Once upon a time, I believed that a piece of furniture could save my marriage. My then husband and I were struggling. We had two children under the age of 2, two jobs in imploding industries and one serious breach of trust. Hoping a date night would help, we booked a sitter and went to see the Irish indie movie Once. We reached out for each other's hands and wept in the dark as we watched the sad love story. Afterward, we were still holding hands, but not speaking much, as we strolled through a Swedish antiques store near the theater. A rustic blue sideboard stopped us in our tracks. We nodded at each other, both in perfect agreement that the weathered beauty was “us.” Despite the wince-inducing price tag and the fact that we really didn't need the piece, we deployed our credit card. The mutual decision felt less like a spontaneous splurge than a last-ditch down payment on our future together.
Two years later, my husband moved out. The marriage was over, and I was overwhelmed with grief. In a manic, trying-to-make-everything-better fit of creativity, I decided to paint my dining-room walls peach and the formal brown dining-room set (that I had inherited from my grandparents) the same weathered blue as the sideboard. The painter thought I was unhinged, but I was desperate for light and bright any way I could get it. Color was my DIY attempt to banish the darkness that was pervading my life.
The blue table, it turned out, was a hit. Guests often remarked on the cheerful effect the unusual hue had on the dining-room set's formal lines. Gamely moving forward in my single life, I hosted festive girls-night-in dinner parties as well as an annual Christmas Eve bash for 20. I had fun dressing up the table with formal china and down with boho, Indian place mats and votive candles. Always, my tableau had fresh flowers, which perked up the whole house.
After 12 years, however, the blue table was showing its age. The chipped paint started to lose its charm and simply appeared dirty, especially through my eyes when newcomers came to my home. Looking at all of its dings, I couldn't help but recall my own battle scars. I had to do something.
I cruised Pinterest, looking for inspiration. I pinned teal and cobalt in high gloss, thinking funky and vintage would change it up. But by the time I added up materials and labor, I figured I might as well invest in something new. Anthropologie was having its 40 percent–off tag sale. I found a 110-inch white-washed wooden table and end chairs with elaborately carved owls that could mix and match with my current seats. Excitedly, I sent the links to my decorator friends Kevin and Neal for their approval.
"I'd get sick of that look after a while,” Neal replied.
"Go classic; you'll have it a lifetime,” Kevin said.
Not the reaction I was expecting, but I respect their taste so I asked myself, was I really ready to go traditional? Brown seemed so adult, so end of the line. I suddenly started to feel like my mother.
Retail was out of the question, so I perused a website for local estate sales. The first sale I clicked on just happened to have a formal dining-room set—billed as Baker's Historic Charleston Collection—with 10 chairs and a matching credenza. Even secondhand, the set was way out of my price range, but it was handsome.
I texted Kevin and Neal the screenshots.
"Looks like Grandma's going to the home,” Kevin observed. “Lucky for you she had good taste. Let's check it out.”
Kevin and Neal met me at the sale first thing Sunday morning. As luck would have it, the furniture was still available and also half-price, because it was the final day of the sale. We sat ourselves down on the Chippendale-style chairs and admired the mahogany table's contrasting banded satinwood inlay. The color wasn't boring but rich and brindled, like the coat of a thoroughbred horse. Neal pointed out the entertaining I could do with the three 16-inch leaves.
"Nice feet,” Kevin added, as he inspected the foliate-accented columnar pedestals.
I imagined Ina Garten placing a silver pitcher of bloody Marys on the semicircle matching crendenza.
Then I imagined my money manager pursing his lips. In some ways this decision would be nothing short of reckless. Just over a year ago I had put my house on the market and taken a nonprofit job that paid a fraction of my previous one. This purchase would mean I was staying put in the house and not keeping my options open to downsize.
Neal googled the retail value. “This is estimated to be a $40,000 set,” he murmured to me.
I'm a sucker for a good deal. I got the seller down even further, and the next thing I knew, I was freecycling my chipped blue furniture, sweeping away dust bunnies and making way for the mahogany.
Unlike the blue Swedish sideboard, this decision did feel like a spontaneous splurge. I wasn't trying to tether what was but, rather, planning for what could be. Granting myself the upgrade made me feel giddy. I love beautiful things, and I love to share them. If not now, when?
Within a week I hosted an impromptu dinner party. As friends and family sat around the gleaming table, passing roast chicken and pouring sauvignon blanc, I sat back to admire the elegant, candle-lit scene and smiled. Furniture may not be able to save a marriage, but it sure was making me feel like a full-on woman.