When my mother and father were in their late forties, we moved from a small town in Mississippi to Miami. My father had gone ahead to find us a house, and the house happened to be furnished with the life's accumulation of the old woman who had lived and died there. She apparently had no heirs. My father, ever the practical one, decided that since the house had furniture already, we didn't need to spend money hiring a moving van to take ours down. So my mother left her heirlooms in Mississippi to be scattered among her relatives.
I've always hated that for her. And, to be honest, in later years, I've hated that for me and my brother too. On the other hand, what great stuff we found in the new house.
The old lady who had lived there had been an opera singer and had apparently traveled widely. While some of her possessions would be considered junk, all of them were at least interesting. There were hand-painted fruit plates and elegant linens (most bearing the initial "D"). There was a heavy Swedish cupboard and a delicate Indian table. And a handsome English tea cart, and a pier mirror over a small table featuring a carved squirrel eating a nut. There was a pub table, and a Middle Eastern chair, and two lamps with fake goldfish swimming in them. There were selected silver pieces from the Palmer House in Chicago, and one bonsai tree.
Oh -- and there was a grand piano too, but my father sold it before we got there. Too big, he said.
MOVING TO MIAMI AND LIVING IN THAT house, itself weird (we called it "The Alamo"), was a transforming experience for me. Even though I was your basic tuned-out teenager during my time there, somehow during those years I must've absorbed the notion that things and adventure can be linked. I knew that moving out of insular Mississippi to international Miami was an eye-opener in other ways; maybe it also taught me that a chair doesn't have to be just something you go buy at the department store.
Not that it happened right way. At first I was embarrassed by, among other things, the strange little piece known affectionately in our house as "the king chair." This chair was as exotic as I was myopic. It was made of wood and carved with intricate designs, and across the front, which was shaped something like the skyline of Mecca, were scribblings I only years later found out were words. In the center of the back was a large pearl inlay in the shape of a six-pointed star.
Up to that time, my idea of a foreign chair was something called a Queen Anne. None of my friends had a chair like this. That was my problem -- in junior high, who wants to be different? I remember once, when two particularly cynical buddies were coming over for supper, I asked my mother if she would hide the king chair in the bedroom. She did; some mothers understand a teenager's basic instinct for survival.
Unfortunately, I couldn't do anything about the goldfish lamps. All night long my friends made lame jokes (not while my parents were around, of course) about having our house wired for eels and whether we had any guppy nightlights.
IT TOOK YEARS TO TALK MY MOTHER out of the king chair. When it finally hap- pened, I was 32 years old and living a thousand miles away. I drove a Fiat, which isn't known for its storage space. The moment she said yes, I got in the car and headed for her house. I stayed long enough not to seem tacky, then faced the task of fitting the chair into the back seat of the car. That's when I discovered something even more wonderful about the chair -- it was collapsible! It folded, presumably so you could pack it on your camel and haul it to the next oasis. That's turned out to be a valuable feature for me.
Today the chair resides in my living room in a spot where anybody who enters will have to see it. And when they see it, they also see several other pieces that indicate just how -- the word they usually use is weird -- my wife and I are. There's the tiny embroidered Chinese shoe my cousin the missionary brought -- along with the riveting story of how it was worn by a full-grown woman whose feet were bound in order to make her pretty. There's the quilt, made of men's ties from the '40s, that we use as a tablecloth; we figure men have always gotten food on their ties, so why not. There's the lacquered '40s standing lamp with the little discs that remind me of Elvis's gold records.
And there's more on the way. My wife and I recently discovered an antiques shop that caters to our particular tastes. In one crazed session we bought a giant painted-metal-flower wall sconce that was originally in one of the South's grand hotels; two other pairs of sconces, one of which will go in our bathroom on our original '50s wallpaper; a painted metal table for the living room; a chandelier (dripping with crystals) for the hall; and two green-and-fuchsia faces -- they look as if they should adorn the bows of ships -- that we hung on the fence in the garden.
Why do we like this stuff? I can only speak for myself (I suspect my wife was born bent): It had to be that house in Miami. In losing our familiar family heirlooms, I found an appreciation for the mystery of things unknown.
I'm not going to deny darkening the door of a few new furniture stores since my Miami years, but nothing I've ever bought new has compelled me the way these old things do. And not just old: odd. Off the beaten path. Things that stoke the imagination with the exotic stories they could tell. Remember how your mother used to say, "Don't pick that up, honey -- you don't know where it's been"?
Well, that's my criterion for buying.
And speaking of my mother, I should tell you this: She's tenacious, but I believe she's weakening. I should own those goldfish lamps any day now.
James Morgan last wrote for the Magazine about his, uh, eclectic wardrobe.