Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Estate Sale

Estate Sale.  Magic words conjuring antiques at bargain prices.  Dave and I were headed to Putnam Park, “Connecticut’s Valley Forge” for a lovely fall walk, but the homemade, red-lettered sign on the side of the road was lure enough for a twist of the wheel for a detour.

Tucked in the woods just beyond the park entrance, the house was probably built around the time the park opened in the late 1800’s.  Strong bones and gracious details were evident beneath the peeling paint, sagging sleeping porch, and broken windows.  A tumble of cast-off furniture littered the yard, and two decrepit sheds at the end of the driveway seemed at one with their woodland surroundings as their loosened planks leaned among fallen limbs and leaves. 


Many were drawn to the house by that sign.  Men examined rusty tools in the shed off the kitchen.  Wives and girlfriends checked china figurines for cracks.  In a glass-fronted cabinet, I spotted a stack of plates, blue on white, the kind sold in grocery stores, but I liked the rustic design of a thatched English cottage.  I scrutinized them for chips, counted out eight intact plates, and started a “hold” pile behind the makeshift cashier’s table.  I’d lost track of Dave the moment we came through the door.

 “What’s in there?”  A man called from the kitchen as I entered a walk-in closet. 

“Mm, mostly products: Lysol, Windex.  Old mops, a broom, some bottles – not vintage, just old.”  The stuff all of us have in our cupboards and closets, only here, doors and drawers were swung wide and pulled out; the mess we squirrel away exposed for inspection. 

When I returned to the kitchen, a bearded man leaned against the wall, his arms folded against his chest, while a woman, his wife I supposed, picked through a box of dish towels and tablecloths.   She glanced at me and we shared small smiles.  

“So much of a life here,” I said.

“I know,” she replied.  “I imagine my kids, after I’m gone, saying, ‘We’re going to have one hell of a yard sale!’”  The three of us laughed, then she added, “But you do get a sense, at a sale like this…I don’t know...You think of the person.”

“Once I was up in the attic at a tag sale,” I said.  “It was filled with boxes of Christmas decorations.  And I pictured the family, a time, when the garlands were up and the ornaments hung on a tree… and I got teary.  Later someone told me, ‘No need for sadness.  They moved to Florida.’”

Again we laughed.  As I inched among the boxes and chairs and counters to go to the next room, the bearded guy unfolded his arms and moved to let me pass.  “That could be it.  Maybe these people are on a beach somewhere thinking, ‘Those poor people in Connecticut!’”

In the den, I admired a black ladder-back rocking chair with a caned seat.  Nice, but we already have one that’s similar.  A tall, narrow bookshelf near a doorway was crammed with books.  I angled my head sideways to read the titles, among them The Da Vinci Code, Painting for Beginners, The Power of Intention, and Birding in North America.  Books I have read; interests I have.  Books give a sense of those who bought them, and I felt that whoever had lived here was someone I would like. 

Into the next room, the living room maybe?  All the rooms were small, and with the jumble of boxes, chairs, and odds and ends, it was hard to discern which room had been used for what.  The floor here, too, was crowded with boxes of books.  “Wow.  They read a lot,” I mumbled. 

“Yeah,” said another browser beside me.  “Have you been upstairs yet?  Rooms full of books.” 

I climbed the broad staircase with its dark wooden banisters and, on the landing, was confronted by a machine the color of lichens and the size of a dishwasher.  A small plaque on the device below a neck-sized hole read, “Vita Master.”  A black-treaded exerciser, frozen mid-step, but ready to march on, waited on a side table down the hall.

Dave found me there and handed me a small plaque.  “Look.  The Desiderata,” one of my favorite pieces.  At one sad, lost time in my life, I burst into tears at its reassurance: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
 you have a right to be here.
 And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

As I stood, head bent to read the plaque, a petite older woman approached.  She had short, gray hair and a kind, lined face, and her eyes met mine as I looked up to let her pass.  Her expression was wistful as she said, “You get such a sense of a life here.” 

I nodded slowly.  “I know.  I just spoke to some people downstairs who said the same thing.”

