In the 19th century, kitchens were located in the backs of homes to keep them hidden from company. The center of the kitchen often featured an island made of wood, an unglamorous workplace built to aid with space. Beginning in the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects moved the kitchen to the front of the home, opening it up and allowing it to share space with the dining area.
As the kitchen changed, so did the shining jewel at the center of it: the kitchen island. By the 1950s, it had become more than a functional space. It was a gathering area for both guests and family to pull up a stool and come together. But it was also a luxury, as many homes were built without them, leaving families to buy cheap tables and prepare their food on narrow shelves.
I grew up without a kitchen island, and I developed a minor obsession with them. Raised by my grandparents in a two-family home with an eat-in kitchen that was barely big enough, I wanted what I didn’t have. The kitchen island represented what I desperately craved: normalcy. My mother was a drug addict who’d left me to move to the other side of the country, so I fantasized about a single-family home with all the suburban joys, including a kitchen with an island where everybody could gather on comfy stools.
A sleepover at a friend’s house in elementary school solidified my love for the kitchen island. Under pendant lights, we ate pizza while her mother warmed cider on the stovetop that was built into the butcher-block-topped island. Her nuclear family seemed more cultured than mine, and at that moment, in the heart of a traditional family kitchen, I decided that one day, I would have the exact same island. As I drifted off to sleep, I dreamt of my perfect kitchen and the island and its dark mahogany stools with puffy white cushions.
When I finally had my own children, we bought our dream home in Maine from my husband’s brother. With it came the kitchen I’d fantasized about since childhood. My sister-in-law even left behind three wooden stools with black leather cushions for the island. Every morning the kids hovered around while we got ready for school, eating breakfast and making lunches and buzzing with plans for the week. When family gathered for holidays, they surrounded the island, feasting on snacks, catching up on each other’s lives, and taste-testing meals while we prepared them. The island became the gathering place I’d always hoped for.
But after a few years, the stools’ upholstery began to tear, and no matter how many times I tightened the screws, the legs wiggled. They had become an unsafe eyesore. I wanted to be rid of them not only because of the way they looked and the safety issues, but also because there were three stools and four kids, which led to daily fights over who would sit where. Someone always wound up stooless and crying. The seating shortage became yet another problem to solve, and with kids, there were already far too many.
Disgusted, I threw the old stools in the garage with the promise that I’d sand and reupholster them. I even borrowed my mother-in-law’s electric sander. But the chairs sat gathering dust. For the first few months sans stools, the kitchen seemed bigger and neater. Life without them ushered in a period of welcome silence. I packed morning lunches and prepared elaborate dinners, claiming the kitchen island space as my own. I could get ready for the day alone, without fights, without kids spilling food, and without drama.
After two years, I grew accustomed to the quiet in the kitchen. But one day, when she saw me searching Facebook Marketplace for a chair for the master bedroom, my teenage daughter stopped me.
”Mum, look, three stools,” she said. “You never fixed the others.”
As I thought of the old stools rotting above the garage, I felt a twinge of the failure all mothers feel when something drops off the unending to-do list as priorities shift. “You’re right,” I said, and I quickly messaged the woman selling the stools. A few minutes later, I got a response. She already had someone interested, but would keep me in mind if things didn’t work out. “I think they’re already sold,” I told my daughter. It was unfortunate; they matched our kitchen perfectly, with black wrought-iron backs and taupe upholstered seats. And they were also affordable. Maybe next time, I thought, and closed my laptop.
The next day, I had a Facebook message. “The stools are yours if you still want them,” the woman said. I realized I knew her. Our 8-year-old girls had gone to preschool together, but I hadn’t seen her in three years. When I finally picked them up at her house a few days later, we stood on her porch and caught up. She was relieved that the stools that had served her family so well would go to mine. I promised to take good care of them.
Once I returned home, unloaded them from the car, and set them around the island, our silent kitchen grew louder. The energy in the room changed. My kids sat around doing homework, reading, and eating breakfast. I hadn’t known how much I’d missed them until they were sitting with me, sharing stories and, finally, their stools. They would offer up a spot to a brother or sister. The stools brought us back to the heart of our home—our kitchen and the island we gathered around—and were evidence of how much our kids had grown and matured.
Nicole Johnson is a freelance writer whose work has been featured on the Washington Post, Redbook, Parents, the Huffington Post, Ms., Scary Mommy, Yahoo, and MSN. She is the creator of Suburban Sh*t Show, where she discusses the real and raw truths of motherhood, midlife, childhood dysfunction, and marriage. Nicole is also a fiction writer and mother of four.