- Cullman, Alabama

August 25, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: The allure of shabby chic

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— I laughed when Dr. Garlan Gudger said that he’d spent hundreds of hours scraping old paint off of furniture and trim work, and now people want all of that “old chipping, peeling paint” left on everything.

I love the look to which he was referring. I’ve watched both clothing fashions and home décor change in many ways over the past 60 years. Sometimes when I look back at old pictures, I wonder what in the world we were thinking!

Yet, I still have an affinity for bell bottom jeans (and love Eric Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues” — yet another blast from the past) and I think its fun to see how those styles are making a comeback.

What I really love is that young people are discovering the allure of old furniture. Those peeling, chipping and faded hutches, tables and chairs have a history somewhere. They’ve seen people come and go. They were here when JFK was president, when boys left for war and came back as old men. Those creaking rockers have gone many miles holding mothers and babies, or grandmothers who watched their grandchildren play from that comfortable seat on the porch.

I have an old wooden high chair, bought at an auction, which has a little sliver of faded blue paint on one arm. I wouldn’t paint over that for anything. That little paint chip shows that this chair was useful, that it withstood the test of time, that it was important to someone.

When I see an old armoire, or as my grandmother would have said, a “shift robe” (chifferobe) I know that it was used to hold clothes and linens in the days before women finally convinced men to build closets in houses. I know that it held stiffly starched white shirtwaists, and softly worn cotton housedresses. Those high top, button-up shoes sat on the bottom, and that hatboxes rested on top of it. I know that some woman gazed at her reflection in its mirrored front, adjusting her skirt and tucking loose curls into the bun on the back of her neck.

I know that someone loved all this furniture. They were proud to have it brought into their homes; they dusted it and made sure that it didn’t get scratched by sharp objects by putting handmade doilies on its surface.

All that dusting and rubbing with linseed oil and various stains, then being polished over so many years is what gives much of this old furniture its patina. I’m sometimes saddened that people can paint over these years of history, recorded in wood, messages left for future generations in the grain.

I love the charm of antique treasures found in old barns and at flea markets. Some are filled with fabulous and fanciful finds, pieces with weathered finishes, delightfully printed toiles, or elegant French provincial silhouettes, kept covered for decades with heavy quilts and tarpaulins.  

I love that someone anticipated that someday this kind of furniture would find its way back into our homes.

As I walked through the back room in a dusty warehouse adjacent to Southern Accents in Cullman, I spied something that took my breath away. There, in the very back corner was what could have been my Grandmother Young’s pantry…the one in the house where she raised 11 children and loved 26 grandchildren, was built all the way across the back wall of her kitchen. It had doors on the top with little box-type latches and cabinets in the bottom, always filled with iron skillets, washtubs and enamel dish pans for shelling beans.

And there it sat — or its twin — in the back room of the Gudgers’ building. It brought tears to my eyes. I never thought I’d see it again, or one like it. People are beginning to build these pantries again, or similar ones, with pretty glass doors, their shelves and contents carefully arranged and lit by tiny spotlights carefully concealed under fancy trim.

Hers was just a utilitarian piece of her kitchen. Painted white and filled with her plain everyday dishes, the ones she brought out three times a day. Most of her plates came in boxes of washing powder and were mismatched but well cared for. The glasses that filled another shelf were heavy, stemmed goblets with thumbprint impressions around the edges. We called them buttermilk glasses — I don’t know why. Most often they held sweet, ice-cold tea made with water drawn from her well. I’ve dreamed of finding those glasses for years. Last week I did.

A nice lady in Scottsboro had nine of them listed on eBay. My hands shook a little bit as I entered a bid, hoping that no one else had spied this posting. Sure enough, I was able to buy the glasses at a reasonable price. However, the shipping was a little steep. Fortunately I had just that very day finished a really sweet anniversary story about a couple from Scottsboro. The lady with the glasses met the lady whose husband worked at Wallace State Community College and the glasses made their way there.

Not five minutes ago, he called to tell me that they were there waiting for me. It seems that his secretary collects the same goblets and has some that she is willing to part with.

I think that sometimes when your heart yearns for something from the past, God finds a way to lead you to it. Not that I think God sent me these glasses, I just think he sent me a little bit of my grandmother.