I grew up in a rambling colonial home which my parents built in 1954. Fifty years later, my mother died and my siblings and I had to empty the house for sale. It was an amazing amount of work. Here are my two sisters and my brother-in-law, stopping for a picnic supper on a blanket-covered side table under the disapproving gaze of our great-great-grandfather, Captain Joe.
The moving trucks were almost loaded when I suddenly looked up at the hall light and had to have it. Certain details meant home to me. The jouncing noise of the spring on the back storm door. The bottom wooden kitchen drawer that a small child could stand on to reach the shelf for a water glass. And the pretty brass light in the front hall, from which Mom always suspended a shining ornament at Christmas.
It must have been my brother-in-law Don who kindly took it down for me, as I wouldn’t have had the first idea how to do it. To keep the fragile light safe, I wrapped it carefully in linens deep inside a moving box. Unfortunately, that box went into storage for thirteen years. The storage unit leaked. The linens became wet, moldy, and very heavy indeed.
When I finally unpacked the ruined box last fall, I found the brass had tarnished severely; one cross-bar of the light’s frame had cracked and another had broken in half.
Last winter I carried the collapsed light to a small store in town where in shabby, dim surroundings a craftsman sells stained glass lamp shades and rewires antique lamps. I left the hall light for him to solder. I stopped and bought brass polish.
When I returned a week later to pick it up, the craftsman was apologetic. He had tried to solder the lamp frame — “But it’s not brass.”
“It’s not brass? What is it?”
He shrugged. “Some cheap metal, plated.”
I was shocked, but when I thought about it, I realized I should not have been. Mom and Dad were struggling parents of small children in 1954. They didn’t have money for a real brass front hall light. Of course they bought something cheap that looked nice. I would discover the same thing when I went shopping for small lamps for my sideboard and searched for theirs on Ebay. They had used inexpensive bedroom lamps. As a child I thought these were the height of elegance.
Out of curiosity I priced a front hall lamp in real brass today. $600-$800. That was not happening!
Although the craftsman said the fifties lamp wiring was “better than lamp wiring today,” I now had a tarnished, broken front hall light. The rest of the fixtures in the house are brushed nickel. The question became: just how strong was the pull of sentiment for me? Answer: pretty strong.
I decided I would fix the light and see how it looked. In addition to the cracked and broken bars, a screw and brass catch that held the glass in the frame on the broken side had disappeared. Undoubtedly both had been somewhere in the tangle of stinking linens, but I’d long since hauled them to the dump.
Repairing the lamp was on my list all summer. Of course I had not gotten to it when the electrician suddenly let me know that after no response to numerous emails, he now would return while we were in Vermont. I had to fix the light that night, with materials I had on hand.
What could I use for the brass catch for the glass? With considerable difficulty I cut in half a brass shelf pin. The fragment was the right size, but very sharp.
I took off the worst of the knife edge using the old bench grinder given to me by Larry.
The result was not perfect, but serviceable.
Now I needed a tiny brass screw. Rummaging through junk boxes, I could not find one. The smallest screw I came up with was still too long, and it was white. Beggars can’t be choosers, however, and I had to make it work. I decided to tighten the screw against the glass by adding a washer.
Before I went to bed, I mended the broken spreader bar with epoxy, using a clamp to hold it together.
Early the next morning, I washed the old glass panes, inserted the last one in the mended panel, and tightened my white screw. It all held. I left it on the counter for the electrician.
When Lucy and I got home from Vermont, the light was hanging in the front hall. After living for a year with a bare bulb, at first glance it seemed enormous. I suddenly realized that my front hall is 1/4 of the size of Mom and Dad’s front hall.
However, the old light works and it makes me happy. I tell myself that if it is too tarnished, shabby or mismatch-y, I can always replace it someday. In the meantime I stopped in the hardware store and for 24 cents bought a brass screw, climbed on a kitchen stool, and replaced the white one.
Dad has been gone for nearly thirty years but I know the whole thing would make him happy, too.