its limit immediately after the earthquake. When I answered the phone and heard her voice, my first thought went to her china cabinet. I assured her it survived. She laughed and reminded me, “Of course it did. We’re made from the same material, and we always survive!” 

And we do. I have had to start over, tearing out the old and replacing it with new. I have been carried to homes all over the country. I may have a few bumps and bruises, and even a six-inch scar. But I am sturdy and perfectly functional. And I have survived. This is my grandma’s legacy. 

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