The Story of a Bench

As our home itself holds many stories, one of our commitments was to not acquire in the same fashion we had in the past. We would be emotionally connected to a piece of furniture, or the maker of the furniture, or artwork on the walls.

In theory, I had always subscribed to this notion, but never more so than now, in this home, with its haunted, we suspect, and historical past. Our inhabiting this space should add, not detract, from its story.

photo 3-1 photo 2When it came time to completing the courtyard, the addition of a bench did not happen without its own narrative.

The fountain had already arrived via Mexico, in some secret fashion, from a fountain specialist in Milford, whose name was Mark, so Mark felt beholden to purchase the fountain from him.

During the construction of the fence, the initial contractor walked off the job. In the fence contractor’s de-fence, no one had excavated too far below the surface of a lot where a foundation and building sat for over one hundred years. However, they still walked off, after Mark told the contractors the fence was not straight, a common, legitimate complaint. We waited another three weeks for a fencing company with a better reputation to arrive on the scene and straighten the place up a bit.

The purple patio table and chairs were inspired by those at Findlay Market, produced by Cincinnati-based Verdin Bell Company. I met Tom Verdin, a sixth generation owner at a Findlay Market event. When I inquired about purchasing a set like the ones at the market, he all but said it was done. Truthfully, it was more difficult than that, and involved a delivery from California, and some setup and swearing. Today, our guests recognize the chairs as same as Findlay Market’s. Some have gone so far to accuse me of theft.

There is a wine barrel, which sits alone in a corner of the house, near the grill. The Purple Trillium barrel was procured from Chip Emmerich of Burnett Ridge wines. A friend of ours connected Mark to Chip and thus a marriage made in vineyard heaven. The barrel was designated for the basement wine cellar, and oh how the movers and Mark attempted several times to heave the barrel down the narrow steps to the basement. All attempts were futile. The barrel was relegated to the courtyard, where it sits lonely, used only to hold raw meat before cooking, and the occasionally glass of beer Mark downs while at the grill.

The metal screens, surrounded by Brazilian hardwood, were replicated by a local metalworker, based on designs I found on the Internet. When I first discovered the design, I was ecstatic. I had been pulling my hair out for weeks, trying to come up with just the right concept that would not detract from the house and would still have some reference to Victorian times. When I found that product on the web, I though I had struck gold, only to learn the screens were fabricated by a company in Australia. Luckily, we have talented metalworkers here too.

All around, the items have carried their own story, including the chair in our closet room which was procured from Goodwill, which had such a prominent role in our room, we were trying to match a more expensive rug, with the less (way less) expensive chair.

Which brings me to the bench. A few months back, Mark had been in conversation with a local antique dealer, discussing old style benches. We did not want one made of iron, but knew that replicas of old patterns made of cast aluminum were avaialbe. Afterall, we had seen them on the Interent.

Mark was told by the dealer that he could order one for us. But he was leaving on a buying trip. He would call when he returned. We waited. Mark attempted again, and was again met with indifference. And during one final try, the dealer shared with Mark, he would prefer to wait for a larger order, because it had to ship in from New York.

While this made sense, I was not one to wait long. But I was devoted to the pattern we had found via the dealer and began my own search – on the Internet.

I found the bench on four different websites. I emailed all four, then placed phone calls to each one. In one case, a California company, I was in conversation with a woman who spoke little English, and thus I was leery of ordering, for fear she would mix it up and ship out the wrong bench. It was never clear they carried the piece to begin with.

In the midst of these frustrating times, I received a phone call in return, from a message I left for a dealer in Georgia. “Annette, This is John. I’ve got your bench.”

I knew in that instant we would be lifelong friends. When I told him I was in Cincinnati, John went to tell me about his days in the Navy, and his time in Cincinnati. His daughter was born at Christ Hospital, possibly a few years before Mark was an anesthesiologist there. And he once met Dr. Sabin and shook his hand.

“Now, I’m going to be in Cincinnati on August 11, around 7 pm. Will you be there to take this bench?”

August 11 was a Monday. I was usually free on Mondays.

“Yes, I’ll be there.” Mind you, it was still July.

“Well I’ll have my better half call you, and you can work out your payment with her.”

Was I crazy to accept this offer, and trust that I was giving my credit card number to a complete stranger, over the phone, expecting I will get delivery of a coveted bench?

Well, yes. Crazy, and desperate for the courtyard to be complete.

So, I waited, and every once in a while, I would tell Mark, “The bench is coming, the bench is coming.

And when I had offers to go out on Monday, August 11, or make other arrangements, I declined because, “the bench was coming”

Sunday night, I hadn’t heard from John or Ellen regarding their plans. Were they still coming? Would they have my bench? Did they abscond with my money?

On Monday, around noon, I received a call.

“Annette, this is Ellen.”

Ellen. She referred to herself as if we were old friends.

“John says we’ll be by about 5:30. Is that good?”

“Good? That’s great. I’ll be here.”

And so I waited, ate lunch, wrote, visited Mom, wrote some more.

At five o’clock, the phone rang once more.

“Its Ellen again. John says we’ll be there at 5:30.”

If John was really in the Navy, he would be here precisely at 5:30 p.m. So I fed Enzo and let him out, so the dog would stay out of the way later. I put Davis on alert, he would be needed, I supposed.

And indeed at 5:30 p.m. on August 11, John and Ellen arrived in a dark blue Suburban, reminiscent of my father pulling into my driveway in Loveland. They spilled out of the car, as I was in courtyard, and extended their arms for hugs. Hugs all around. Hugs to them. Hugs for my bench.

I called Davis to the courtyard and three of us toted the bench to its rightful place. “There was never a more perfect spot,” said John, who snapped a photo of me on the bench.

I offered water, a bathroom, cooling off, but neither John nor Ellen were physically able to rise up steps without rails, so we stood in the courtyard, and admired the miles the bench had traveled.

“That bench is in the Rose Garden of the White House, sat through nine presidents,” John told me.

Well, an actual cast iron bench sits there in reality. Ours was just a replica.

We discussed their trip and miles they had yet to go. They were on their way to Pittsburgh to visit with some family. And thus began the stories, of attending Brown, and how Ellen typed all his papers. Of his time playing trumpet in the Navy, dancing on tables in 21 states, and 23 countries. Of siblings who was smarter than John. Of parents who were smarter than John. Of a wife who was smarter than John.

Thunder clouds were gathering above. Ellen motioned to John about the payment.

“I can write a check for the balance. Let me run inside and get it.”

“We’ll just wait in the car, Annette. We don’t need nothing else.”

I gathered up my checkbook, and walked back outside to their car.

The sprinkles were dotting the windshield with an increasing frequency. But John was not done telling stories. I handed over the check, and Ellen pinched his hand to get him to stop talking.

I don’t think John ever stopped talking. I wouldn’t be surprised if the couple, married for 48 years, slept in separate rooms because John talked in his sleep.

Another thunder clap.

Sadly, I gave them directions on how to return to I-71 and wished them well.

“Now, if you are ever in Atlanta, we are at the intersection of three major highways, so you can get to us real easy. And you got to stop by. And send me a photo of the doc and you on the bench.”

“And the next time you are coming through, you call me,” I tell them in return.

I waved them off, as the rain stared to pound, and my pulse did too. I felt like I was waving goodbye to parents, to their stories, to people who want to be heard.

The bench itself will always carry the story of how I procured it. But when I sit in it, I will hold the stories of John and Ellen in my heart.

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