Three hours and four minutes until sunset and in this minute the sunlight is flooding the back room of our apartment, at least as much as the Christmas tree in the window will allow it to.
It’s the shortest day of the year. I am stretched on a couch that’s not a bench, which is luxurious and also leaves a pit in my stomach. This couch retails for more than we paid for our old station wagon, but there were Black Friday discounts and a credit card to help cover the costs. Choosing comfort is not always comfortable.
On the table, papery bronze paperwhite bulbs appear to levitate above the bowl I’ve placed them in. They’re balanced on a handful of rocks I scooped from the landlord’s garden, and their white roots have dug themselves deep into the water, insurance against gravity and the steady growth of their bright green shoots. Silas notices that the tallest ones have opened their blossoms first. Probably because they get the most sun, he says, and I nod and say yes. Probably.
In the evenings after dark, my kids barrel into the apartment, elephants on the stairs that are covered in brown linoleum and trimmed with aluminum strips. The walls are painted to the halfway point, a kind of trompe l’oeil marble that gets rubbed with puffer jackets and static-y hair as one child tries to squeeze past the other. My stomach lurches thinking of someone falling backward in the melee. I meet the ruddy-cheeked elephants with a reassuring smile and let my stomach settle as I kiss the cold tops of heads.
The movers who delivered our couch probably tried to be careful, but there was rain and a double-parked truck and that old staircase with a turn in it. The box was ripped open, the couch was squeezed over the threshold and the slip cover snagged. We’ll send a new one, the couch company said. As if it were nothing. As if we hadn’t saved up and debated and wondered if a couch were a thing we deserved. We’ll keep the snagged couch and a deeper discount which has helped the pit in my stomach and the credit card bill, both.
On nightly walks to pick up Calder from daycare, I pass a building where my four times great grandmother lived for a time at the turn of the last century. I know lots about the ancestral ghosts and angels that walk these city sidewalks with me, but I hadn’t realized there was one lingering so close. On the evening when I learned the news, I passed her building, and saw a man propping open the front door. Four times great-grandmother, I said. I live down the street. I just found out.
He invited me in, which is the kind of thing New Yorkers whose shell you crack even a little will do, and together we climbed the curving wooden staircase to the second floor. In a niche at the turn in the stair—a spot claimed to be carved out for accommodating heavy furniture, or coffins, or both—stood Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her hands were clasped in prayer, her golden aureole blossoming behind her head, a solid layer of dust at her feet. The building had just been sold, the man told me. The old woman who lived in this apartment had just died. Who knows what will happen next, we agreed.
Fourteen minutes and thirty-four seconds until sunset. The sky above the buildings is orange and golden, the last brilliant rays of today’s last light.
Comfort sought and found, not always in the places where we expect it.
Lovely, so lovely!
Show us the couch! Haha all I kept thinking was-you’re telling us how expensive it was, I want to see what it looks like!
Also-such beautiful writing. Happy solstice!
So beautiful, thank you. It makes me want to go back to writing. Something I did a long time ago for money and then not long enough for love before I stopped.
And paper whites! The first time I arranged their bulbs on the table, my then middle-school-aged son strode in the house and asked what was with that bowl of onions.
Enjoy those elephants!
Lovely, Erin. But wait. Five times like great-great-great-great-great grandmother? The turn of which century? I feel like that would bring my back to the 1700s?
Nope! Lives are not so long! She was an old woman at the turn of the 20th century!
Actually just ran through it again! My four times; kids’ five times! Still!
Wow! My great grandmother lived at the turn of the century, my grandmother being born in 1910!
The first time i saw paperwhites was 1994 in a house in Brooklyn! My love and I were both Aupairs at the time. I lived with a family in Chicago and he in Brooklyn and i had send him some bulbs because I liked that word “paperwhites”.
When I visited him the paperwhites bloomed and I fell in love with them.
Ever since we have paperwhites in our apartment.
This is such a beautiful piece. I wish you and yours much comfort and peace xx
You sound sad. I hope you’re ok. And don’t worry about the couch – yes you deserve it. Also, if I’m worried about the cost of something I ask myself how much joy it will bring, if I’ll remember the cost in five years time, and how much comfort and joy I will have had in that time. Life is short – please allow yourself to enjoy these things. You are good people.
Thanks for the kind words! I’m not sad though! Just contemplative—and maybe a little cash strapped! 😉
This is a beautiful essay. I can so relate.
Most of our furniture was free/nearly so (goodwill and side of the road finds mainly) but we were squeamish about a stuffed couch and what molds and bugs and other such undesirables might lurk in the upholstery.
So after a decade we finally dropped real money on a real couch and let me say—it was worth it to have a sofa we can all fit on and that fits correctly into our space without weird dead space.
A year later and we still have a no food on the “new” couch rule and I do vacuum it regularly. It’s a little precious still but we do use it. Daily. Many times a day.
If you amortize it, a couch is a good investment.
You deserve it.
I love your writing Erin. Thank you for sharing
Thank you for this. I can see it all in my mind.
Erin, my husband and I wanted a couch. We sat on it, we pondered it, debated it, we bought it. It was the most expensive item we had bought for our home. Our first child was in a baby carrier on my husband’s chest as we debated. 22 years later we still have the couch and another child! That couch has had everything imaginable thrown on it, has had the cushions repaired, been through 2 house moves and still going strong. If we move again, we may have to take the window out to get the couch out! It’s still going strong and has outlived many other pieces of furniture. Enjoy it, the guilt will soon depart. Merry Christmas x
You should write a book of essays. Beautiful.
So perfectly captures this season of the year and parenthood. FWIW, I also felt enormous uncertainty when we took the plunge on a sofa that checked a lot of our boxes (in terms of materials, look etc) but have felt better in years since as I realized HOW EXPENSIVE even mediocre sofas are. It’s just wild. No matter how you approach it, a sofa costs a lot! And ideally, if you buy a good one, you just have to do it once!
I hope it brings great joy in the weeks of being home a lot more than usual, and thank you for another year of beautiful writing and craftiness.
I keep reading this over and over again because it is so lovely.
Beautiful words. Happy Solstice … and a peaceful Christmas time to you all. xx
Lovely piece Erin, enjoy your couch. Happy Christmas to you and your family.
We had a similar experience with a couch, one that in early 2020 we agonized over. A sectional that we paid extra to have shortened so it would fit into our smaller space. I wanted something that all four of us could sit on, that two could lay on. But it was the most money spent on any piece of furniture ever for our house. Finally took the plunge with lots of nerves and wondering if it was the ‘right’ way to spend our money. Then of course the shut down happened and we spent so much time at home and on that couch over the next three years, I have never been happier or more grateful for a purchase ever. All that to say, the anxiety is real, I get it. I’m happy you found something you love. And this was a beautiful pieces of writing.
Erin – you write so beautifully. I have just made a small contribution that will hopefully ease some of the anxiety. Wishing you and your family a Happy New Year.
Thank you, Jody! I so appreciate your contribution. May the New Year be happy indeed!
Such a beautiful piece — so many elements tug at me : Silas’s sweetness, family ties, the light, kind New Yorkers, Mary in a niche. And I’m so so happy for you and your couch. I wonder how good it feels for you and your family to have one more spot to stretch out and fully relax in the middle of a very busy city. Seems to me like your nest got cozier. Happy Christmas. Happy New Year!
Thanks so much, Sara! Happy New Year!
This was so lovely and felt so good to read. Thank you for writing it and sharing it.
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