My mom grew up on a farm in Michigan and as a little girl I absolutely loved hearing her tell us stories about her childhood. She would recount the time that she and her best friend were determined to sleep in the barn one night only to be frightened out of their wits by her older brother who couldn’t resist tormenting his little sister.
She would tell us all about what it was like attending a one-room, country schoolhouse with her aunt as the teacher and how she loved having her very own cow. But, in all of those years, somehow the story of the fire was never apart of her repertoire.
When my mom was 16 years old, she arrived home after working her shift as a carhop at A&W to find the road to their farmhouse completely blocked off by fire trucks. She ran towards the house and upon arriving saw firemen shoveling burned debris, water and her belongings out of her bedroom window. She tells me that she vividly remembers seeing the charred remains of her favorite doll lying in the yard. The fire, caused by faulty wiring, had started in the attic which was attached to my mom’s bedroom. Thankfully, it didn’t spread further than that but the damage, both emotionally and physically, was still significant. Among the surviving pieces of furniture were her oak bed and dresser with an attached mirror.
The same pieces which now reside in my daughter’s room.
And when we decided to give her room a makeover this summer, we faced the same dilemma we always have with her room.
While it has SO much going for it, this room has an awkward layout. It honestly feels more like an attic room with its angles and the window seat might be adorable, but with the way it’s set back in the room it makes it VERY dark even on the brightest days.
As my mom and I stood in the room one day strategizing over how to brighten the space, she casually mentioned that if I ever wanted to paint the oak furniture a lighter color that she would understand.
And, I’ll admit, I thought about it…for about 5 seconds.
Painting the bed and dresser would make the room brighter.
But I remember pretending that oak bed was a wagon. My sister and I were Mary and Laura Ingalls bouncing over the prairie behind the horses, heading out on another adventure.
And that oak dresser served as a changing table for both of my babies. I know every single nick and scratch and watermark like the back of my hand.
I just couldn’t fathom taking a paint brush to either piece.
It would be like I was covering up their history.
A history that has spanned generations and one I hope continues for many more.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally against painting furniture. I’ve done it myself here.
But, there is a time to paint.
And I time NOT to paint.
Yes, oak isn’t really considered ‘in’ anymore. You won’t see much of it on Pinterest or in home decorating magazines.
And yes, it presented a bit of a challenge as I worked on giving my girl’s room a makeover.
But, when I imagine my mom at 16 years old racing to see how much damage the fire caused to her room and then seeing that her oak bed and dresser survived, well, I simply can’t bring myself to tamper with that memory.
In the end, that memory makes it worth figuring out how to incorporate them into my vision for my daughter’s room…just as they are.
And it’s that memory which makes the results of the makeover all the more beautiful!
I totally agree! I love looking at what other people have painted and the way they transform wood furniture but I rarely have the will to do it myself – especially if it’s a family piece. I’m glad to know others resist the urge to paint everything in sight!
terie karaus says
I agree- some pieces should not be painted. We have a tiger oak dresser that belonged to my husbands grandfather and other ancestors in his family. It is the only physical thing that my husband has from his family. It has made many moves across the country and even to another continent. It does need to be refinished but I just cant bring myself to do it yet. It is one piece that I am totally opposed to painting- restoring- perhaps!
You are absolutely right. There are many times that painting solid wood furniture is a “no no” in my book. And, all those memories in your family make it valuable and an heirloom. Do NOT paint it. There are other ways to brighten up the room – putting more mirrors in it, bright colors, and lively pillows and flowers! That furniture will be special, perhaps, to your own grandchildren one day – it can still bring comfort and joy to many families yet to come! (Write the history of the furniture and tape it to the back or inside a drawer.)
I thoroughly enjoyed your touching story/memory! I couldn’t paint over the memories, either! I wanted to comment on the part that oak is not used or celebrated like it once was ~ I have some lovely old oak pieces that are dear my heart. They don’t have the growing up memories yours have, mine were added to my life through many “antiquing” trips with my husband in the early days of our marriage. He has a love and a knowledge of antiques and I had the love for them. The knowledge came later. My oak pieces that have not been handed down to the children, add grounding to my white pieces. I love oak and I know I always will, in style or not. I love to decorate and will to my grave. I take ideas from all the beautiful magazines, and yes, Pinterest, but will always follow my own innate sense of style. PS My pieces are even more dear to my heart as my husband no longer can remember all our fun days of hunting for just the right piece ~ he is battling dementia. ♥
Oh, my goodness! I have a dresser exactly like that minus the mirror. The difference is I bough my at a second hand shop and someone had refinished it – and didn’t do a good job of it. I plan to paint mine, but if mine were as special to me as yours is to you, I wouldn’t change a thing. What a wonderful way to keep a part of your mother’s childhood alive. Your set is beautiful!
They say the eyes are the first things to go and I believe it. I meant “bought mine” – sorry for the typos.
Karen K from Buffalo says
I don’t care what is popular or not, oak wood is the best. It’s a hard wood with a beautiful warm look. I hope you keep that wonderful dresser & headboard unpainted as it represents a time when people enjoyed & loved that look.
Wendy Johnson says
If you had said you painted it, I would have said how lovely but your story made me cry and personally I love oak so I am glad that it didn’t turn out that way.
