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How I learned to throw sheets over my furniture (just like mom)

MIKO MACIASZEK/The Globe and Mail

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We bought the chair.

I couldn't resist the magnificent tufting and deep seat. Charcoal grey. It had all the robust elegance, the cultivated charm of exactly "my" kind of chair; the kind that says, "my children don't define me," and "I'll be more diligent about clipping cat claws."

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I have two young children now, but my living room was conceived with the kind of careless aestheticism only a first-time mother could entertain.

The woman upstairs has a brown microsuede couch. In fact, it is the very IKEA sectional I stared down during a period of couch-related despair after my elder daughter's birth, when I could no longer bear feeling my own skin against the black Italian leather of my husband's "bachelor" sofa or the sound of my cats clawing away the flesh of its injured arms.

As my neighbour – wise mother of four – passed me a cup of tea, I scowled at my husband. "This is a family couch," I whispered between pursed lips. "This should have been our couch."

The couch we bought was nervous love at first sight: a hardwood base piled high with down and draped in raw linen. I giddily chose "oatmeal" over "slate" because somehow, numbed by sleeplessness and oxytocin spikes, I was just that deluded. Though I may have hazily acknowledged the benefits of polyurethane foam and polyester fibres, my postpartum bullheadedness would concede nothing.

In fact, drunk on senseless optimism, we also bought the chair.

Regal, dramatic, imposing: I decided it was "me" – a formal representation of my essence – the cosmopolitan daydream of a future self I'd carried with me since college. As I inspected the chair, I imagined myself reading in dignified poses or bouncing a fat baby on my knee before setting her down on an intricate Persian rug.

Within six months, the pale linen of the couch began to expose its weaknesses: My toddler rubbed frozen blueberries into a pillow, a guest gesticulated wildly enough to spill her wine, and my abuse of "spot touch" cleaners left a conspicuous geography of faded blotches.

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Fine filaments of stuffing poked through the chair's tufted back. I attempted to stuff them back in with knitting needles and fork tines. My cosmopolitan daydream was becoming a mess of exposed foam.

My prized furnishings were really no finer than the ragged floral living-room sets my mother had spent decades covering in bed sheets. As a teenager, I couldn't bear to watch her throw yet another queen-sized sheet over our furniture. The sheet only made more conspicuous everything it was supposed to hide: the cheap upholstery, my family's inability to mobilize enough capital for a replacement, and, most shameful, my mother's instinct to throw a sheet over the problem and walk away. It highlighted every moral flaw I'd learned belonged to the poor.

And so it was with shame that I carried out my mother's ritual and threw a sheet over my chair, imitating the series of folds – along the arms, around corners – that I had watched her perform so many times.

My husband stood puzzled before my baffling installation.

"Why is there a bed sheet over the chair?"

"So we can have people over."

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"We're hiding the chair?"

Pulling the sheet away – triumphantly, accusingly, making a point – I asked him to think about what a chair like this says about me, about us.

"It says we have cats."

Other people were more sympathetic but came to similar conclusions. The psychoanalyst from New York was concerned: Didn't I know that exposed stuffing was becoming an intentional decor choice? "Look at this!" he cajoled, pointing at a glossy American magazine, "Look at the stuffing, it is just spilling out."

Together we marvelled at photos of artfully torn upholstery pulled away to reveal great beige tufts of chair innards. I stared slack-jawed at the result of Manhattanites so bored by their wealth that the only logical response was destruction. It was exactly the kind of jaded carnage that only a psychoanalyst could love.

I tore away the sheet, revealing the chair in all its gruesome beauty, waiting for it to mimic the detached elegance of the magazine spread. But where the magazine showed leather-bound classics lying open on the arm, my pile of mug-ringed magazines hung precariously from a dusty side table. Where the magazine featured picture windows framing a cloudy urban skyline, my chair stood against a great white wall of scuff marks and paint drips.

I waited for my daydreamed future self – and her magnificent tufted chair – to blot out my mother's frantic bed-sheet origami. Instead, as I watched my four-year-old slide off the chair into a pile of raw linen cushions, I sank into the sticky-fingered knowledge that had guided my mother's quiet domestic protocols.

I'd spent my childhood lying carelessly against the covered sofa's arms, rubbing food into its back, sliding muddy heels between its cushions, yet I'd neglected to see it for what it was – the formal representation of a mother's love.

My daughters may not inherit my furniture, but I hope that with each luminous vision that gets scuffed and stained by some wild, joyous feature of the present, they will have the wisdom and generosity to throw a sheet over it and walk away.

Susannah Rubin lives in Montreal.

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