Transcribed from the October 1996 issue of “Good Old Days” magazine, pp. 29-31. Written by Lowell L. Getz, a gentleman from my hometown.
A yellow cardboard sign on a plain wooden stake reads “Estate Sale: Saturday, 9 a.m.- 4 p.m., 1604 South Oak.” It’s the sign we have been looking for–identical to dozens of others provided by the local newspaper giving directions to garage sales, yard sales, and estate sales around town this dreary, damp, early October morning.
A turn to the left, two blocks down on the right; park the car on a side street and walk to 1604. The house is an unpretentious brown two-story, Tudor of the early 1900’s, with peeling paint and frayed shingles. A large silver maple with dying limbs and flaking bark stands in front; two pyramidal senescent spruces guard the north.
We are a little late. People are already in the house, and a line is waiting at the side door. Four people are allowed in at five-minute intervals. As we wait, we hear fragments of conversations: “…died a couple of months ago…” “in her early 90’s…” “visiting nurse found her in bed…” “husband had been dead for about 20 years…” “lived here most of her life…” “…no family left.”
Our turn to enter. Three steps down to the right and into a single-car garage that has not felt the tread of tires for years. A look around. A collection of rakes, hoes, shovels, and forks, their handles worn and loose, the effects of untold hours spent preparing flower beds, planting shrubs, cleaning the yard in spring, and planting “victory gardens.” How many blisters had they caused? How many sore backs? How many compliments from passersby had they heard? And we can almost smell the smoke of the countless piles of burning autumn leaves.
In the back corner rests a scratched and dented little red tricycle. I can still feel the sting of scraped knees and elbows. Next to it leans a boy’s faded blue balloon-tired Schwinn bicycle, the tires flat and brittle from decades of idleness. The paint on the upper bar is worn down to the bare metal. How many rounds of delivering the morning papers did it take the swinging bag to wear away the paint? And, how much was worn away by the twisting dress of a freckle-faced girl as he rode her to Chet Towse’s drugstore for vanilla phosphates after school.
We climbed back up the steps and into the kitchen. The table and counters are covered with chipped dishes, dented pans, worn cooking utensils and myriad other small, commonplace kitchen items that unknowingly weave together the everyday events in a family’s life.
I pick up a smooth, shiny rolling-pin; one handle sticks. How many Thanksgiving mincemeat pies? How many coconut cream pies for PTA socials? I can almost taste them.
Also on the counter sits a set of silver-plated dinnerware, the plating worn from the bases of the forks and spoons and from the edges of the knives. We can only imagine the conversations to which they were privy over long-forgotten Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas Eve dinners, hectic evening meals, family holiday get-togethers, and lazy summer Sunday breakfasts.
On the back counter stands a small cereal bowl, the lone survivor of a set of dishes, the others long since broken and discarded. Only a faint purple flower design remains from the hurried scrapings of the spoon as the second bowl of Wheaties was gulped down after the paper rounds so he could make last bell at school.
And years later, even more was scratched away by the unsteady spoon held by stiff, swollen arthritic fingers as she ate bran cereal while watching the evening news. “When you are hurting and all by yourself, it just isn’t worth the fuss to try to fix a real meal.”
I move into the dining room. Along the walls are arranged an oaken breakfront, a small tea-table with large wheels, and an old music case now holding tablecloths and napkins. In the middle of the room is a round oaken table with a single large pedestal. On the table sits a china set, the gold trim worn away from countless washings; again, we heat the din and laughter of countless meal-time conversations. Also on the table are a cut-glass pitcher, a Fostoria crystal service and china serving dishes; once cherished wedding presents.
At one edge I find an inexpensive tin cake holder, the faded clowns and balloons barely visible–a turn of the base brings the metallic tinkling of Happy Birthday. In the background we can hear the faint giggling chatter of little kids as the candles were blown out and the silent wishes made. Did they ever come true?
On top of the music case rests an old Sears and Roebuck Silvertone radio. It is plugged in. A twist of the switch and the green “tuning eye” lights up, but no sound escapes the brown cloth-covered speaker–only the unheard echoes of Roosevelt’s fireside chats, the call of Joe Louis prize fights, the War of the Worlds broadcast, the clatter of Fibber McGee and Molly‘s cluttered closet, Lum and Abner‘s chuckles at the Jot-‘Em-Down store, Gabriel Heatter‘s “There’s good news tonight” wartime broadcasts, The Romance of Helen Trent and the haunting music of I Love a Mystery. We go on into the living room where we find a large sagging flowered sofa, an equally sagging matching chair, and a newer reclining rocker with a built-in heater. “The heat feels good on your aching joints.”
By the window sits a Boston rocker, the ends of the rockers deeply grooved with puppy teeth marks. “How could you even think of refinishing it and removing the only traces of his very first pet?”
