Barbie’s Bleak House; or, Married with Furniture

Insomnia, scratchboard and ink, by Nancy Wolitzer.


It was the deal of a lifetime: a work of art, really, that would cost at least $1500 in any upscale furniture store. I had just taken out a second mortgage on my tiny townhome so my growing son could have his own tiny room, and was preparing to furnish it with our usual fiberboard crappola when my ex-mother-in-law called to announce that she was giving us, free of charge, a snazzy, glass-and-steel desk!

I hung up the phone and cried.

This was just the latest move in the game my in-laws like to play, which I call Domination Through Furniture. Not to be confused with my own parents’ game, Persecution Through Gifts, the object of which is to expend the maximum amount of money and effort to produce maximum guilt and minimum pleasure in the recipient, who is thus forced to manufacture gratitude that the giver can readily recognize to be false. It’s a contest of suffering in which the odds always favor the house, or benefactor. For example, one’s mother might spend months knitting a complex patterned sweater with angora yarn in a color that strains her eyes and makes her daughter look jaundiced, in her own size fourteen rather than her daughter’s size four; send an e-mail on the day she is thinking of mailing it and another on the day she actually mails it to warn her daughter to keep an eye out for it (meaning, stand by the mailbox in the rain day and night until it arrives); e-mail again, or better yet call, on the earliest day it could conceivably have arrived, and every day after that, so that the daughter, picking up the phone unawares, will barely have opened the box before being forced to drop trite, grudging-sounding thanks into the long-distance silence that comments so loudly on their insufficiency. No one thinks for a moment that this sweater will ever be worn.

My former mother-in-law has also given me clothes in the wrong size and color and style. The bag o’ nightgowns she handed me at my wedding reception, so that her son wouldn’t have to sleep with a hippie chick in a big t-shirt (no matter that he had often seen the same amazing bargain on both his mother and his sister). The skin-tight fuchsia mini-dress she would wear herself if she were younger and thinner (and which my sister-in-law does own, and wear). The big, ropy jewelry. Wearing these things, I could stand around at cocktail parties in nicer neighborhoods and flirt with rich old men and gabble about real estate and make some use of my slimness and wit and charm, which I now waste on academic friends who have nothing material to offer me. Unlike my mother, she means well, in a way.

Or rather, by the way.

The problem with gifts from the in-laws is that they are really mainly for themselves, the benefit to the recipient merely a bonus. The effect is especially noticeable with the big items, the tonsus and kimono chests, the armoires and Turkish carpets. They delight in playing garage sale, a game in which it is to the buyer’s advantage to not actually need anything, therefore to be, unlike most of the sellers, in no hurry, but to be ready at any time to throw someone else’s undervalued, massive treasures into the hatchback and haul them away. It’s all part of their basically optimistic philosophy: you never know when a piece of great real estate will come your way and you’ll decide to build a house and rent it out, or rent out the house you’re in now and move somewhere else. They buy enough furniture to fill up any three of the parallel futures that might be in store for themselves or their children or grandchildren.

In those days, before the children, I had the energy to resist – to explain that we weren’t college students any more who could be expected to be grateful for mere squatters’ rights at a genteel address; that grown-up married people like to pick out their own living spaces and fill them with things they actually like. It was exhausting, especially because my husband was against me. Mark was constantly on the lookout for free stuff, especially if it made little over-furnished corners of our cramped existence resemble the lives of his parents, in the tax bracket that somehow contrives to pay no taxes at all. It was also difficult because at the beginning I didn’t have any taste of my own to fight them with. I had always lived in dorm rooms or furnished apartments. When I had to decorate for myself, I’d settled for whichever Salvation Army couch had the fewest tears and stains. I hardly knew what things I actually like would look like.

This is how I wound up in a studio apartment overflowing with colored pencils and broken guitars from my husband’s childhood bedroom, taking delivery on a huge polished slice from a giant redwood. This was a dining room table for gnomes – a low, jagged slab that would reach out to shred the hose and shins of anyone who happened by. Mark thought it was beautiful.

