What’s the point of buying a coffee table? I don’t know where I’ll be in a year

Coping: My mother’s fable of a new sofa may have been the defining allegory of my childhood

‘A coffee table is a strange piece of furniture – non-essential, to be sure, but very inconvenient to be without’

‘A coffee table is a strange piece of furniture – non-essential, to be sure, but very inconvenient to be without’

 

There is a space in the middle of our living room that has unsettled me since we moved to the UK and into this house about nine months ago. It is the space where a coffee table should go. A coffee table is a strange piece of furniture – non-essential, to be sure, but very inconvenient to be without. Many times its absence has inconvenienced us and visitors, who have had to place teacups  primly on the floor, but still I have not committed to buying a coffee table.

  My mother’s death nineteen months ago cast me adrift in more senses than an emotional one. Her illness was swift and cruel. Just days after her death, my brother and I had to decide what to do with her things. Terminal cancer makes work impossible – our family home had to be sold while she was ill so that there was money for my mother to live on.

It was the only way that she could have the luxury of dying without worrying about bills. Lacking the locus of a home, and without money or space to store anything beyond some essential and sentimental items, most of it had to be given to charity or discarded while we were still blind with grief. There are things I think of now and wish I had kept, even though I know there was no space for them at the time.

 When my partner and I moved here to the UK, it was an unfurnished house that greeted us. This prompted a trip to IKEA, and the purchase of, among toilet brushes and bed sheets and other sundries, a sofa. When it was delivered the next day, I felt a violent stabbing in my gut. I remembered my mother’s sofa – bought second hand and reupholstered just once in over twenty years, ragged on the arms and with cushions mottled and sunken by divots.

She would talk about the day when she would be able to afford to replace the sofa as though it were the pinnacle of personal success, but she didn’t live to do it.

Her fable of a new sofa may have been the defining allegory of my childhood. She would talk about the day when she would be able to afford to replace the sofa as though it were the pinnacle of personal success, but she didn’t live to do it. Looking at my slightly drab but perfectly serviceable new EKTORP sofa, replicated in so many homes the world over, I could not help but think what a small and reasonable ambition it was to own one, and how much more deeply she deserved it at fifty-seven than I do, still in my twenties.

 In front of that sofa is the space where I never put a coffee table. When we moved in, money went to the essential pieces of furniture – a cheap, mismatched table and chairs, the sofa and a bed which I somehow managed to assemble by myself one afternoon. Some nights I lie awake awaiting the moment when it will inevitably and violently disassemble itself. For the past few months, I have tried to put money away for the purchase of a coffee table. The pot has grown and there is enough there to buy a perfectly practical one, but still, something in me demurs. It is a voice that is perhaps particularly recognisable to people of my generation, and it says things like “there’s no point in buying anything. You don’t know where you’ll be in a year or two”. 

This concept was completely alien to my parents’ generation – a potentially nomadic existence (at least relative to their buy-and-settle-down mantra) of moving about every other year, following jobs as they come up, and existing in a vortex of persistent uncertainty. I loathe change, but like most people, have been tossed about by rather a lot of it.

Our tolerance level for the most challenging aspects of life is often much higher than we tend to estimate

The only reassuring thing about this is that when you survive some of the changes you most feared, you disprove the theory of your own vulnerability which you espoused so faithfully. In fact, our tolerance level for the most challenging aspects of life is often much higher than we tend to estimate. Change is a trip into the unknown; we have as much evidence of a negative as a positive outcome, which is usually none. To accept the possibility of change is, in many ways, to relinquish control. This is frightening. I’m working on it.

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