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.

A Travel Tale from 2912

Now that summer is drawing to a close, I find myself thinking about the car trips we took when we were young.

car trip 1960s

Here we are in the way back of our station wagon in the summer of 1966. I’m on the right, looking bored (but probably already worried about getting carsick), holding my favorite doll, Susie, who went everywhere I went. We rarely took a big family vacation, like a week-long trip to anywhere, but we often went someplace that was driveable within a day. And many, many times, in any season, this meant a trip to Lake Geneva to visit my maternal great-grandmother.

3632 Oakrest Lake Geneva

We headed to this house, located on the edge of town, within walking distance of Linn Pier, a beach area with bright blue, frigid water, and a rocky bottom. Still, when the weather was warm, we liked nothing better than piling back into the station wagon for the bumpy ride down the road, and shoring up our courage to jump from the pier into the cold water. But if the weather wasn’t warm enough or the adults didn’t want to supervise us in the water, we improvised our own games in the big side yard. When we got bored with that, sometimes we could talk the adults into taking us to the tavern across the street. It was a neighborhood place that, though taken up by a big bar, catered to the neighborhood families. Children could often be found inside with their parents. We thought it was great fun to climb up on one of the bar stools and twirl around as we drank a glass of Orange Crush or 7-Up.

Lake Geneva c. 1966

My great-grandmother, Katie, was the heart of these visits. I’m not sure what this occasion was, but it looks like it took place in the early spring, before the arrival of warm weather. Our father, always the one with the camera, would have organized this photo. Katie is standing there at the far right, in all her white-haired glory, next to her eldest daughter, Martha (my maternal grandmother), who is next to my mother Irene (Martha’s only daughter), who is standing next to Grace, my mother’s favorite aunt and Katie’s younger daughter. Grace and her husband Jack (sitting on the front step, holding the youngest of us) lived in Katie’s house. This arrangement seemed normal to me because my other great-grandmother (we called her Nana), standing in front of Grace, lived with her daughter-in-law Martha. Both great-grandmothers and my grandmother were widowed by then.

My strongest memory of my great-grandmother is of her sitting on a straight-backed chair in the kitchen, quietly smiling at us as we raced around the house. I don’t remember ever having a long conversation with her. I guess I probably thought we wouldn’t have much to talk about. But I do remember a visit a few years after this photo was taken, when my mother asked if I noticed anything different about great-grandma. I looked at her sitting in her favorite chair, smiling, and nothing looked different. I shook my head. “She’s wearing pants,” my mother said. “Katie decided to wear pants.”

At the time I thought it was a little bit cool that such an old woman had ditched her day dresses for slacks, like so many pants-wearing women in the early 1970s. It didn’t occur to me that maybe Katie delighted in bucking tradition because it was something she liked to do. It didn’t occur to me that she had a whole big life long before I entered the world.

Katie was born in 1886 and grew up in Chicago, where her father was a butcher in a packinghouse. She married Clarence, a Dutch immigrant, in 1907. Their first daughter, Martha, arrived soon enough, but seven years passed before Katie gave birth to Grace. By 1920, the family lived in a rented house on Morgan Street. Clarence worked as a salesman in a shoe store; Katie kept house.

The next ten years brought changes to the family. Martha grew up and left home to get married. After the stock market crash of 1929, as the country sank into the Great Depression, Clarence managed to hold onto his job at the shoe store. But business likely slowed down and he may have had his hours cut. They still needed to make rent. They still had another daughter to finish raising. So Katie found employment at a local grocery store. It was not an easy thing to do. White middle-class married women weren’t supposed to work, not even during the Depression. Jobs were supposed to be for men who needed to provide for their families. But Katie and Clarence knew they both needed to provide to get themselves through the economic disaster.

Katie was apparently good at her job and probably liked it, too. By 1940, not long before the United States formally entered World War II, she had been promoted to manager. She brought 24-year-old Grace in as a clerk. They all made it through. 

Grace and Jack never had children. This may be why Grace was one of the first working women I ever knew. When we were young, most of the women we encountered were mothers like ours, who stayed home and took care of us. To me, Grace seemed unusual, even a bit strange, because she had a job. But when I was a child, I didn’t think to ask any questions about it. And now, I think a lot about my great-grandmother, sitting quietly in her chair, wearing her new pair of pants, probably proud that even late in life she could still do something new and daring.