Tahlequah Daily Press

January 27, 2014

The piece of furniture that held a little girl's heart

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — Does anyone out there know what a “chifforobe” is? I do, but I had to look up the word to spell it here, and it took me forever to get close enough for Google to do the rest.

According to Wikipedia, a chifforobe is a piece of furniture that combines a wardrobe with a chest of drawers. Some folks might call it an “armoire.” I think the word is a bit archaic, especially since my grandmother used it. That’s also why, when I first started looking for the correct spelling, I thought it might be related to “chivaree.” Anyone who’s ever seen “Oklahoma!” knows what that is.

I own what may or may not be an antique chifforobe. It belonged to my paternal grandmother. She used to tell me she got it when she and my grandfather were first married, because they didn’t have proper closets in those days; at least, they didn’t have proper closets where she and my grandfather were living in those days.

When I was a very young child, I vaguely remember the chifforobe being in one of the bedrooms of my grandparents’ home in Midwest City. Actually, it might have been in the separate living quarters built for my father and his two brothers – either because the house was too small for four kids, or because my grandparents wanted the three boys out of their hair. We called that “Hays’ House,” after the younger of my two uncles, long after he had abandoned the abode.

Above the drawers on a chifforobe is a hutch-like cubicle with a small door that opens outward, and this usually has a glass window. The glass on Grandma’s chifforobe had been broken at some point, and for awhile was open until someone stapled plastic where the pane was. At some point, the chifforobe was semi-retired to a walk-in closet in the main house. Sometimes it had clothes in it, and sometimes not, but it made for a great hiding place for a kid.

Both my grandmothers were stay-at-home grannies, and when we kids stayed with Grandma Poindexter, she always indulged us in whatever silly games we played. Hide-and-seek was especially fun, and the chifforobe was prime property for sequestration. I know this because no matter how many times I hid there, my grandmother always had trouble finding me, and when she did, she always seemed shocked.

I loved that chifforobe. It had a familiar, homey feeling, with its fading stain and slightly blistered coat of varnish. The interior had a soft woody aroma, and if there were clothes tucked inside, it smelled like fabric softener, or sometimes faintly of mothballs. I always felt safe inside because I knew that eventually, my grandmother would find me, and then we’d go make cheeseburgers or “Grandma’s Toast” on the griddle, grilled with butter on just one side, slathered with melty peanut butter and grape jelly, and folded over.

My grandmother used to tell me, “Kim, when I’m gone, you can take that thing with you and let your kids play in it.” I’m not much for knick-knacks, furniture, dishes, clothing or any other staples in the hand-me-down category, but I did want that chifforobe – not for my kids, but for myself.

At any rate, I had only one child, and fortunately, my grandmother lived until late 2006, well beyond the time my son would have crawled into the chifforobe to await discovery.

In theory, I do “own” the chifforobe now, but I’m not in possession of it. When my grandmother died, my father snagged it, and since that time, it has been consigned to his garage, kind of like an annoying housecat that pees on the carpet instead of in its litterbox. There it sits, undignified and dusty, bereft of any lacquer, forlorn and unloved. I’d like to take it, sand it and refinish it, and restore some of the glory it must have once possessed.

I’ve asked my father several times for the chifforobe, but he always says, “You can have it when I’m done with it.” He’s using it not to store dresses and slippers, but to house his shotgun shell reloading paraphernalia.

My father, who is in his late 70s, cycles with FreeWheel and jogs about five miles a day. In general, he’s as healthy as a horse, though he’s getting hard of hearing, which means he yells even louder than he did when we were kids. So when he yells, “You’ll get it when I’m done with it!” I usually remind him that he’ll probably outlive me, and so I’ll never actually “get” the chifforobe. The last time we had this exchange, he grumbled that he’d make sure my son got it.

Perhaps there’s hope that one day, a grandchild of mine might hide in that cozy, comfy little sanctuary.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.