Readers’ voices: Reflections on a rocking chair

  • Adam and Priscilla Novitt with Mylo at their home in Northampton, July 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Adam and Priscilla Novitt at their home in Northampton, July 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Adam and Priscilla Novitt with Mylo at their home in Northampton, July 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Adam and Priscilla Novitt at their home in Northampton, July 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Adam and Priscilla Novitt near their home in Northampton, July 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Adam and Priscilla Novitt at their home in Northampton, July 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Adam and Priscilla Novitt at their home in Northampton, July 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 7/8/2020 11:49:45 AM
Modified: 7/8/2020 11:49:35 AM

I am lucky. I am lucky because I own the most beautiful thing in the world. It is the rocking chair in the upstairs bathroom in my house. It is made in the Craftsman style. It was made, presumably, during whatever years things in the Craftsman style were made. It was made by a craftsman.

It is made to support the weight of a human, or a human with a small child. The rocking chair is unlike its close relatives, the dining room chair, the desk chair or the occasional seat in that its primary uses are care and leisure.

The rocking motion is widely believed to be calming and therapeutic. The rockers are not curved randomly but in a way thought to increase both pleasure and safety.

These chairs are regularly used by mothers as a place to breastfeed, socialize and put their children to sleep. It is an object whose definition is largely connected with and partly owned by the matriarchy. It is also identified with the aged as a place to recall memories, speak to other elders, knit or play music. It is a seat for the passing of intergenerational wisdom, love and song. It is commonly, though not exclusively, pictured on the porch — that place where public and private mix.

The leg between the seat and the rocker on my chair is not straight. It curves and swells and tapers in a way that is both functional and ornamental, but it lacks all decoration other than its form. It is supported by trusses at the midpoint of each leg of the chair and shows its structure as clearly as the Eiffel Tower. It is unclothed before us unlike its more demure cousins, the lounger, wing chair and couch. Every joint and brace, each supporting structure, is on display like a half-built skyscraper, both with a functional purpose and as a display of beauty and skill of the craftsman who built it.

The chair is modern in form but ancient in design. Every part of it is a trace fossil of the decisions of the builder. It is a record of what they learned as an apprentice and journeyman. It is years of work and skill distilled down to an object I own. It is both an object and a recording.

To sit and rock in it is to be part of a grand tradition of taking time off, to interact with the choices and life experiences of a person of skill long passed. It is from a time when people were valued and paid for such skills. The rocking chair stands against the Puritan work ethic.

It is an object open to all. The political right has tried to appropriate the rocker as a symbol of conservative ruralism, but it was less successful in co-opting this symbol than others like the white-tailed deer, the pickup truck, the rifle and the flag. This is probably because women have such a strong claim to the rocker and it’s been used by different races and creeds for too long. 

It is not productive to sit and rock. It is a place to recall the past and hope for the future. 

Before my chair was mine, it was my mother’s. I was not rocked to sleep in this chair but in some other. Still, as “my mother’s rocking chair,” it is whatever chair I was rocked in — if not in fact, then in concept. My mother bought it later in life, probably as a simple and beautiful thing to own. When she bought it, the chair was black. During a brief refinishing phase, she stripped much of the stain from the chair; its wood is now tinted with shades of gray and black.

It’s very hard to remove stains from the end grain and the ancient grain of the wood itself. These harken back to the deep forest of long ago. I also see the work of my mother’s hands. By the time she stripped the chair, her arthritis was already quite developed. I see her tenacity at the job, because my mom is tenacious. I see where arthritis made the work hard and she had less success. I am linked to my mother through arthritis as well. In the chair, I see where she was then, where I am now and how she progressed. I see us — before, during and after she decided to strip the chair — together through DNA and infirmity. Yet, I see our strength, too. She gave us the chair and said we could paint it however we liked, but we like it as is.

The rocking chair is in the bathroom because we had the space for it there. It quickly became a place to sit and rock and talk while my wife, Priscilla, and I showered. It is a place where the pleasure of a warm shower, nakedness and rocking collide. In the winter, it is a rare retreat. It is where towels are. One of us will usually shower immediately after the other in part to take advantage of the fact that the hot water has been delivered to the shower head from its basement heater and warmed all the pipes. It’s a place of consented vulnerability, which is the highest of virtues. A form of love.

Rocking and showering together is now a kind of pact between us. It’s something we chose to do together. We made up the rules as we went along and both know them. Each time it happens, we say “we agree,” which in our home is code for “I love you,” but the rocking chair has always been code for I love you. If all diplomatic negotiations took place in rocking chairs, the world will be different indeed.

Adam Novitt is the director of Lilly Library in Florence.


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