Clothes hung in every closet: floral silk blouses, cotton dresses, a sixties-style peasant skirt, jackets, flannel slacks.  So personal, these clothes: a woman once bought and wore them close to her skin. 

Down the hall and into another room.  Boxes and boxes of books.  I picked up a photo-journal of the Kennedy family, published after the president’s assassination and dedicated to John Junior.  Now he’s gone too.  In the pictures, JFK and Jackie cuddle and cavort with their little ones, Caroline at four or so, and John John, a toddler.  The pictures of Jackie reminded me of my Mom in her youth, so I held on to it. 

“Jansen!” I exclaimed upon spotting the familiar mottled gray cover.   “I still have my copy from my high school history of art class! I was just talking to a friend about this book a few days ago.”  The stout redhead poking through another box of books nodded, polite and uninterested, and continued her perusal.  I gather she’d not taken history of art. 

So many books!  There were plenty that had been bestsellers in their day, and multitudes on the power of prayer, on the brain, on inspirational healing, and health.  Someone had been sick in this house; that was clear.

In the master bedroom, I walked in on a conversation between the petite older woman I’d met in the hall and one of the sale’s organizers.  With her auburn hair caught up in a loose knot, the organizer was youthful, energetic, tattooed, and friendly.  “No,” she said in answer to a question I’d missed.  “No one was sick here.  Well, at least, not the owner.  She was a nurse and her kids tell me she was the kind of person who would drop everything to help someone else.  She ran a resting house for invalids for a while.  So, yeah.  Others were sick here, but she was fine. ”

The three of us smiled together, and I felt relieved.  The woman who bought and read these books had children who respected her.  From the sound of it, she’d not wasted away at her death. 

The young woman folded crocheted Afghans and white pillowcases as she chatted on.  “Of course, her kids can’t come here during the sale.  But I’ll tell them about conversations like this.  They picture a rummage sale, a bunch of blank-faced people pawing through their mom’s stuff.  But I’ll tell them, ‘No.  People cared.  They asked about your mother,’ and that will make a difference.” 

It made a difference to me.  To walk, by chance, from a brilliant fall day into this woman’s life.  To see her books, her clothes, and her collections.  To worry about her and the nature of her passing.  It helped to learn she’d had a full life, and that she was beloved.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Shadow and Light

Dave and I pull over yet again.  Why even bother to re-mount my bike?  A murky pond, its brown water choked with lily pads graced by the occasional white blossom, stops us.  A flock of gulls hovering over the water, rising as one, then sweeping low with a wave of speckled wings, catches our eye. Spires of yellow goldenrod arching from green thickets bid us pause.  A simple clapboard church, stark against blue sky, beckons us to brake for a closer look.  We pass the camera between us, each not convinced the other sees just what we see, exactly the rock, ripple, or wildflower we want to include in the picture.  With the camera in tow, we perceive the wonder that is always there in lichens, crisp chestnut leaves, or a clutch of Queen Anne’s lace.

Our artist friend, Peter Hussey, often paints details, a full canvas devoted to a roof gable or porch railing.  And when our kids were little, Dave would draw a mystifying close-up and challenge Tucker and Casey to identify it.  “A stone wall?  A cave?  A bridge?’  They would guess.

“My nostril.”  Dave would reply.

So, there is art and surprise in noticing details, and when I spot stacks of bowls beneath a lace curtain framed in a window, I drop my bike and ask Dave for the camera. 

In a recent issue of Yankee magazine, a photographer relayed a tip that influenced her for decades: “don’t forget shadows,” so I’ve sought to note them as well.  And this morning, after breakfast, when Dave and Nelson sat in green rockers on the porch playing guitars, it was their shadows that sent me seeking the shot.

But it was friends, not photography, that brought us to Block Island.  As we have for years, Dave and I boarded the Point Judith ferry – snapping, as we pulled out, a few photos of fog draped cottages – to meet friends, some of whom we have known for over forty years. 

Art, Janet, Nelson, Steve, and Deb figure in photos taken during muddy quad football games at Trinity College in the seventies, in wedding pictures, and long-ago summers on the Cape, when all of us had long hair past our shoulders.  Len and Joan held our kids as babies in the early eighties, and as their godparents, have been diligent in providing religious guidance… Well, maybe not.  In recent years, Ann, Moo, Mary, and Cisco have joined us, friendships stretching back decades, but newer to our annual island retreat.  