Then I got pregnant. Imagine the scene: I’m seven months along, slogging through a stack of student papers, trying to get my final grades in before my fingers get too swollen to write, when the phone rings. The in-laws have been to a garage sale and have seen the most darling cradle, only $75, but I’ll have to go get it right away if I want it. My hands and feet are full of fluid, I’m peeing every twenty-five minutes, I’m so tired I can barely make out my students’ typescript, I think about driving thirty miles to look at a piece of baby furniture that all the books agree is impractical since the baby will outgrow it so fast, in order to spend money I should be saving for the baby things we really do need, and I say, Thanks anyway, I guess we’ll just have to let this one go. But it’s perfect! And worth much more than they’re asking! And when the baby outgrows it you can always use it at Christmas to put presents in! (Christmas? Not Chanukah? Maybe we should have a tree too, but a whole little crèche? Will I have to get little donkeys and cows and wise men too?)

Mark comes home and I tell him to go look at the cradle and buy it if he likes, anything, just let me get my work done and go lie down. At least, I imagine, maybe it’s pretty, with old-fashioned carvings, like the beds of the Disney dwarfs, a warm and cozy (if pointless) nest on rockers that could rest on the floor next to our bed, a little piece of the Victoriana I now suddenly realize I like. A few hours later, I look up to find half of our one room filled with a huge, dark, trapezoidal object suspended from a tall stand, recalling not the dwarfs’ cottage but rather the animated coffin that lumbers away from the audience near the end of the Bach segment in Fantasia, a piece to bring on nightmares about miscarriage and SIDS in even a non-neurotic mother-to-be. It’s not perfect, I’m now told; the large wooden screw that can keep it from rocking is broken, but the in-laws know someone with a lathe who can make us another one. (This does happen, months later, but the new screw doesn’t fit.) When it rocks, it makes a loud clicking sound, which, it turns out, wakes the baby up as soon as he’s put down.

At least everyone wouldn’t be constantly tripping over this thing in the new townhome we had just bought, which, though still small, was about four times the size of our studio. It was my dearest wish that we could prevent it from being filled to the brim before we had even moved in. I did nothing those first few months but say no, no, no to that space-eating tree table, to three Persian rugs in different, clashing shades of red, to chairs and sofas that the cat would destroy in minutes, to everything – photos, school papers, broken cassettes, old toys – Mark had left with his parents when we first moved in together. But no one would take my “no” seriously until I could articulate what I wanted instead, besides an absence of clutter. As a gesture toward finding my eye, I bought a comforter in a watercolor floral pattern that I thought harmonized with the dappled leaf shadows the sunlight cast into the bedroom in the afternoon. I lay on the bed and looked out at the treetops and felt a serenity I had never known before and began to understand why people care about this stuff. I should have realized it couldn’t last.

It was partly my fault. I was new to the game and failed to keep my guard up. They seemed so nice. When my second child was about to be born, my mother-in-law even asked me what present I would like. I said, “Let me borrow your Heidi.” Heidi was one of her smarter acquisitions, a kind, efficient, yet inexpensive house cleaner. This pregnancy had been difficult, requiring me to lie down a lot while somehow also supervising a toddler and teaching four classes, so naturally the house was in no condition to welcome a new baby. Heidi, even for a day, would be the perfect childbed blessing.

Unfortunately, when the big day arrived, there had been a tiff, and Heidi (having turned out unexpectedly to be a person with her own opinions) was not picking up her phone. So Grandma decided to clean my house herself with the help of my two-year-old son, who had come down with a fever and needed to be removed from the premises before we could bring his new sister home. Understandably, the cleaning took some time. So there I was in the hospital, waiting for her to finish up and clear out so we could come back, nursing the baby, calling home, not yet, nursing again, calling again, and so on. Finally we got the all clear, three hours after my official release, and as I walked up to the house I could already hear the phone. It was Grandma. “So, do you like it?” Like what? Her vacuuming? As I staggered to the bedroom to collapse with the baby, I noticed it seemed darker than before. My lovely pastel flowers were gone. In their place was a forest green paisley comforter (I would later see the same design in dark red on one of her own beds), with sheets and pillowcases to match. Surprise! How can I ever thank you?

