This story I shared at my live lit show last year has been top of mind lately because a couple weeks ago, I traveled to St.Louis to retrieve the famed Blue Couch from my father’s childhood home. As kids, my siblings and I were forbidden to go into the living room, the so-called Blue Room (named for this couch) because of its pristine white carpet and glass figurines.
Even though I did not sit on this particular couch when I watched Duck Tails or chatted with my grandma, it’s still symbolic of my childhood. Physical objects carry memories, and to see a certain object, to hold it in your hand or to brush your fingers across the surface of it, evokes feelings and certain memories in a deeper way than looking at a photo, certainly more so than staring into space and trying to remember.
This couch is a bit of personal history.
The Blue Couch
I moved four times before I turned 17. The last was in the middle of my junior year in high school— when my father got promoted again. My family (mom, dad, brother, sister, me) exchanged Omaha, Nebraska, population 410,000 for Austin, Minnesota. Population 24,000. Good-bye Barnes n’ Noble, good-bye New Age store that sold tarot cards and colorful candles. Goodbye Spaghetti Works restaurant. Hello to a half empty mall and an Applebee’s.
Change was always part of my repertoire. But a constant in all of this upheaval was my grandparent’s place in Creve Coeur, a suburb outside St.Louis. They lived in the same house since my dad was a boy in the ‘60s. It’s a 1-story ranch house painted the deep olive green of army fatigues, with a wide backyard and tremendous trees much loved by the neighborhood squirrels. Or tree rats, as my grandfather called them.
My family visited every summer, from whatever state we were living in at the time. We always drove, and the car rides were excruciating. We’d hit the road before the sun came up, and I'd spend most of the trip nauseous and bickering with my younger brother and sister. But when we hit St. Louis at night, I got excited. The city, blazing with lights, whirred by as we left the rough, dusty highways behind. The nausea fell away. I recognized the smell of my grandparents neighborhood, all humidity and pine. My brother, sister and I shouted directions to my father, as we competed over who could remember how to get to Grandma and Grandpa’s house the best.
These visits were fairly routine. We watched Duck Tails and played softball in that wide, sloping yard. Grandma and I went shopping and she always bought me something: a new pair of shoes, a new outfit.
We went to baseball games (go Cardinals!). Sometimes to The Arch, or zoo. I’d sweat under the bright sun. St. Louis was gross and steamy in August, the air smelling thick and heavy and damp.
And about every night, my sister Leah and I got into loud territorial battles over who was on whose side of the double bed we were forced to share.
One year, the family takes a rare winter trip to St.Louis to celebrate Christmas. I’m 23, living in Chicago and ride the Amtrak down to meet everyone. This is the first time I celebrate the holiday not at my parents’ house.
In retrospect, I think we did this because of my grandfather’s health. His short term memory was fading, but he was still physically pretty healthy: he was able to quickly descend to the basement to fetch jugs of his beloved Inglenook wine from the second fridge. In a few years, though, that walk would become laborious and then altogether impossible.
I was relieved the room my sister and I shared was the same: baby-girl pink walls and matching sheets, a color I would never wear or use. But here, it was comforting. Nice. Leah slept on the side with the nightstand and alarm clock and crystal lamp. I slept on the side with the heavy mahogany dresser and huge mirror that terrified me. I was convinced if I looked at it in the pitch black dark, I would see a ghost or Bloody Mary’s face reflected back at me.
Though there had been a handful of changes since I last visited, the house was very much the same: the Hershey’s tin filled with illicit candies on the same coffee table, the tiny rocking chair I sat in when I was 4 still in the corner of the family room. And the grandfather clock, whose woeful gongs I counted when I couldn’t sleep.
The family (my parents, grandparents, sister, brother and me) were crowded in the kitchen, enjoying a drink before dinner, when someone, probably my father, suggested we go to the living room because that’s where the Christmas tree was.
My sister and I gaped at each other. The Living Room. The Blue Room.
The Blue Room was so named because of an electric blue couch whose style was straight out of The Dick Van Dyke Show: low back, thin, rigid seat. The fabric scratchy like wool. It probably was wool. The rest of the room was white: thick white carpet, fragile crystal figures, cream-colored chairs. The room had a stillness over it like a display of decorative furnishings in a museum.
