The American scene, on the Eastern seaboard at least, features an event close to the heart of anyone in whom there hides the Yankee Pedlar spirit. Yard sales are everywhere. Lamp posts, telephone poles, tree trunks, and handmade signs invite everyone to come and buy, every weekend throughout the year.
I suspect the popularity of the yard sale has been multiplied several times over by those shows on TV in which an expert appraiser tells a flabbergasted heir that grandpa's sword is a relic of the Civil War and could fetch a few thousand dollars from a collector. Who knows what treasures lurk among all that stuff cluttering tables and ladders and retaining walls?
In Vermont for the last century the search for such treasures was conducted at auctions. Those regular events spawned a whole culture of auctioneers and their fans, following them around the Northern Kingdom and other regions of the Green Mountain State. Auctions were and are social events. Lots of food, lots of laughter, lots of children running around unattended. Making money was clearly a secondary purpose. Having fun, gabbing, and laughing at the auctioneer's jokes and putdowns was primary business.
California girl, Connecticut Yankee, and Long Island clam-digger Helen Ledgerwood Davis, widow of Lewis, mother of Barbara Howard, Donald Davis, and Eleanor Tener, died this past December at the very good age of 99. The one regret voiced about her passing was that she didn't quite make it to 2003, because it sure would look fine on her tombstone to have etched, "1903 - 2003."
She lived most of the last forty years on Shelter Island. A mother in the Depression years and, probably more to the point, a parson's wife, Helen lived by the rule, "Waste not, want not." Many things went into her house, very few went out. Besides, she was an artist, a very skilled one. She did it all, ceramics, oils, watercolors, and weaving. And she quilted, for which hobby one must collect lots of fabric. And she did.
When the children would push her ever so slightly to do some weeding out of the accumulation of "stuff," she would, in recent years, simply smile and observe with a certitude born of a ripe age that, no thank you, children, that will be your job. She never added the words to that observation, "when I am gone," but they were implicit.
So on Saturday morning, July 26th, at 7:50 am on a bright sunny day the bargain hunters finally broke through the barricades and marched down the driveway of the Davis house on HiLo Shores, Shelter Island, New York. They swarmed over the artifacts. Within three minutes of their arrival, I, the cashier, was helping wrap in newspapers fine green crystal stemmed dessert dishes for a customer obviously very pleased with her find.
Lots of "stuff" was carried away in the space of six hours to other attics and cellars: a dinghy and a rowboat, several bedspreads, LP records, a couple of horsehair chairs badly needing reupholstering, a rusty bread tin from the 1930's, a small projector screen, a crow bar, more dishware, oodles of needles and thread, a small upright piano, a filing cabinet, and enough doodads and whatnots to cover every window sill and cabinet top in Christendom.
I had resigned myself to being a good husband and helping out. But, serendipity!, I had a very enjoyable time chatting with customers. An 85 year old retired doctor, a pathologist, from Morristown NJ flattered me with his insistence that from the size of my forearms I must be a tennis player. He was a clarinet player, lover of classical music, and an endorser of my plan to replace a couple of knees this winter.
A couple who also live in HiLo Shores played the "Who do you know?" game with me, focusing mostly on Valley Stream and Woodmere. Her Dad and brother own and operate an auto collision repair shop on Rockaway Avenue in the village where we spent twenty-eight years.
A late arrival drove down the driveway in his Mercedes station wagon. He left the engine running in the 90 degree heat, I assume, to keep a toddler cool while Mommy hunted for hidden treasures. They were symptomatic of the clientele. New York, moneyed, fortyish, polite and never, well, hardly ever, asking for a reduced price.
At one point I found myself engaged in a lively argument with a customer who bought some of The Rev Lewis H Davis' books on theology. The fellow started it by asking me what I thought about Elaine Pagels' book on her "rediscovery" of the pseudopigraphical books which aren't included in the New Testament canon. Only Barbara can tell you how pleased I was with myself for entering into a spirited theological discussion, just like I did routinely when at seminary and for several years following, a practice largely abandoned in the years of my patriarchal status when others younger and less informed deemed it unseemly to take on the reverend.
We closed shop around 2:30 PM. I chauffeured the twins, their Mom, and their grandma to the beach while I went in search of odor eaters for Henry twin's very smelly sneakers. We enjoyed a spaghetti supper before taking in a concert at the Itzhak Perlman Music Program on the shore of Peconic Bay on a site previously operated as a hotel. Wonderful! but that's a subject for another report... maybe.
So, if life is a continuous learning experience, how did the day's events increase my understanding of the world around me? Even if you're not particularly interested, I'll tell you. That, one, even well-heeled people like a bargain. That, two, the main business of a yard sale is divesting a house of "stuff." That, three, with a little stimulus I could be as feisty as ever upholding a theological point of view. That, four, women forage for "stuff" and men prefer to palaver. That, five, we can't get a Corgi for the twins because that breed has dander. That, six, not all parrots talk, especially if their master (on whose shoulder this one was perched) is the silent type. That, seven, old basketball players don't die, they just dribble away, as I rediscovered when greeted by an old opponent of the hardwood engagements in Brooklyn. That, eight, people will buy almost anything and pay a fancy price for it. That, nine, with half a chance I can find a personal connection with anyone. And, ten (think tablets of stone), never, no never put tools, you intend to keep, in the same garage with salable items.
Not exactly divine revelation, but, maybe, a few new tricks for an old man.