Mark, in his own way, was also ungrateful – not because he wanted this intrusive furnishing to stop, but because in his view his parents owed him more material things than they could ever supply. He would therefore manage to convey his sense of each item’s individual inadequacy without the least intention of stopping the flow. The more he seemed in danger of hurting their feelings, the more I would try to make it up to them with a show of appreciation, although I’m sure my insincerity was all too obvious. And since I did take little stabs at asserting myself, I still inadvertently insulted them – like the time they dropped in unannounced as I was putting together a box for Goodwill, right on top of which were the salt and pepper shakers they had just given us for our anniversary. There was nothing wrong with these salt and pepper shakers. They were just plain beige ceramic spheres, I’m sure very tasteful by those minimalist arty standards I still know so little about. But by this time I had discovered that you could get salt and pepper shakers in the shapes of all sorts of little animals, usually for just a few dollars, and I could no longer understand why anyone would want ones that merely dispense condiments when at the same time you could also deck your table with little boy and girl plastic pigs, or cows, or kittens in a little straw basket, or mice in jackets like Gus and Jack in Cinderella. It just seemed like common sense, maybe even a version of the shrewd bargaining that was my in-laws’ own main talent, to get so much more for so little.

You will perhaps at this point be thinking that my attempts to develop my eye without expert guidance, or at least some input from someone over the age of five, weren’t working out too well. And though to this day my views on salt and pepper shakers have not changed, and I still yearn toward household objects that do one thing and look like something else, preferably an animal, I can see now that what was hatching during my marriage was a sort of counter-taste: an attempt to balance or cancel out or undermine what my house, or rather our, or his, or perhaps their house, was starting to look like.

If the walls could talk – and in a sense they did – their tale would begin as a mildly amusing novel of manners and end like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. Mark and his mother belonged to the Printmakers’ Guild and received, for their annual dues, an original print by an upcoming artist. I went along to one of their receptions once – free food after all; Mark could never pass that up – with the children, and in the brief time before I had to remove them to prevent their touching all the untouchables I got a vague impression of a lot of unpleasant black shapes in different sized frames. Year after year Mark would take the new print to the framers and hang it up (while another in the same series would appear simultaneously on his parents’ walls). These pictures gradually devoured every vertical surface, forcing upon me a careful, daily study of contemporary print art that only confirmed my previous fleeting impression from the gallery. They were mainly done in shades of black and dark gray, with a little brown. Although post-modern, they suggested an almost Victorian horror vacui, the nearly complete absence of white space within the frames augmenting the claustrophobic effect of overcrowding without. Although non-representational, they rather disturbingly evoked real, depressing objects.

I thought there should be a little open space. I thought I should have some say in how the house looked. I tried suggesting that Mark limit his decorating to one or even two rooms – there were, after all, only three. I suggested that he take down something old before putting up something new. But as long as there was any space left, he considered it unreasonable to object to his filling it. It wasn’t as if he was telling me I couldn’t put up pictures of my own. The only way open to me to fight this encroachment was to fill every bit of leftover space with anti-art, something cute and quaint. I think the effect I was aiming for was mid-twentieth-century miniature golf, though the result was more like Filipino cemetery. In this atmosphere of Disneyfied macabre, that redwood slab of a dining table I had managed not to move from our old apartment would have harmonized perfectly. As it was, no one could walk anywhere without stubbing or skinning something, especially once the children’s toys began to mount up – such as the toe-fracturing Barbie styling head. There was something more than slightly funerary in the master bedroom, as I lay as far away from Mark as possible, inert as an effigy on a medieval tomb, stifling under that dark green comforter, the paisleys mutating in my dreams into unwanted sperm, or cancer cells.

The day Mark finally moved out, taking his pictures and furniture with him – a process that took two years and, metaphorically, a bulldozer – I went up to the attic and found my old pastel flowered comforter – a little dingy and careworn, but still a comfort. I put Snow White posters in just a few of the places vacated by the serious Art, and just like that, the spell was lifted, the whole salt and pepper menagerie started singing in chorus, and the little cat jewelry boxes and cow calendar and giraffe table were dancing, just like at the end of Beauty and the Beast when the gargoyles turn into baroque cherubs and everything is re-gilded and gleaming. Well, to anyone else it probably still looked like a slightly run-down townhome in a lower-middle-class suburb. But it was a palace to me – certainly more habitable, by even the in-laws’ standards, than the little condo Mark moved into, which after a few years of saying yes to free stuff could soon barely even be entered. His mother would come once in a while to help him sort and dispose and clean, but she admitted it was pretty hopeless. He never seemed to understand that even the much bigger place he kept saying he needed would soon look just as unhealthy in the absence of any new habit of discrimination or restraint. His parents, after all, knew enough not to try to keep all their garage sale spoils in their own big apartment. That’s why they kept giving them to him.

