Friday, August 19, 2011

The Bench

His name was Andre.

At the time it seemed like the name of an artist. The image I have is something like a Rembrandt self portrait. A rumpled, stained smock and a big floppy (maybe velvet) hat. Not that Andre actually dressed like that, but his baggy old jacket and beret combined with his artistic attitude to suggest something more profound. I was told that he was “White Russian”, whatever that means. The implication was that he had come from a royal family of some sort, that had had the good sense to leave Russia during the revolution. He was in his 80’s when I knew him in 1960.

He had a male partner whose name I can not recall. He had been the lead architect for San Diego’s widely known Balboa Park and was a pleasant, quiet sort of guy compared to Andre’s broad overstatement and bluster.

They were friends of friends and we became acquainted during a party at an improvised castle perched on the cliffs of Pt Loma overlooking the Pacific Ocean. (Where I was living in a guest house.) In the course of the evening Andre reveled (to me and everyone else) that he had rented a half dozen garages some years ago to store the excess furniture that had resulted when he and his partner had moved into more modest accommodations. During the next few days they planned to sort through the stuff and try to trim it down to one or two fewer garages. He thought it would be delightful good fun to play “musical garages” and invited us all to join the enterprise. Since I had some time on my hands I decided to “give it a shot”.

We only had one old pickup truck so the process got kind of involved. And Andre hated to part with any of his treasures. Eventually we managed to eliminate one garage and I ended up with an old redwood bench.

It was beautiful. It clearly had spent it’s entire life outdoors in the sun and rain. It was about one and a half feet high, a foot or so wide and about three feet long. The color had weathered to a wonderful silver-gray and the softer part of the wood grain had shrunk leaving the harder part of the grain more exposed.

At the end of the summer when I returned to Berkeley to continue my graduate studies at the university I took the bench with me. When I think back on it now, it is sort of a shame, but I ended up sanding away the beautiful weathered grey surface and the raised grain. I then applied a couple of coats of furniture finishing oil and the bench glowed with rich redness that gives the wood it’s name.

The bench was about the only solid piece of furniture my wife Cecilia had during our time at the university. After I graduated we spent some time abroad and the bench had to fend for itself. We eventually returned to Berkeley and after a couple years we bought an old redwood shingled house (do you see a pattern here) near Live Oak Park in the north part of town. The bench was right at home there and it assumed the duties of “coffee table” in front of the small couch in the living room.

Life goes on, and after a few years we adopted three girls, a sibling group - two fraternal twins and a younger sister. After a couple more years I fled the strains of family life and then a few years later the children also decided to leave. Cecilia and I divorced and she inherited the house and the redwood bench.

Not much is known about how things were for the bench until more than thirty years later when,almost by accident, we learned that Cecilia had died and the house was sitting empty and the bench was alone again. My daughter Katie drove down from Portland OR to put things in order and took the bench back home with her. I doubt it suits her decor, but for now, it is home and it will have to do until the next adventure comes along.

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