“Tangents and the Chair"

A Memoir by Gert Murphy

Long years ago when I was teaching at a middle school in lower Westchester, the schedule was such that teachers shared the same lunch hour as the kids. 

So it was that a group of us met daily in the home ec room. It was always a pleasant period where family stories along with school experiences were exchanged. Among the latter were discipline problems and motivation and union issues, etc. I still maintain that many of those dear old pros had insights into education that were far superior to those of some of the administrators — but that is another story.

One of our group at that time, Ella C., had an annoying habit of hijacking conversations. She would attach a story of her own to whatever dialogue occurred at the lunch table. She always had a relative whose life experience could shunt the given topic into an orbit all her own.

Her tangents became habitual as well as infuriatingly deadening to conversation. They intruded on the tension-releasing tales that burst from our mornings in the classrooms. Our therapeutic small talk was squelched and shuffled off to Ella C.-land; looks and smirks and eyebrow raises followed. 

In one of our forced silences, I began to devise a plot. We’d have a contest. We’d search for some topic (anything!) for which she’d not have a relative. I shared the idea with others and one teacher even jokingly suggested social disease or mutilation or mass murder just to see whom she’d bring on board.

In those days I was working on the side tutoring a gracious Japanese businessman. He had called me one night and mentioned a shipping problem he was facing: the dilemma of how to arrange an orange shipment out of Florida and how to lease a freighter. 

I mentioned the call at lunch. “Would you believe that Shiro called last night and asked how he could get a freighter? Would you believe it?”

There were a few giggles, and then there was an odd silence. The school psychologist quietly spoke: “I think you won, Gert.” 

It took a while for the import of her statement to sink in. Fifty years later I can still feel the laughter that erupted.

Many people are like Ella C. My sister-in-law Mary Murphy engaged in polemics rather than conversation. When verbal sparring or moot arguments abated and small talk moved into more palatable arenas, she would sit demurely with lips pursed. Cat-like in her beauty and silence she sat ready to pounce upon a random remark to restart her debate — the one that had moved everyone to flee to another topic, if not another room.

 It became such a pattern that we used to joke about it. As conversation continued, a moment would come when she’d suddenly interject, “Aha, what you have just said precisely proves my point!” Reactions of confusion, contained annoyance, rolled eyes, polite though forced interest, or flight followed. 

I used to joke that if one had even used the word “the” it would relaunch whatever point she was defending.

A conversation during a writers group when someone commented that even a chair could work itself into a story prodded loose yet another anecdote.

Back in the ’80s my childhood pal and adult romp-mate, Michael, was called on to dispose of the things in the apartment of his father’s first wife. Among other items, he gave me a set of four Danish-looking webbed chairs. They never matched anything in my Bronx apartment, and so they were shuffled around until they made their way out to Montauk, where they still didn’t match anything and remained with everything else that didn’t match anything. 

They were kept because extra chairs were always needed for the groaning table. Handsome they were, but in need of sprucing up and, perhaps, a finer home. I thought I’d replace the webbing, but I became discouraged at the labor and cost that such an effort would create. In an odd burst of Eastern detachment (more Feng Shui than wabi-sabi) I brought them all to the dump, er, the recycling center, and tossed them. I never thought to contact Swap ’n Shop, eBay, Craig’s List, or the community church. They were gone.

Until early 2004. 

That spring the New York Times ran a half-page article on webbed furniture featuring the Risom chair. Pictures were splayed across the page. There they were again — “my” chairs! 

The “Personal Shopper” piece gave the history and some quotes on vintage models. Michael’s father’s first wife’s chairs dated from the ’30s or the ’40s for sure — as both Michael and I had been late-’30s vintage ourselves. 

$9,800 to $12,500 per chair.

No need to describe my reaction. The teeth imprints below my lip cleared shortly after. Once more I had earned that gentle moniker “financial incompetent.” Once more arose another inspiration for Murphy’s Law. 

Laughter and storytelling hastened the healing. Whatever money might have been put to mortgages or college loans or taxes was gone from me to someone smarter once again.

I still have pictures of the Risom chairs with all ages of friends and family sitting on them, and that is where my wealth remains.

The new year’s start always dislodges memories and life continues to radiate tangents all over the place.

Gert Murphy is a retired teacher who lives in Montauk. Her work has appeared previously in The Star.