Kaye Chastain says
I faced the same dilemma recently in regard to a pretty hutch my parents gave us more than thirty years ago. I kept eyeing it daily, colors dancing in my head, while friends and family kept saying, “No,no,no! Don’t paint that beautiful wood!” So, out of consideration for their opinion (and my own reluctance), I lucked up on an amazing, lighted hutch–larger, lighter wood–at an antique store (for an amazing $237.00!!!). I didn’t hesitate painting that one, and it turned out to be GORGEOUS!!! After such landslide success with the lighter one, I felt completely comfortable painting the darker one a beautiful, dramatic red! Wish I could post photos! I love wood, as well, but some things just cry out, “Paint me!” and I am all too happy to oblige!
I have that exact same dresser, except the mirror frame is a bit more ornate. I’ve had it in my room since I was born. And 49 years, and a lot of wear, I still have it. I’ve had the same dilemma recently, whether to paint it or not? In my 20s, I moved around a lot and with each move, it became more damaged. First, because the wood is old and dry, the wood at the bottom of 2 of the legs cracked and so I had to take the wheels off. One by one, most of the original hardware got lost, and then the mirror broke and the frame to it is now in 2 pieces. Each of my daughters had it their rooms for awhile. I put some of those crystal knobs on it like I see in your picture and that made my mother cringe. It’s now in my living room so that it’s not further damaged. I’ve avoided painting it, even though my normal go to is :paint it. My family will tell you I paint everything! So what do you think? What can I do?
How wonderful. Keep those amazing pieces My grandmother left me 5 complete bedroom sets when she passed . Sadly, my mother sold them all when my husband and I were stationed in Japan. I still hurt when I think about them. I used to play with all the sets up in her attic. Loved the huge mirrors and the love chests. Hang on to all of it. Glad you didn’t paint it.
I would have done the same, the room looks lovely, and what a nice history.
I have the same piece of Oak. I have a lot of old vintage Oak pieces and I would never paint them. I love looking at them and like you, I know where the nicks are. I am also from Michigan and we have several antique stores here! Thanks for the article. I love your blog!
Yes, yes, yes:-) That is what makes a house a “home” — the story.
Lisa Mothersead says
It’s so sweet that you, your mom, and your daughter have such a warm and connected relationship. I think you’re honoring that by keeping the furniture the same.
Carol Reddin says
Thank you, Vanessa, for lovingly caring for “the family” bedroom furniture! It warms my heart every time I peek into that darling little girl’s room and see that she, too, is enjoying sweet dreams in the same bed that I, your sister and you did too! So thankful for that! Love you, Mom
Julie Ann says
I had a very similar dresser growing up. My mother refinished for me as a baby. It is now in my daughter’s room. 🙂
What a meaningful story. I can’t help but think that someday wood tones will be the “thing”. I love the look of the furniture. It is beautiful!
Your narrative took me way back to my own family heirloom. As a young person I inherited a player piano from my great Uncle Louie. He taught me very simple songs on it and we sat together on the piano bench and I would play them over and over. The piano was eventually moved to my parents house and after I was married moved to mine. It was lovingly taken apart piece by piece by a local piano restoration man in our community and after six months we were able to again pump the pedals as they were meant to be. A job transfer took it to another state. Eventually, our young 3rd grade daughter began her piano lessons on it and that continued for the next 10 years. The piano moved again after retirement back to our home state and two more moves would eventually settled it into our newly built home. It seemed glad to finally rest. Four months later a EF-5 tornado sadly took it for its last ride and it was destroyed. While searching through debris in a nearby field neighbors discovered the piano’s soundboard and dragged it back to our driveway, but the damage was too much.
A small section of a leg was also found that my daughter kept and has on her desk. We loved that piano. We loved the memories made on it. Knowing my Uncle Louie, I believe that’s all he ever would have wanted.
Karen K from Buffalo says
I am sooo glad to see that you did NOT paint that gorgeous dresser & headboard!! For the glass ring stain on the top, have you ever tried Old English Oil for Light Wood? You rub it in & adds some color & some oil. Let it dry & you will be amazed at your results. There is one for Dark Wood also. No, I don’t represent Old English, but have used it on several occasions on my wood furniture. Hope it helps!
Shirley@Housepitality Designs says
That furniture was meant to survive and be in your daughter’s room….Yes, some things are not meant to paint!
Sherry Watterson says
I love the oak headboard with the beautiful pillow shams! Can you tell me what pattern and who makes the pillow shams! wold love to purchase some!
At The Picket Fence says
Hi Sherry! The shams are actually from the Better Homes & Gardens line at Walmart. I purchased them over the summer so I’m not sure if they would still be in stores but they may be online. 🙂
It is so true that the pieces from an old house don’t always work as well in a new one, but rearranging helps make things work better and make us feel more comfortable in our space in the mean time. However, your pieces are absolutely stunning and I can definitely see how well it will tie in with your home. Keeping a memory alive is so important, and teaching that to your daughter is wonderful of you. Thanks so much for sharing!
Mary Beth Elderton says
I am so glad you have decided not to paint this beautiful furniture. A soft yellow on the walls with bright white trim, a colorful quilt with a crisp white bed skirt/pillow sham, and this furniture would add warmth to happy, feminine room. The memories will continue to collect for another generation.
At The Picket Fence says
Thank you Mary Beth!
Kevin Smith says
Great touch story!
there’s time to paint your furniture and there’s not.
I think the love and respect you have for your mother and the memories she has and shared with you are priceless.
I agree with you whole heartedly. I have a lot of inherited furniture in Mahogany, including my Great Aunts solid mahogany dining room set. I can’t imagine painting it. My grandchildren may feel differently, after all, they have no memories of having Christmas Eve dinners at that table surrounded by family and the feeling that you are loved. There are plenty of pine and laminate furniture to paint, these will stay unpainted for this generation.