A Refinishing Tale from 2912

One of my mother’s talents (in addition to umpiring Little League baseball games and telling stories) was refinishing furniture. I think she may have been inspired by the 1970s hoopla surrounding the American Bicentennial. She developed an interest in Early American (sometimes called colonial) furniture and décor—not just original pieces (which she never could have afforded) but also the contemporary spin on them (now sometimes called Bicentennial Chic) as envisioned by furniture retailers like Ethan Allen.

(1970s Ethan Allen ad)

Even Ethan Allen furniture was more than my parents could afford. So my mother acquired pieces (garage sales, flea markets, family hand-me-downs) she thought looked antique and refinished them to make them appear even more so. She tackled old, yellowing varnishes and vanquished all evidence of paint (she did not approve of painting wood furniture). In my memory, she has a workspace set up on the driveway in front of 2912’s two-car detached garage. The portable radio, tuned as always to WGN and probably broadcasting a Cubs game, blares as she uses chemical stripper with abandon, forgoing safety glasses (she wore eyeglasses, which were enough) and rubber gloves (she didn’t have to actually touch the stripper). But she keeps her cigarette at a safe distance. This provides an acceptable amount of exercise for her as she walks back and forth for her nicotine fixes.

My mother’s best moment came as she carefully scraped off the bubbling stripper to reveal some beautiful wood. She always hoped for oak, her favorite, but she was pretty much happy with anything that wasn’t pine. Then she stained and sealed and had a lovely new old piece.

In this photo taken at Christmas time (note the little twinkle lights strung across the room divider and the bottom edge of a bell decoration hanging from the ceiling) of 1983 documents my mother’s design style. The green ruffled drapes and the milk glass light fixture signaled Early American to her. The round oak table, one of her best refinishing projects, was her pride and joy. My big sister reminded me that it once belonged to our great-grandmother, who used it in her summer cottage at Petite Lake. We used the table every day for our meals. On Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, my father hauled the leaves up from the basement and wrestled them into place so there was enough room for the relatives. Behind my mother’s shoulder is the side of an old ice chest that she also refinished and turned into a bar cabinet. I think she was almost as proud of that piece. Both the table and the cabinet remained right there in the dining room until she died.

(For dog lovers: The golden retriever, the only purebred dog my parents ever owned and only because my father was friends with the breeder, was officially named Sir Ski Kaminski but nicknamed Ski. They chose this name because when they opened the back door to call him in, they could yell, “Come in, Ski.” The other dog, looking straight at the camera, was Mickey, a lovable but very, very dim mutt. He belonged to my sister, who wisely left him behind when she moved away from home.)

The last refinishing project I remember my mother completing was my parents’ bedroom set. They bought it—dresser, chest of drawers, two nightstands—the year they were married. It was made by the Kent-Coffey Manufacturing Company of Lenoir, North Carolina, which specialized in affordable, mass-produced, stylish furniture. The set was classic midcentury modern, finished in a silvermist grey coating with space-aged hardware. I haven’t been able to find a photo, but I did run across this furniture store ad that included Kent-Coffey bedroom sets.

Sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, my mother decided she’d looked at that grey finish long enough and wanted to get rid of it. (The midcentury mod enthusiast in me now cringes at that decision, despite, like my mother, a general preference for natural wood finishes.) I don’t think she could stand the thought of getting rid of the furniture itself, which was still in amazing condition, but she longed for the wood look. So my mother stripped all the pieces. She found nice wood, but it wasn’t oak—at least it doesn’t look like that to me—and she stained it a dark Early American color and replaced the sleek hardware with more ornate handles. I think she was pleased with the outcome. It was the only bedroom set she ever owned as an adult. She liked it; it was familiar, and it was comfortable.

(photos courtesy of R. Moore)

Then one day my mother was finished with refinishing. I don’t remember if she abandoned a project midway, but I doubt it. She finished what she started, though her satisfaction with the final product could vary from project to project. She learned from any mistakes and moved forward, determined to do better with the next.

The round table, bar cabinet, and bedroom set are still in the family, being used and enjoyed by a new generation. The first two may really qualify as antiques by now, though of course not Early American. Hopefully they will endure for another generation or so beyond that, tangible reminders of one of Irene Kaminski’s talents.