The seat of memory: home is where the couch is

As ideas for this post churned in my mind, I gathered some objects I have cherished as memorabilia throughout my life—we brought them along in the ships’ container when we emigrated—and took a photo of them: serving as the display surface is the riempies chair, (one of the eight around the table our family used in my childhood, starting at the time we lived on our South African family farm), that used to have a cane rattan seat, pecked to smithereens by our free-roaming cockatiels in Supernal Way, so that Peter had  to replace it with rawhide thongs when we lived on Roberta Street. On the refurbished seat, the dusk-blue angora shawl my mother knitted and wore and passed on to me when I was in high school, now gone prickly with too many washes and pocked with holes, provides a scrim for the small pom-pom of rabbit fluff that, as a pre-teen, I picked off a barbed wire fence on our farm where I grew up; the wanna-be spherical rock from a salt pan in the Kalahari where my grandparents lived; and clip earrings, a gift from my first university roommate, Elise, that defined the color “teal” for me before it became a fashion meme.

Now that I can’t find even supposedly clearly visible portable possessions—my full-length coat or my tulip jeans even though they’re hanging in my closet; or my radio or handbag set out on the table by the front door so I can remember them when I go out; never mind my phone or glasses—I think it is just as well that on a daily recurring basis, my nostalgia is mostly evoked these days by what philosophers refer to as “medium-sized dry goods” (J.L. Austin), namely pieces of furniture that I cannot move around by myself, so that they stay put in the spaces we assigned them after moving into Wilmington Flats from Roberta Street two years ago. For example, a piece that particularly zings with memories is our La-Z-Boy/Girl/ Enby° two-seater—pictured below as the “dry good” by the window of our living room in Roberta, where we lived from 2006-2017. (°Enby, short for non-binary (NB), the umbrella term covering all gender identities and expressions outside the gender binary.)

 Our two-seater is not just a couch—it is the backdrop of

  • my student parties at home during my years in Gender Studies

  • family—beloved sister-in-law June, niece Robyn, my brother Carel, nephew Reuben from South Africa

  • godchildren—Oscar and Wilhelmina, reading with grandson Kanye; Eli and Lucy staying with us while their parents Susan and David, whose wedding ceremony I performed, celebrate their anniversary

  • grandparenthood—below, clockwise across 6 photos, 1) Mama Cheryl, Ouma Gerda, newborn Kanye, 2007; 2) Aliya one year old, already taking on the sisterly labor of annoying her big brother Kanye, 2011; 3) Dante, just over a year old, gives Ouma the extreme pleasure of having a grandchild fall asleep on her lap (2014); 4) Aliya five, reading to Dante, two; 5) Marissa with Dante on her lap on the couch, the KCANs—Cheryl, Aliya, Kanye, and Newton—performing a Thanksgiving play they had written, and grammie Sandi, Adam’s mom; 6) Ouma with very sick grandpuppy, Callisto, whom Marissa nursed through kennel  cough during the first two weeks after his adoption.

 

Shortly before we moved into Wilmington, we decided that our La-Z-Enby needed a refurbishing  job. There was a time in our younger days when Peter and I considered reupholstery to be a cottage craft entirely within the capability of our family: I could sew and Peter and his carpenter father were adept at woodworking. Accordingly, when we got a flat in Queenswood, Pretoria, for after were married and acquired our first joint piece of furniture, we took on the fixing up of the couch of my childhood as a family project, attempting to reverse the damage of six Steenekamp siblings taking a running leap, planting head and hands on the seat, and using your momentum to thrust your legs to headstand position. Not surprisingly, the springs and cushions were shot. The frame, however, was salvageable, despite a deep burned-out hollow on the underside of one of the wooden armrests. Below, I explain how this happened on an image Peter cobbled together from the parts of various photos into a near-facsimile of our old couch’s side:

The piece of wood on the level of the seat cushion beneath the arm rest was a shelf for resting one’s cup-and-saucer on. On the farm, it was also useful to balance a candle on for some after-dark reading. (We used paraffin lamps and candles and got electricity only when I was already away from home at high school). If you put a shortish candle on the shelf, it was just distant enough from the arm above it to not set it on fire but close enough to turn the spot right above the flame into fine, concentric circles of charcoal, each night’s worth the width of a xylem layer or two, which dropped black flakes into one’s coffee over the years without detracting from the structure’s utility.

Peter and his dad restored the woodwork and frame. (While they could have patched the burn-hole with filler, I would not hear about it—it was history!)  Making new history, I bought foam rubber blocks and a roll of black tweed-like fabric to replace the old seat and back-rest cushions, the springiness of the foam blocks obviating the need for actual metal springs as in the old ones. Unfortunately we do not have a photo of the refinished couch in our flat, but below is one of it after we moved into our first house in Kempton Park three years into our marriage: Peter stands next to me, and his mom Raaitjie and dad Dudley sit on the Morris chairs from Peter’s childhood that they passed on to us. I made new seat cushions for them too. I bought the carpet in downtown Pretoria, where there were still many Indian shops selling household goods at the time. I built the color scheme for the room from the carpet—with seventies-style pops of orange for color contrast!

Of course repairing a double recliner was a far more complex job than fixing our first couch. Professional help would have to be sought. Before setting out on such a quest, though, Peter and I checked out the furniture stores for a possible replacement. This idea was speedily dispatched when we could not find anything comparable to ours that would fit the space and come without beer-can holders.

In the absence of familial personnel to fix Enby, we set out in search of an upholsterer. One of the two establishments in our general neighborhood dissuaded us from fixing it—without having seen it, they said that the ten-year-old recliner mechanism would not outlast the new cover. That auspiciously led us to the remaining possibility, Zion Furniture and Upholstery, a  family business that has been in existence one way or another since the 1930s.

