When I have been very good, my four-year-old son will sometimes suggest that we add one of my childhood books to the bedtime pile. A Chair for my Mother by Vera Williams is one of my favorites. It is an unexpectedly weird little story from 1982 about a family overcoming a fire and saving up coins in a huge jar for a whole year to buy one perfect chair.
What does this chair mean? A Chair for My Mother is a story about the pleasures and pressures of single motherhood in the 1980s, of independence and intimacy, of how people chose to live in their homes and families, embodied in their desire for a beautiful, bright, overstuffed armchair. As we reread it bedtime after bedtime, the book has made me probe the limits of my own feminist imagination, as both a mother and a museum curator responsible for explaining to the public what chairs and other things may really mean.
I didn’t notice many of the key details of the story when I was a kid. The single chair at its center was purchased by three generations of women saving coins for a year in a big pickle jar brought home from mother’s waitress job at The Blue Tile Diner. Mother and daughter are on the way home from buying new pumps and sandals and enjoying tulips when they see that their house is on fire. Everything is lost. This tragedy is the impetus that leads them to decide to save for a whole year to purchase one place to sit for a household of three. The grandmother put aside change from the difference between fruits and vegetables on sale and her fixed income. Mother counted out half of the coins from her tips working in the diner. Rosa, the daughter and narrator, helped her mother at the restaurant peeling onions and filling the catsup bottles. She earned coins to put into the jar.
The primary relationships in A Chair for My Mother are between mother and daughter, the girl and her mother, and her mother’s mother. Rosa’s father’s absence is simply not addressed. The book refers to him only obliquely, as the narrator mentions the “other grandfather” who helps after the fire by bringing a rug—a detail that makes it clear simultaneously that there was a father somewhere in their lives, and that the grandmother who lives in the home is currently on her own, too. There doesn’t seem to be any support or otherwise from the father. The women just work, save, and are fine. It is a non-issue. Poignantly, after the fire, the elderly grandmother thanks their neighbors saying, “It is lucky that we are young and can start all over.” And they do.
Even though Rosa narrates the book, these days I wonder about her mother’s story. I wonder, why she wants just one beautiful floral armchair, a detail I had never thought about as a girl. She doesn’t want a pair of chairs—she is planning to need just one. What would they do with that one chair when they were all home together? Who would get to sit in it? Why didn’t Rosa and her family want their nice house fullof sofas and chairs back after the fire? Was this somehow about the state of single mothers in Ronald Reagan’s America, a way to argue for self-sufficiency and sacrifice in the face of adversity in apolitical way? Shouldn’t they be investing this money? Why wouldn’t this family of three want enough room to entertain, to have friends over, to structure and build a new life that looked just like the old one lost in the fire—or better? Did they have to learn to do with less, to accept and pretend that their poverty was enough for them?
Then, each time, the little book surprises me. Perhaps I am not asking the right questions, or maybe, I have no right to ask any questions. Chair shopping is blissful for these women. They cash in their coins for crisp ten-dollar bills at the bank and go to four different stores—feeling like “goldilocks in the three bears trying out all the chairs.” When they find the right one, they cannot wait for it to be delivered so an uncle comes by with a pick up truck. Rosa is carried into the house like a princess on a throne. It is theirs. They saved for it, they picked it out, and they will enjoy it their way. Rosa and her grandmother have the great pleasure of doing something special for the person who supports them and for their family. Unlike everything else after the fire that was a gift from kind neighbors and family, the chair is their sacrifice and therefore their choice—their way to represent a stable home. They get exactly the chair the three of them want and they do not compromise.
Though it is a chair for one person, explicitly a chair for her mother, the book ends with Rosa falling sleep in her mother’s lap in the big, comfortable chair—something that happened so frequently the new chair was positioned so her mother could easily reach the string to turn out the light without disturbing her. We know from the story that her mother comes home exhausted from work at the diner, her feet sore, and yet, not too tired for this necessary intimacy and affection. The chair for her mother, that supports and holds her up, allows for what the hard kitchen chairs did not: scaffolding for the love and intimacy at the center of this home. It is a chair for mothering, as much as it is a chair for a mother.
As a curator responsible for creating exhibitions and period rooms around historic furniture, I want to remember this as a kind object story. When scholars try to explain what objects in museums mean, they usually consider style, class, region, materials or makers. In museums and period rooms, precious things often appear in balanced pairs, with matched chairs and tables, pendant mirrors and coordinated colors. Assumptions are made about what things should be valued and what kinds of lives those things project backwards for us, into the past. We are not always asking the right questions—or looking for the most powerful and poignant stories. The most important stories may not be present in the grandest things.
A Chair for My Mother is about a family’s choices—its vision of happiness and pleasure and the love that family shares, not romantic love, but the love between mothers and their children. A big comfy chair might be best understood as a place for a tired mother to fall asleep with her daughter on her lap, a place they built all by themselves, with just enough room for them. It is not part of a set, yet it helps complete a family. The shoe shopping, the fire, the pickle jar, and the red floral armchair—all amount to the pleasures and pressures of motherhood in this story, and are always intertwined.
I want to imagine a museum period room for Rosa, her mother, and her grandmother. It would be a place to tell their story and not interrogate it, as I found myself starting to do in spite of myself. It would be a period room in which no one assumes that this family would want more than just one perfect chair. They want what they choose, just for them, for their needs, not some normative vision of home and family, but a home they create for themselves. In rereading this story, one that has run through my head for years, I realize, in such a simple and profound way that it is what I want, too, for now at least—maybe just one lumpy old sofa and the private world of curling up with my son and a book that it makes possible.
Now, how do I fit that on an exhibition label? Maybe we should just build the period room and leave this little book on a big floral armchair.
–Sarah Anne Carter