At the end of Bleak House, Dickens has kindly Mr. Jarndyce give his ward, Esther Summerson, a very special wedding present: a cottage, smaller of course than the stately home she had shared with her beloved guardian, but in every other way an exact replica, right down to the garden flowers and furnishings. She is profoundly moved. I would have been furious. If nothing else, there was the problem of scale. Although Esther claims to be delighted with the “dolls’ rooms” of her tiny house, I’ve always wondered how her spouse managed to shrink sufficiently to fit into the diminutive existence so thoughtfully arranged by his guardian-in-law. We have only Esther’s word that their marriage was happy. If Allen was less than content, devotion or duty would have kept him from letting on. Maybe he spent most of his time in his surgery, with its presumably manlier décor. Maybe he had a flat of his own somewhere, or even a mistress; such things were known in the 1850s, and well known to Dickens. Some outlet, some pressure valve for the release of the doctor’s own personality he must have had. Without that, even the most perfect little Victorian cottage is bound to explode.

My house has survived the marital cataclysm. It is now officially mine, as proven by my signature on the refinanced mortgage. Or I should say mortgages. Where there are grandchildren, however, there will be still in-laws, in respect of whom a new empty room represents a dangerous vacuum. The glass and steel desk that began this reminiscence was bound to appear, my refusal easily circumvented by direct negotiation with my son, who, like his father, can’t resist free stuff he knows is beyond our budget. And that’s not all. The grandparents have recently moved into a smaller place. Their apartment now looks remarkably like Mark’s, with boxes and furniture and art piled from floor to ceiling. But not being Mark, they are determined that most of this stuff must be dispersed, and soon. My son, going over on weekends to help them sort, has become a black hole through which items I successfully rejected decades ago have begun to reappear. His room is full of desk, his walls covered with framed prints and collectible swords. The door barely opens. I complain, but after all I’ve been through, I want to respect his space. As long as his door can close, I guess I’m safe. For now.



Author's Comment

During a mandatory pre-divorce mass counseling session for parents, after the psychologist facilitator finished going over the stages of grief we were all supposed to be experiencing, I raised my hand and said, ”Personally, I feel like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” to which about twenty others in the audience shouted, “Amen.” This was the experience that prompted me to write about the lighter side of divorce – I mean, literally, its lightness. Years later, I still find this unburdening a cause for celebration.




Deborah Ross moved from upstate New York to Hawaii in 1980 and is now in her third decade as Professor at Hawaii Pacific University. With her children grown up and a nest empty except for her dog, Genji, and cat, Sylvio, she is now planning for retirement and her next adventure. In addition to writing stories of her own, she has been fascinated with issues of gender and power in the works of authors from Austen to Miyazaki. A partial list of her publications may be found at:

4 Comments on “Barbie’s Bleak House; or, Married with Furniture

  1. I’ve ocome to believe that in every grief is a kernel of relief, in every loss a hidden gift. Your story is a delightful reminder of these insights — and of the woeful burden of THINGS! Love that you did, by negative example, come to discover what your own taste really is, and learned to honor it and revel in the outcome, once you could decorate for yourself.

  2. I’ve ocome to belief that in every grief is a kernel of relief, in every loss a hidden gift. Your story is a delightful reminder of these insights — and of the woeful burden of THINGS! Love that you did, by negative example, come to discover what your own taste really is, and learned to honor it and revel in the outcome, once you could decorate for yourself.

  3. Delightful and disturbing at the same time! Wonderful story-telling. I was reminded of my first Mother-in-Law, when I was in my twenties and a hippy. She would wrap “old lady handbags” in Bonwit’s boxes, that were unrecognizable by the store! So glad you survived—if this is your story. If not, you sure fooled me.

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