My parents, my grandparents, and my brother, the youngest, who I realized never properly feared The Blue Room, took their cocktails and wine into the room with the white carpet and pale chairs. Leah and I lingered in the kitchen. Where it was safe.
My father came to retrieve us. “What are you doing in here? Why don't you join the family?”
His eyes, I was surprised to notice, were the same bright, twinkling blue as my grandfather's.
My 21 year-old sister whispered, “Because we're not supposed to go in The Blue Room.”
Dad laughed as if we were the silly ones. As if he never told us to keep out.
“Come on girls, join the family.”
We saw no choice but to follow him. I thought how stupid it was to pour red wine instead of white.
Dad announced to everyone that we were too scared to go in the living room. Leah corrected him, “The Blue Room. And that's because you told us not to.”
She relayed how Dad had crouched next to us when we were tiny and impressionable and said in a gently threatening voice: “That room is not for playing, girls. NEVER go in that room or your grandparents will be very, very unhappy.”
My sister and I are goody-two-shoes. We hardly ever got in trouble at school or home, except for the usual sibling stuff: throwing toys, name-calling, and fighting over blankets and kicking each other when we’re forced to share a bed. We did what Dad said and stayed out of The Blue Room.
And now, we did what Dad said and went into the Blue Room. I tiptoed to one of those cream-colored chairs and gently put the wine glass down, on a coaster. I didn’t spill at all; I was very proud of myself.
Over the course of the visit, many other cocktail hours and evenings took place in that room. My mom and I drank Kahlua and Cremes in there. I brought in another glass of red wine. My grandfather, a collector of trains, ran the train that went around the twinkling Christmas tree and the quaint snow-covered homes and shops from my grandmother’s Snow Village collection. He told stories of growing up in Tennessee. I was a proper adult now, not a child who would break something precious, who could sit and listen, even sit on that firm, electric blue couch, and learn more about my family. I even became comfortable enough to eat some salty mixed nuts in there.
It’s a decade later and my grandparents house is still there, still olive green. But now uninhabited. My grandfather died a few years ago and my grandmother lives in a retirement facility. It’s still their house though, still full of a lot of their things: clothes, knick knacks and mementos.
I haven’t been back since my grandmother moved. I’m a little nervous about it. She took furniture with her so I imagine gaps in each room, wounds where a chair used to be, a bed.
Change is a thing I’m used to. But I’m not keen to see that kind of change.
That idea of a place that is a “hometown” has always been foreign to me. An actual place that’s robust with memories and feeling. I lived in Omaha for four years; I started high school there. There’s plenty of memories, but the sharpest one is that I left. My bones remember and they don’t want to go back.
I wouldn’t call St.Louis a hometown either. I didn’t actually live there, but it was a constant and familiar place that I returned to throughout my childhood. Which is as close to a hometown as I can get.
That’s why, I think, I asked for the blue couch. The Blue Room’s blue couch. I need a new couch and it’s free and beautiful and in perfect condition, from everyone mostly not sitting on it.
But wanting it doesn’t make sense to me, since most of the memories I have about it are of avoiding it. But those other ones, of Christmas and Grandpa running his trains under the tree, those are good ones.
I am going to sit on that couch, and will probably spill something on it. My dog is definitely going to sleep on it, and he’ll definitely scratch at the scratchy fabric. Maybe even rip it a little. The couch won’t stay in perfect condition. But it will be used and loved in my home.
Now all I need to do, is go get it.
p.s. I got it!
After over a year of dragging my feet to finally rent the U-Haul to get the couch back to Chicago. Hector really likes it.
Reading | Watching | Listening
Pose about the ball scene in New York in the ‘80s. Reading romance by Sierra Simone. Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Confessions of a 30-something Hanson fanatic. Re-runs of Frasier because sometimes it’s nice to watch something familiar. Fleabag for something new and for squealing “omg omg omg” into a pillow because of all the feelings. How Fleabag breaks our hearts. The time I went on a lesbian cruise and it blew up my entire life for more feelings. Tech should listen to actual researchers.
About this newsletter
Humdrum is written by Christina Brandon. Her new blue couch looks amazing in the sunroom. Purchase her memoir about teaching English in China through Amazon. Connect with her by replying to this email or jumping on Twitter or Instagram. And tell friends to subscribe!