There have been times when this sojourn was an escape; when troubles were heavy, such a burdensome yoke, that we laid them down on one shore and fled to the other.  But this year, whispered sadness was rare, for babies are on the way!  Janet and Art are new grandparents. Mary is knitting for a child due in December, and Dave and I are dancing to join this club, as Tucker and his wife are also expecting in December. “Our baby,” Casey calls the unknown little one Lisa is nurturing.

So, Dave will take a trip to Milford Photo, to make sure our cameras are picture ready.  Back into our lives, feet pajamas and cozy stories!  Splashy tub times and soft, kissable cheeks.  Holidays restored to their full measure of magic.   And Dave and I will pass the camera back and forth during precious moments, not convinced the other sees just what we see. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

So, a Woman Walks up to This Bar...

The bar was packed, every stool occupied.  A Lea-sized space was open at the corner between a large black gentleman in a gray Viet Nam Vet sweatshirt and a pasty-faced male in a navy polo.  To Navy Polo’s right, a youth with a scraggly red beard and baseball cap hunched over his beer, elbows planted on the bar.  Overhead, TV screens blared assorted commercials and sports events as, eager for a glass of water, I slipped in between the men, heedless of the heat of their conversation. 

Laying a meaty hand on my arm, the very large vet said, “Young lady, I was just telling these fellas that no man should tell a woman what to do with her body.  These guys in Washington are trying to take away women’s rights.”  His gaze shifted to Navy Polo.   “Hell, you and me, we get into a ‘situation,’ we just walk away.  Women? Can’t do that.  No, they’re stuck with the problem. I tell my daughters and nieces all the time, ‘don’t you let no man tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.”  He gave my arm a little squeeze, and said, “Am I right?”

Before I could answer, Navy Polo said, “I’m not disagreeing with you.  I’m just saying, those videos about Planned Parenthood are very disturbing.  An organization getting government funding selling fetal parts for profit?  Very disturbing.”  Red Beard shook his head slowly in dismay and mumbled, "Yeah.  Disturbing."

Three pairs of eyes swiveled toward me and waited. 

This was not a college coffee house, book group, or Fairfield County cocktail party.  This was a neighborhood Bridgeport bar.  My husband and our friends were drinking beer, playing darts, and chatting about football; who would have guessed that this unlikely trio would be immersed in a discussion about women’s rights?  Not me. I had tucked them into a neat category from the moment I saw them, without even knowing I had.

 “Who wouldn’t be disturbed by those videos?” I said.  The men nodded thoughtfully, and I wondered what else to say. 

For I’ve been thinking about this too.  Truly, who wouldn’t be disturbed by those videos?  Yet, this conversation occurred before all the follow-up coverage.  Before I learned that only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s budget goes to abortions, which are not federally funded anyway.  That the vast majority of the organization’s resources go toward women’s health, particularly that of low-income women who would not receive care otherwise.  Politicians can claim what they will, but cutting funding to these programs would be an assault on women’s health.

Besides, I’m disturbed by any action by wealthy white men in Congress that might curb women’s rights and, unfortunately, abortion has become inextricably linked to those rights for precisely the reason the meaty vet pointed out.  The course of a girl’s life can be irrevocably altered by an ill-advised sex act.  Not so for a boy.  Men can walk away… and too often, they do.  

My mother recently attended a lecture hosted by Planned Parenthood.  The presenter spoke of the impact of the pill’s introduction and availability in the fifties.  “For the first time, it gave women their freedom.  Suddenly, they had a choice in the course of their future.  They didn’t have to get married or stay home to care for children if they weren’t ready.  They could pursue a career.”  My mother’s voice held wonder as she reflected on how recently women had gained some semblance of the self-determination men had always enjoyed.  Use of the pill reduces abortions, yet even the pill has opponents.    

