Lessons from an Ugly Brown Couch

On true hospitality.

When my husband, Andrew, and I first bound together our souls and wallets in the summer of 2012 and moved to a new state, we, like many who get married a year out of college, were broke. Worse, he had just started his own business, and I had no job yet, so steady paychecks were not a thing. We moved to a tiny, quirky basement apartment in the heart of Charlottesville, Virginia, which we were completely in love with.

Kindly, Andrew’s grandparents bestowed on us their old couch, of the pink and green floral variety, with uncomfortable patches of fading fabric around the bum area. We decided to cover it up with an even uglier poop colored brown slipcover, that didn’t quite fit, so flashes of neon colored floral peep out at its feet. The couch has one leg, so the others are held up by three wooden blocks that are roughly the same height. I realized early that vacuuming underneath this mammoth was not going to happen.

This couch has travelled with us to two different states, and three homes. This month, we will leave the servant’s quarters of the college mansion-turned-dorm where I work and study and buy a house of our own, and finally, it is time to get rid of this ugly brown-floral-neon couch. But, standing here in my living room, looking at the unwanted friend that has become a fixture in our homes the past three years, I feel sadder than I thought I would be to see the back of it.

The couch is given the worst of our culture’s furniture stereotypes. The couch stands for laziness: couch potato, lazy bum, bump on a log. It is on the couch where too much time is spent eating junk food and watching movies, playing video games, relishing in general un-productivity. It is always the couch where hasty teenage sex occurs, where one sleeps in exile after a bad fight.

But the couch, for us, was the place we sat two weeks after getting married, nervously balancing our dessert plates and coffee cups while entertaining our first “new” friends. It’s the place where we discussed all the taboos: religion, politics, money, with friends late into the night, until someone inevitably fell asleep on it. We’ve spilled cake on it while hosting birthday parties, chicken dip during Superbowl parties, and we’ve got a burn mark on it from a sparkler let off in the house. This is where I met with my RA staff, where I counseled college freshmen over a cup of French Press, where I wrote most of my manuscript and then critiqued it with classmates over glasses of wine. This couch has served as our guest room, our entertainment center, our table, and desk. Over 200 people have sat on it, slept on it, or spilled something on it in the 3.5 years since we’ve taken it in. This ugly couch, in many ways, has given us the biggest gift in our marriage: it has served as the center for our community.

I think that for students, hospitality can be something we think we’ll get to later in life. It’s something that will happen when we have more time, more space, more money; when we’re not living in dorms with filmy white paint, when we’re not scrambling to meet a deadline, when we have more to offer than an ugly brown couch.

But it is the ugly brown couch that has taught me so much about what true hospitality is.

If we learn to open our homes when the walls and furniture are packed in tight around us, how much more will we open them when we have adequate square footage? If we learn to serve generously our food cooked on a mini range while balancing the plates in our hands as extra countertop space, how many more will we be able to feed when we have full kitchens and real countertops? It is at the time when we have the least to give that we learn what it is to be giving, and it is in the years when we are transient,  portable, and second-hand that we realize our hearts will always be the largest, most permanent place we can offer.

This horrible couch was the place Andrew’s grandfather sat every morning, legs crossed and morning newspaper in hand, waiting for his grandchildren to come crashing through the door. This is the place the five-year-old version of my husband learned to read, talked about model trains, played thumb-war and patty-cake. This couch is the place where one of the most important men in his life gave him the time and attention he needed—this is one of the earliest places he knew that he was loved.

So as I sit here deciding between different colors of blinds and rug patterns, I am reminded that our lives are far more meaningful, more powerful, than the lifeless things we so often fill them with. Sometimes, all it takes to grow the deepest friendships and most meaningful memories is an open heart and an ugly brown couch.

Originally published at The Art in Life. 

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