In the far corner stands a grandfather clock with three weights and a slowly swinging pendulum. How many times did the weights run their downward course? How many times did the chimes mark the hours, the quarter-hours? How many times did the pendulum make its arching back-and-forth trip? How many ticks, how many tocks, in the life of a family?
Against the near wall, an upright Baldwin piano stands, its ivory keys yellowed and chipped with age and the long hours of fingers stroking them. How many winter nights were made more cheerful by the sound of the notes? How many tears were dried away by the determined buffeting of the keys?
On the piano bench is piled a large stack of sheet music. Leaf through the folded sheets–Little White Lies, with a picture of Rudy Vallee; Don’t Cry Swanee, with Al Jolson; I Want My Mammy, with Al Jolson in blackface; and Memories, its pages worn and brittle, crumbling edges held together by yellowing tape.
Upstairs next. As we move toward the stairway we pass the line of people already checking out with their purchases. Their arms are filled with bits and pieces of the fabric of a family, now being unwoven and forever scattered to the winds.
Up the stairs and down the hall. To the left is a small bedroom with a small wooden bed. Near the head of the bed stands a small desk. Although the room has been painted several times, nail heads still protrude from the walls and ceiling. Which one held the picture of Dizzy Dean? Which one Lucky Lindy? To which was attached the model of the China Clipper? To which the Curtiss Jenny biplane?
At the opposite end of the room is a closet, the thick wooden rod bending under the weight of tightly packed, little-worn women’s sweaters, blouses, skirts, dresses, jackets and coats, all long since out of style. “Really should give them to the Salvation Army, but you never know, they may come back in style again.” They never did.
And, at the very end of the rod, pressed tightly against the wall, hangs a Boy Scout uniform, the unbending khaki fabric stiff with age, with a red and white Troop 107 patch on the shoulder.
On the bed is a large cardboard box of picture frames, the pictures still in them. Shuffle through the box. A young couple dressed in the 1890’s styles stares into the camera with their frozen, bulging eyes. In another, a man wears an open coat, a watch chain drooping across a buttoned vest. The woman wears a thick, heavy form-fitting dress buttoned up to the neck.
Another show a young couple under a flowered wooden arch with a sign at the top, “Senior Memories of 1921.” She wears a short straight dress baring long slender legs, and two strands of bead hanging down to her waist. He wears a shirt with a rounded cellophane collar and a narrow-lapelled tuxedo jacket. In another, a small boy looks up into the camera, his bright eyes aglow with excitement as he clutches a floppy-eared spotted pup.
In the bottom of the box, a heavy wooden frame encased the picture of a uniformed young man with the same sparkling eyes and a forced embarrassed grin, the large bill of his Army Air Corps cap making his boyish face look even younger than its years. We turn the frame over. Stuck in the back is a folded yellowed newspaper clipping. Only the small headline shows–“Local Airman Killed Over Germany.”
We move across the hall into the master bedroom. Here we find a small vanity, a nightstand, a wicker-bottomed chair and a large dresser with an equally large mirror. On the dresser top, a well-used tarnished silver mirror, comb and brush set; strands of broken gray are still entangled in the brush. On the near wall, a closet, the rod closely packed with more women’s clothing. Although of a more recent vintage, most are no longer in style. It’s a lifetime collection of changing fashions.
Next to the window is an iron bed, the maroon paint faded and cracked with time. Recorded in the cracks are the excitement of newfound shared intimacies, sudden awakenings to feverish cries from across the hall, late-night sighs of relief when the front door opened signaling that he was safely in, worried sleepless wartime nights wondering where her was and if he is safe, silent sobbing clutches after the telegram arrived, the sinking sensation of despair the morning there was only heavy stillness next to her in the bed, years of solitary restless nights and wandering dreams of what had been, and finally the quiet, gentle release. All these and an iron bed in need of paint–$25.
As we leave the room we see the music box–jewelry chest on the vanity. Three flaking brown glue stains inside the top are a reminder of a long-lost mirror. A twist of the key, Memories–his first Christmas present to her? Inside the box lies a tangle of clamp earrings, worn costume necklaces and broken brooches. Each just matches one of the dresses or sweaters in the closets.
At the bottom in one corner, a small brooch with seven green rhinestones, partially wrapped in brittle browning tissue paper, the creases cracked from countless unfoldings and foldings. As I open the tissue paper I sense the scent of pine drifting from a green red and blue light-enshrouded tree of a long-ago Christmas morning.
I examine the pin more closely. In the reflections from the stones I see the excited bright eyes of a small boy sitting in a disarray of torn paper and open boxes looking up expectantly at the delicate, slender fingers of the young woman holding the pin to the breast of her faded pink chenille robe as she exclaims, “Oh, how beautiful! Mommy will treasure this forever.”
“Forever” ended today with a yellow cardboard sign on a plain wooden stake: “Estate Sale: Saturday, 9 a. m.- 4 p. m., 1604 South Oak.”