Last week, as I was nearing the end of my annual vacation in Maine, my sister-in-law asked me to help her clean up the front parlor of our 200-year old New England sea captain’s house. “Clean up” as in “clean out.” As in sift through a bookshelf of musty, dusty books, some of which were old enough to be valuable in spite of their loose and flapping spines. And, as in determine which pieces of outdated furniture to keep and which to get rid of.
It was the discarding of a particular, not-too-elegant couch that started me thinking about how and when we let our current state of mind, and our feelings about the future, take precedence over the formative, and sometimes debilitating, events of our past. That is, I came to realize how the decision about the future of a bunch of old horsehair held up by a few boards has made me reconsider my appreciation of love and trust.
Back to the room cleaning… “What about this old horsehair couch?” my sister-in-law asked. “Can we get rid of it?” She was referring to a dusky black settee, or fainting couch (so called because it was used by women during Victorian times when they became light-headed as a result of overly tight corsets!). It had a low curved wooden back raised at one end and a thick, ungiving cushion covered with tightly-woven horsehair that, while ripped in places, shined as brilliantly as a young black stallion. Its undersides sagged and loose threads hung down to touch the floor.
When the same question came up in years past, I had said that I didn’t want to part with it because of the sentimental value it held. That couch was where I, at age 8½, saw my father for the last time. To me, my father – who loved and spoiled me as his only daughter born after three sons – died on that couch. It happened one evening at the end of the summer of 1965. We had just spent the day on a family hike up one of our favorite mountains in Acadia National Park. After arriving home, my father suddenly took ill and was rushed off to Bar Harbor Hospital, where he died within a couple of hours. He had suffered a fatal aneurysm at age 50 – a total shock and surprise to everyone who knew him as a healthy, adventurous, nature-loving artist and friend to all.
In later years, I realized that something else had died on that couch. Not only was it the one person in my young life who easily and comfortably showed me unconditional love, and who gave me my passion for the outdoors (inspiring me to make a career in nature conservation). It was also my trust in people close to me. My eight-year old mind concluded that if those who love most can disappear overnight (literally), then you can’t trust anyone to be there for you, to give you the long-term love and support that so many of us need to gain confidence and a sense of worth.
Self-proclaimed truths can die hard, and well into my adulthood my relationship with trust has remained dubious. However, the question of the horsehair couch indicates that I’ve begun to revise my beliefs. My answer to my sister-in-law’s question this year was that I could part with the couch. I would not let my memories of my father be diminished without it. What I didn’t say, and what I now see as relevant, is that my answer entailed additional realizations. For one, my recent marriage may have contributed to my decision about the couch. During the last eight years I have had a friend and partner who has given me love and support. Now I have a wife who will, for the longer-term, continue to give me with the unconditional love and engender the trust I once lost. And, I still have a father who brought me and my family to a small island in Maine, a place that I have spent all of my summers and will continue enjoying. It is a place surrounded by sparkling seas, granite-topped mountains, and pines and spruces sometimes enveloped in soft fog – a landscape and community that is home to me more than anywhere in the world.