The woman said it was from the early 20th century—her mother’s from Illinois. It was a sturdy and solid piece of furniture, but more importantly, it was the exact size and shape of what I had been looking for. I would strip the varnish, get down to the wood grain, and stain it back to new. I could already picture the finished piece.
Weeks went by, too cold to work on it in the garage, and then my parents were visiting. Though they hate the cold, they hate to be idle even more, and besides, my dad was a carpenter. And so, the three of us set to work: Dad measuring and sawing new shelves, Mom and I donning black rubber gloves and pouring on the stripper.
It was an armoire—complete with a little clothes rod and hooks beneath the top shelf—from the days when a woman’s wardrobe could fit in such a tiny space. On the inside, the wood looked untouched: not painted, nor stained, nor papered. But it did look almost burnt. And on the outside, after two coats of stripper, we had merely gotten down to a very black, streaked layer.
“You’re not going to get down to the grain” said the one who knows wood.
“Let’s put more on and just see,” said the one who hates to give up.
But after a third coat of stripper and a healthy scrub of mineral oil, there we were. None of those beautiful wood grain lines I had envisioned absorbing an antique oak stain. Just multiple layers of unidentifiable material and darkened-burnt streaks, drying to tones of red as the oil evaporated.
We took a break. The wood expert switched to watching golf. The determined one picked up a book, waiting for my next instructions. But when I went back to the garage by myself a little while later and stared at the dried piece, with her chipped and scratched layers of all shades of age, I saw her differently, affectionately.
We had successfully removed the varnish that looked decent enough (I just didn’t like the color) and had made her sellable. But I wondered how long had that been her cover?
When did someone decide she needed to cover up what she had become?
Because in removing the varnish, we exposed all her years and her many stories, and she was beautiful!
Restoring the original wood grain had been my goal, but what an erroneous ambition! The art of restoration is not to erase the nicks and stains and reminders of life, but to see them anew, from a different perspective, and then to showcase them in all their glory. In fact, erasure, be it a thick coat of varnish or a violent sanding, would turn this storied piece of furniture into something else entirely.
I chose to showcase her stories. To leave the marks and dents and various tones. To wonder at the burnt remnants. To let her be all of herself. She is, after all, a solid and sturdy story.
Beth Bruno lives in Colorado where she and her husband get to create life-giving experiences and opportunities for aha moments around God and story. As owners of ReStory Counseling, they do this alongside a team of story-informed coaches and counselors. After living in Turkey for almost a decade, she designed and leads the boutique Lost Women of Turkey Pilgrimage for women each year. With the last of her three kids close to flying the nest, you may soon find her living in one of the cave homes of Cappadocia.