My concern for women’s rights has been churned still further by media reports of female oppression and images of roiling gatherings of angry men in Middle-Eastern plazas. Not a woman in sight or, if she is, she’s swathed head-to-two in black.  What’s wrong with these men?  Inflamed beyond self-control by a glimpse of ankle or wrist?  And the response is to blame the women: bundle those temptresses in burkas, and flog them if the fabric slips.     

Back in the bar, three pairs of eyes were waiting, so onward I plunged.

 “I think the issue goes deeper than Planned Parenthood or abortion.  Boys need to be taught restraint.  From an early age.  Why is it always up to the girl?  Why must the weight and the worry and the blame rest always with the girl?  Young boys need to learn they have a responsibility.  Absolutely.  They need to learn restraint.”

My companions watched my face and listened intently, then nodded, turned to their beers, and took a swig.  Navy Polo said, “That makes more sense than anything else we’ve said tonight.” 

The meaty vet asked what I was drinking.

“Water,” I said with a grin.

Water! The three men laughed.  “You standing here all this time for a glass of water?      

Yes.  Also, apparently, although I’d not known this when I walked up to the bar, to crystallize my thoughts on the Planned Parenthood discussion and learn, yet again, not to judge others by appearance. 


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Liberty for All?

The guide for our tour through the Randolph House in Williamsburg is sturdy and middle-aged.   Delia is African-American, her skin a pale cocoa.  Her close-cropped hair is graying and wrapped in a striped kerchief.  She wears a loose white muslin dress, tied at the waist with an apron.  She is good-natured and funny, and cracks up when I say Dave is my first husband.  Awkward.  Don’t even know why it came out that way, but she thinks it’s hysterical, and she smiles and shakes her head every time she glances my way. 

It is sweltering hot and those of us gathered beneath a shade tree in the yard of this stately eighteenth century house are grateful for the chance to rest and fan ourselves while sitting on rough wooden benches awaiting the start of our tour.   “Finish up your snacks and drinks now,” says Delia.   “Don’t want any spills inside.”

A young woman in red sneakers sips from a plastic cup.  “Can I bring it in if I’m really careful?  I just bought it.”

Delia shakes her head.  “Finish it up.  I don’t think any of these folks will mind if we sit a bit longer.”  She’s right: a visit to Williamsburg involves much weary walking and standing.   Once the woman chugs down her beverage, we rise regretfully from our perches and follow Delia through the entrance.

She is intelligent and knowledgeable, and I wonder if she is a history teacher when not impersonating a slave.  For that is her role.  Like every African-American interpreter in this colonial town, she represents one of the enslaved persons that made up 52% of the town’s population in the 1780’s.  “Enslaved persons” is Delia’s preferred term as it emphasizes the state of enslavement and the fact that this individual is not just property, but a person.  A person who has been wronged.  Our guide wants to be sure her charges understand this:  “There was no ‘good’ slavery.”

As we wind past the fine furniture, porcelain ornaments, and china that belonged to the privileged Randolph family, Delia tells us about those who performed the polishing, cleaning, cooking, and laundry.  Johnny and Eve were Mr. and Mrs. Randolph’s personal servants, so trusted they carried the house keys and supervised other workers.  Yet, when the Randolphs died and their wills were read, Johnny and Eve were items to be disbursed along with the bureaus and beds. “Life was hard work,” says Delia,  “and it was also uncertain.  An enslaved person could be given as a birthday present or to settle a debt.”

Later in the afternoon, Dave and I trudge down the hot brick sidewalk to the Charlton Stage, plotting our route from the shade of one tree to that of the next.  While tourists strive to stay cool in skimpy sundresses, shorts, and sandals, the interpreters we encounter are dressed in multiple layers.  I pity the men especially, in their long–sleeved shirts, waistcoats, overcoats, breeches, and woolen stockings.  Woolen stockings!  I shudder.    

We had arrived in Williamsburg the night before our tour and ate dinner at the Dog Street Pub.  Dave loved the beer and the heavy earthenware mug in which it was served.  I loved the creamy Welsh rarebit: a rich cheese sauce with a trace of stone ground mustard poured over a thick slice of toast.  I had eyed a gentleman sitting with his lady two tables over.  Although dressed in a shirt and slacks much like Dave’s, the man was regal.  Something about the angles of his face, the proud nose, and gray hair.  I whispered to Dave,” Bet you anything he’s Thomas Jefferson.”

