Connections | Magazine

Beautiful memories from an ugly chair

The rocker my nearly 90-year-old mother scored at an auction has a strange hold over me.

caroline woodwell

Sitting lotus in an early morning meditation, I had beaten back two pairs of solemn eyes and the rhythmic tick of an old clock when the ugliest chair in the world floated into view. Like Tigger bounding up to Winnie-the-Pooh, it bounced into the blank space between my eyes and my brain. I knew I was going to open my eyes and peek.

I was on the living room floor in my parents’ house a day after my mother, who is turning 90, had taken all four of us children through the house to talk about “the things.” All the things that we will, someday, inherit.


A clock from my father’s father that has been ticking for nearly 100 years. Two paintings of people we call “the ancestors,” whose wide eyes watch all that happens in the room. Four items — two lamps, a table, and a couch — that my parents bought new. The simple stick furniture left by the previous owner of the house. And the rest, which came from yard sales, thrift shops, and auctions. This group includes the ugliest chair in the world.

“I bought this at an auction,” my mother reminded us, her hand stroking the wool headrest. We stood in a semicircle around the chair. It’s a rocking chair without rockers: a tight-looking wooden thing that sits on a fixed base and bounces back and forth on springs like a piece of playground equipment. The tall, narrow back, the flat seat, and the ornate wooden arms are upholstered in a hooked rug with big maroon flowers. Who puts a wool rug on the back of a chair, we have asked my mother for years.

“Did anyone actually bid against you?” I asked during the tour. Hours later, when we were still talking about it, even my father joined in. “Uh,” he guffawed. “That’s an ugly chair.” But my mother edged around to the front and sat down, her unflappable smile a force field against derision. She has never stopped being pleased with herself for that purchase.


Now, this morning, I am feet away from the chair seeking quiet nirvana. I am breathing into the past, back beyond the clock, beyond the ancestors, breathing gently into my mother’s 90 years. But the chair, sitting on the other side of my closed eyes, bounces by. “Come, come, come,” it says with my mother’s smiling face. It is louder than the clock, more insistent than the eyes.

I peek. There it is in the sunlight, and somehow, I am easing myself into the seat, leaning back against the thick hooked rug. It is surprisingly comfortable. The wool on the arms has frayed and slipped, and my mother has wrapped white thread around and around in a tight spiral that holds it all together. A time-consuming labor of love. I push myself back and forth slowly and breathe into a memory, a gliding rocker I bought at a thrift shop years ago to rock my babies on my own front porch. Is that why my mother bought this chair? Does she have rocking memories?

My elbows sit nicely on the arms. I could hold a book in my hands, and the book would be in perfect position for my bifocals. Does my mother know that?

Like my mother, I am short, and the contours of the back fit me perfectly. This chair fits us. She must know that.


I cannot see the ancestors from here, but I know they are watching. The clock is ticking in rhythm with my rocking. I breathe into my mother’s smile, aware in a quiet way that looks don’t matter. Aware that this chair belongs. Suddenly aware that years from now, I will tell my children that their grandmother bought this rocking chair at an auction. It is, I will say, one of our family treasures.

Caroline Woodwell is a New England native living in Spokane, Washington. Send comments to connections@globe.com. To submit your story for consideration for Connections, e-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.