Hidden Truths of Reupholstering

Wendy BooydeGraaff

Cracked Fake Leather

Sit on the bar stool for the zillionth time, eating the spaghetti and meatless balls (tofu? seitan? you still can’t get it straight after three years) your foster mom makes for you. Feel the cracks on the fake leather seat eat into your thigh-backs. It’s summer, you are sixteen, and you want your license but you haven’t earned the behaviour credits to go to driver’s ed. Let’s just say, the other kids at school don’t make it easy to keep your hands from slapping their entitled cheeks, the teachers look too empathetic with their teardrop eyes that switch to moon-smiles for the next kid walking in the door. 

Your foster mom is talking about optional summer classes, something to keep you busy. 

You recognize that mowing the lawn, pulling weeds around the hairy tomato stems, and walking the neighbour’s dogs are only going to awaken the ire inside of you. You don’t know whether the anger is genetic (because you can’t remember your biological parents), or whether it’s earned (because you can’t remember most of your foster parents either). 

Stare at the Pinterest video on the hand-me-down laptop from the social worker, child-shield and kid-logger softwares in place. Trust is just a word in foster care. Tell Jane this is what you can do: recover the bar stools.

Zebra Print

Tamp down your surprise that she says yes, that she gets the car keys right away, that you go this very evening before Field’s Fabrics closes. Walk among the bolts of flannel, summer cotton, linen, picturing the bar stools covered with soft navy fabric dotted with yellow moons like kid pajamas stretched over the seat. You think you had those kind of pajamas at one of the places but you can’t be sure if it’s TV memory or real-life memory. 

Follow Jane follow the arrows to the home section where there is mesh window shade fabric and heavy tweeds. Stop at the remnants table and finger a durable material, white with black paint stripes. “Canvas,” Jane says. “That would work. Nice tight weave.” Taste her glee at the inexpensive find. She used to sew back in high school when every girl had to take a required course called home economics. 

Check off the list: two inch seat foam cushion, batting, chair back lining, one by one as you find them and load them on the counter where the clerk unrolls and snips scissors down the required footage, spouting numbers at you: measurements you hope you’ve figured out correctly. You’ve always done well at math because no one can switch the answers on you. When the clerk says the amount, hold your breath, thinking maybe the one-inch seat foam instead, to bring the sum total down, think maybe you don’t need that lining after all—it’s on the bottom of the chair, who’s going to look at that. Swallow down the exhale when Jane takes out her credit card, waves it over the magic pay, asks about the sewing classes taped to the counter on blue paper. 


Remove seat board from old barstools. Easy. Find an old flat head screwdriver in the tool bin. Spend hours removing industrial sized staples from the upside-down seat cushion, repetitive movements that strain the muscle between your thumb and forefinger, and another that runs down the web of finger bones toward your wrist. Keep going. This is what will keep you out of summer English classes on the American novel. You read one Hemingway novel on war and it was not good. You wonder why kids have to read these stories about guns and murder but then get suspended for saying something rude to the kid who is obviously going to join some weird militia after high school.


Throw out the bent staples, every last one. The consequences if anyone stepped on one of those would be, at minimum, one whole therapy session about intent. Throw out the yellowed foam, the cracked white vinyl. Pause in front of the recycling bin, which sits beside the trash alongside the house, a freshly painted white lattice fence as a cover for the bins hiding behind it. 

Think: some of us are not worth saving. Correct yourself: some things are not worth saving. Think about how recycling is a way of finding new homes for materials. Think how maybe this is a metaphor for you, recycled through several homes, still wondering if this home is where you’ll be until you are eighteen or if you’ll be recycled a few more times. Shake your head free of these thoughts because you aren’t even taking that summer English class, so why bother with symbolism? Go back to the chairs, measuring, cutting, following directions. 


Cut the foam to fit, wrap it with the batting. Stretch the zebra print fabric, folding in shirts around the corners, stapling to the particle board. Make this more perfect than anything you’ve worked at before. This project started with one yes, then another, and another.. Think how if it’s as good as you think it will be, the black and white popping against the pewter gray chair frame, maybe you can eat tofu lasagna and beyond burgers at the counter for a few more years, learn to love Cajun mushrooms instead of chicken fingers, your butt safely cushioned on two-inch foam that will last beyond your eighteenth birthday, that will be a place to sit on when you’re home from college or home for the holidays or however the future deems to give you space in the world. A place where you have a family—Jane—you have someone who will always remember how well these chairs turned out, someone who says yes, those are good, and by proxy that means you are good, how you had that reupholstering idea, and you pulled it off, you pulled off the transformation.

Wendy BooydeGraaff

WENDY BOOYDEGRAAFF’s fiction, poems, and essays have been included in The Brooklyn Review, The Shore, X-R-A-Y, Brink, and elsewhere. She’s also the author of the children’s picture book, Salad Pie (Ripple Grove Press/Chicago Review Press). Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, she now lives in Michigan, United States.

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