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  • Writer's pictureDiane Mague Stanley

Lavinia's Chair

Updated: Feb 23, 2018

Week 8 of the 52 Ancestors challenge asks about “heirlooms.” This is difficult simply because I have so many inherited mementos, it’s impossible to pick a favorite. They all have interesting stories, but I’m choosing one where I have added to its history. The heirloom is Lavinia’s chair.

Lavinia Blazure[1], (1868 - 1940) my great grandmother, had a rough beginning. She grew up in Bernards Township, New Jersey, the daughter of John B. Blazure and his distant cousin, Clarissa, also a Blazure. John died when Lavinia was about 4 years old. Clarissa remarried to George Hand and started a new family. Sadly, Clarissa died when Lavinia was about 12. Lavinia, or “Vi” or “Nita” as she was called, lived on with her stepfamily until she married my great grandfather, Coonie Conrad, in 1890. They raised 10 children together, including my grandfather, Raymond.

My mother, Evelyn, remembered Coonie as a wiry and stern man, and she was afraid of him. He made a living as a teamster and stone hauler. Lavinia, his wife, was the opposite; kind and loving and indulgent toward her grandchildren. Coonie and Lavinia lived next door to the train station and graveyard in Basking Ridge where Lavinia let the grandchildren run amok playing tag among the tombstones. Even in the middle of the Great Depression, Lavinia gave the children nickels to buy candy. To my then-child mother’s eyes, Lavinia was stout and extraordinarily fat which undoubtedly added to her comfortable, grandmotherly appeal.

The Conrads did not have much, but one prized possession was Lavinia’s rocking chair. It sat on the front porch of the house by the cemetery and was reserved for her alone. The chair was an 1890’s model, maybe Sears Roebuck, which someone had painted pale green. It used to have a leather seat cushion which disintegrated, exposing a raffia stuffing. The cushion covered a gaping hole where the original caned seat had worn through at least once. When Lavinia died, my grandfather Raymond claimed the chair and put it in the cellar of his house on Whitenack Road.

The chair sat in the cramped, damp cellar for over thirty years, right in front of the sump pump and alongside the workbench. The cellar was a scary place where the men retreated to drink whiskey while the family visited upstairs. The cellar was the home to the belching coal furnace and was where my grandmother had once even stabled a colt she rescued from a Premarin(R) manufacturer. In the cellar’s depths sat rows of years' old mason jars containing spoiled, home-canned goods and enough ptomaine to poison the whole town. Lavinia’s chair was part of the cellar scene and witness to it all.

When Grandpa Raymond sold the house on Whitenack Road, I asked for the chair and I think he gave it to me "for free" because it was in such bad shape. By this time, the runners had completely fallen off from sitting on the damp floor. Reluctantly, I threw away the seat cushion because it was that bad. As the chair lost more and parts, I collected them in a trash bag which was slung over the back of the skeleton chair like a snapsack. I hauled the chair and its bag from house to house, and year and year, while our children grew and I became as old and fat as the original Lavinia.

One day my husband found an expert cabinet maker and furniture restorer who loved old pieces. He envied the fact that we had a family heirloom; his family had gotten rid of the "junk." He saw the beauty of the chair despite the missing runners and trash bag of pieces. We knew that if he could not mend the chair, no one could. He made new runners and put in a new caned seat. He tightened the chair's creaking joints. He respected and did not disturb the old green paint and the lopsided patina on the arms; more wear on the right, than on the left.

Lavinia’s chair now sits proudly in our living room. Of course, most visitors want to sit in the chair. They gravitate toward it for some reason, not the least of which is that it's so comfortable. However, I always warn them that sitting in Lavinia’s chair does not come without a challenge ... recalling Lavinia’s girth, anyone who doesn’t fit may want to skip dessert.

[1] Alternately spelled “Blazure” or “Blasure.”

© 2016-2018 Diane Mague Stanley ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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