Dave checked him out.  “Could be…”

Dave and I had prepared for this trip.  He finished Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill a few weeks ago, and at Mercy Learning Center, I’ve been studying the Revolutionary War, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution with my students, Taiwo and Nicole.  In our discussions of the founding fathers’ efforts to plan for posterity, to plan for us, I have at times become teary at their foresight, even as Taiwo and Nicole have been wide-eyed with admiration.  So, Mr. Jefferson has been on my mind.   

Upon reaching Charlton Stage, Dave and I inch down the rows of low wooden benches to take our seats in the shade.  Soon Thomas Jefferson – indeed, it is my Mr. Jefferson from the pub – strides down a narrow walkway to the stage.  Seemingly impervious to the heat, he wears a tri-corn hat, white ruffled shirt, blue coat, brown breeches, and riding boots.

The stately Virginian slave-owner opens with references to the Declaration, and the self-evident truths of equality and the unalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  He asks us, “Consider, if you will, how do you feel when you do good?” 

“Happy,” we, the multitude, dutifully respond.

“And how do you feel if you do something deceitful, something you know not to be right?”

Most mumble the obvious, “bad,” but one thoughtful soul, breaking boldly from group-speak, suggests, “uncomfortable?”

“Indeed,” says Mr. Jefferson.  “Uncomfortable.  Such acts might keep us awake at night.”  And then he makes clear his case that in doing good lies the happiness of which he wrote. 

Our speaker asks for questions and parries concerns about a populace that does not bother to vote despite the right to do so, and a government seemingly in the power of a wealthy few.  In answering, he swivels on one booted heel and sweeps his arm, hand out, palm raised, in a gesture to encompass us all. “Is this not a government of the people?  It is to the people to hold that right and that responsibility firmly.  Speak out!  Just as you are doing here today.” 

I imagine the collective flurry of thoughts as each of us mentally composes letters to our congressmen demanding change as directed by Thomas Jefferson.  For to those of us sitting on these wooden benches in this town of centuries old clapboard and brick homes - having visited coopers and brickmakers, weavers and gunsmiths, having witnessed soldiers recruited for the upcoming battle of Yorktown, and having questioned the quandary of a fight for liberty by those served by slaves - the statesman before us is the Declaration’s author.

Jefferson invites Robert, a young boy of ten or so, to join him on the stage.  Robert has embraced the spirit of this visit to 1781 and wears breeches, stockings, and a tri-corn hat.  His mouth slightly open, his eyes wide, it is hard to say if he is star-struck or nervous as he stands before us, face-to-face with Mr. Jefferson. But there is no mistaking his look of lust when Jefferson draws a sword from its scabbard and hands it to him. 

“While not known as a soldier, I have had some success with the pen,” Jefferson says with a self-deprecating grace that draws a chuckle from the crowd.  He then places a quill in the boy’s other hand.  Predictably, he asks, “Master Robert.  Which do you suppose to be mightier? Pen or sword?”

The boy pauses and I wonder, would a child this age know the expected response?  And much as we Americans have been drilled in that concept and long for its truth, does it still hold in this world rent by war and driven by money?

As one, the audience holds its breath, leans forward, and wills young Robert to respond.

“The pen?”  His response is hesitant, a question really, but we burst into relieved applause.  Huzzah!

Jefferson smiles and nods, then reaches to retrieve the sword – gleaming, impressive, and undeniably mighty.  Robert’s expression is wistful as it disappears into its scabbard, and he is left with the pen.  Jefferson pats the child’s shoulder and the rest of us clap as the boy returns to his seat, proud owner of a new feather quill. 

Will Robert remember this moment, the regal man and his powerful words peppered with “lest we forget” and “forthwith”?  Later, as Dave and I muse at the extremes of inspiration and polarization represented in Williamsburg’s history, I wish I’d asked Mr. Jefferson where his plantation worked by slaves, no, enslaved persons, fits into his concept of liberty.