The upholstery business at 760 S 300 W, Salt Lake City, was started by Barney Barnhill in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Around 1937-8, it was bought by Al Starks, whose family still owns it. It is now known as Zion Furniture and Upholstery. See great reviews here.

Joe Starks Sr (above), the current owner of Zion Furniture and Upholstery, started in the manufacturing world as a four-year-old, so to speak: he would occasionally go into work with his father, a fabric cutter at a furniture manufacturer. He remembers building forts out of tables and chairs awaiting repair. After his father completed his work and tidied his work space, Joe would be allowed to run up and down the 50 foot long cutting tables. His family and coworkers who knew him from then joke that he was “spitting tack” before he could walk! During his teenage years, he helped out at his uncle Al Starks’s upholstery shop, Zion Furniture, doing odd jobs and learning the skills of the trade, including leather upholstery. Eventually he headed up product development, which meant that he did not only repair old pieces, but also designed custom pieces and, eventually, developed products for mass production. After thirty years of making his own way in the furniture business in this way, Joe returned to his roots, acquiring Zion Furniture and Upholstery about 15 years ago when his uncle Al died.

While managing Zion Upholstery since the early 2000s, Uncle Al also partnered with a store in Kaysville, American Home Furnishing, that belonged to Dave Stroh (above). Al’s workshop made furniture that Dave would sell in his store. When Al died and Joe took over Zion, he asked Dave to come in as a partner. Dave closed the Kaysville business and has been sharing the day-to-day management of Zion ever since.

Continuing the family tradition, two of Al Starks’s relatives other than Joe are also part of todays team. Above left: granddaughter Megan Davie says, “I grew up with upholstery as just a normal part of my life.” Right: current owner Joe’s son, Joe Jr—original owner Al’s great-nephew—is following in his father’s and great-uncle’s business footsteps. Joe stands behind a couch on which he is working, indicating a wire grid that he’d built to strengthen the original springs.

Joe Jr (above) ruefully remarks that upholstery and refinishing are “dying crafts.” His two young sons—the older one recently graduated from high school and the younger still in school—have plans for their future other than the family business. However, with the wisdom that parenthood brings, he says resignedly, “You ultimately want your kids to find their own passion in life.”When we first got in touch with Zion Upholstery about refurbishing Enby, they said to bring it in so they could check out the mechanism. It was in amazing shape, they said. I picked a fabric that turned out to be hard to find, but they went on a search and came up with enough material to do the job. Soon our couch  was back home, enabling family traditions of togetherness to resume against new scenery.

Left: Oupa and Dante in Roberta Street, right: Adam and Dante in Wilmington Flats

Soon after we moved into Wilmington, we acquired a long, lightweight, small-structured Ikea four-seater couch to supplement our living room conversation space. Together with  La-Z-Enby, it formed an L-shaped space. At last we had a defined area again in which the whole family could gather for celebrations.

Mother’s day 2019. Foreground: Marissa and Gerda with backs to the camera on the Ikea couch. Middle: Dante seated, Aliya standing. Back: Newton seated, Kanye standing, Sandi (Adam’s mom) on the chair I rescued from my Gender Studies office when it was discarded during a remodeling in which it was replaced by a leather-strap chair that looked like an SM prop.

Even though our new couch functioned well for its purpose, its greyness amid the vibrant colors of the other living room furnishings started to work on this my equally small and grey dementia-mind that is now not only amused, but also annoyed, by small things.

I alternately tried out various colorful throws and strips of fabric on it (the yellow geometric one above is mudcloth I bought at a market in South Africa two houses ago) to make it blend with the other colors around it. While  I loved the draped look, it was completely impractical: in no time, my cumbersome arrangements were squished into creased bunches that pressed bumpily into the seated person’s back and bottom. The only remedy,  I realized, would be a cover that remained put. With contorted notions of my past upholstery successes, I briefly contemplated making a slipcover myself. Which only goes to prove how shrunken my brain had become—I did not even own a sewing machine any more! So off to Zion Upholstery we went again.

Joe Jr and Dave Stroh carry in our Ikea couch. The fabric I chose on the Internet is hanging on the backrest.

This time, a member of the Zion team we hadn’t met before would be crucial to our project: Julie Sawyer, the seamstress (above).

Having worked at Zion’s for all of 40 years, Julie Sawyer is the company’s longest continuous employee— she started there when Al Starks still ran the business and before Joe Sr took it over. Her status in the company was highlighted when we asked about having a slipcover made: “Julie hates slip-covers,” Dave  warily told us. “But I’ll see if she’ll do yours if I ask her nicely.” Whatever forms of persuasion Dave used, Julie graciously accepted our project. Afterwards when we spoke to her, she explained why she detests slipcovers: “The never fit properly in real life,” Julie said, “no matter how carefully I measure them. And the customer ends up unhappy.” Fortunately we were able to let her know we were very happy: our cover fits perfectly. Like all of its kin, it will move during use—but it’s still so much easier to pull straight than the camouflage I had used before!

With Zion’s two refurbishments now in place, “home,” in the words of John Berger, “is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived” (And Our Faces, My Hearth, as Brief as Photos). 

  

Left: Since Aliya was sick on Peter’s birthday last weekend and Cheryl stayed home with her, Kanye and Newton (red shirts) present Cheryl’s and Newton’s gifts under the rubric “Brain Food”: a packet of puzzles and, in the paperbag, a delicious, still-warm whole-grain home-made loaf of bread! Middle: Peter, in the chair from my office that I recently painted (with lots of help from Peter), opens his gift from Kanye: meticulously folded Origami art. Right: Kanye on the newly slipcovered couch, listening to MAD’s (Marissa, Adam, Dante) performance of their birthday gift, a praise-song for Peter—with lots of props .