Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Lesson In Real


I stop at yard sales. I enjoy poking around other people’s cast-offs. I’m softhearted when it comes to haggling over price, but I’ve picked up some wonderful books and great costume items for my theater productions. I like going with my young daughters. A trinket catches their eye, they ask a price, and invariably the kindly people trying to dump this stuff give it to them for free. If only I was that cute.

The best kind of yard sales feature a cherubic-faced child selling lemonade and cookies. I always buy, even if the lemonade is over-sugared and over-priced. I’m a sucker for misspelled signs – Limonaid 50 sents. I can’t resist. And I’m still waiting for that once-in-a-lifetime bargain. The painting for which I shell out $10, that I then take to Antiques Roadshow and discover it’s worth thousands.

The hardest sales to stop at are estate sales. A lifetime of memories at discount prices. Quite often, the family of a lost loved one has kept the choicest items, leaving the things nobody wants on the sale table. ‘We loved grandma, but none of us had a need for the crocheted bedspread or the china swan statuette.’

In some cases, there is no family, or none nearby, and the estate has commissioned an independent company to swoop in and sell off everything. These are sad sales. They’re great if you’re in the market for some antique crystal or collectible vinyl records, but I find it depressing to find price tags on a framed wedding photo or on the cans of soup or half—used garlic powder in the kitchen cabinets. You can feel the presence of the deceased. It’s only been a few weeks, but it feels as if they’ve just taken the dog for a walk.

I was at one of these sales recently. It was the last day of a three-day event. The antiques had been snatched up, the jewelry sold. The estate sale company was slashing prices – there were bargains to be had. Not much inventory left. Knick-knacks, some linens, assorted kitchen utensils, a box of Christmas decorations. I scored big on a circular saw that I found on a shelf in the garage.

On a table in the living room, between a silver-handled hairbrush and a porcelain creamer, was a small pile of papers bound in a rubber band. The hand written note on top caught my eye: “In Case Anyone Wants To Write Our Family’s Story, Not Just Last Names”. Clearly in the hand of an older lady, the invitation intrigued me. I picked it up and revealed a few newspaper clippings and a dozen or so envelopes containing letters dating from the years following World War Two. I was intrigued. An invitation from the past. A collection of correspondence which might reveal anything. My imagination soared. The old lady knew she had a story here and she just needed someone like me to come along and share it with the world. As a writer, I could not pass up the offer and secretly hoped for something juicy, a story I could turn into a series of magazine articles or, better yet, a bestselling book. An author’s version of the garage sale find on Antiques Roadshow: scandal, fame, fortune, love affairs, treachery, deceit.

The sellers gave me the papers for nothing, threw them in with the power tool. I was excited to open and read my findings. What kind of story would I find? I retreated to my favorite coffeeshop, almost drooling with anticipation. As I sat down with my steaming latte to unveil the package of papers, my eye caught a poster on the coffeeshop wall. Cups and words intertwined with the phrase: “Behind every good cup of coffee is a barista and a good story.”

How true this is. Behind everyone, there is a good story. We all have great stories. Some folks may lead more adventurous lives than others, some may be more widely traveled, their days populated by more colorful characters, but when we sit down to listen to each other, when we ask the right questions, when we take the time to be interested and to dig a little deeper, we all have good stories.

Turn on National Public Radio. For every David Sedaris, with his tales of Crumpet the Elf from New York city in SantaLand Diaries, there is a Bailey White, a small-town first grade teacher from Georgia who lives with her mother. For every news reporter painting a picture from the front lines of the war-torn Middle East, there is a new father telling tales from the front lines of Diaperville. Stories are not about the breadth of our experiences. They are about the richness that we choose to experience in our everyday lives.

A retired friend of mine bemoaned the fact that, despite owning aspirations to write, he may not have followed through, in his words, ‘due to the somewhat limiting outlook under which he lives’. I think that’s just an excuse. Not only are there interesting observations and stories unfolding every day in his walks in the countryside and in the characters he meets, I happen to know about quite a few hair-raising adventures in his lifetime. He’s told me of them. Great stories, all of them. When I tuck my children into bed at night, they are just as thrilled by the seemingly mundane true stories of my school days, as by the crazy capers I invent.

Robert Fulghum once wrote a whole book based on the premise of asking people to open up about their stories. He sat in a bar with a sign around his neck asking people to tell him their tales. He got spectacular results. I think about the ways that stories have come to us – from cave walls, animal hide, parchment, ancient scrolls, and simple oral tradition. It is hard for me to imagine writing my stories with out my computer, but the greatest books of countless generations were either handed down by word of mouth or written out in long hand. Everything from Homer to the Gospels to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

And now, sitting at the coffeeshop, I had in my hand a potential treasure trove of stories, found on a table where everything must go with an invitation to a writer. I opened the envelopes and read.

What I found was simple delightful sharing to a mother from her recently married only daughter. A newspaper clipping informed me that the mother, Lillian, was a twin born in 1891. Her daughter Betty writes often giving her news of her growing family. The letters are filled with benign chatter about everyday life in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are frequent references to the state of the garden – how high the peas and sweetcorn are, how well the radishes and asters are doing.

Mother and daughter are clearly close, often seeing each other at the weekends despite the seventy miles separating their homes. Betty enjoys telling her mother about the social functions she attends and the clothes she wears to each. She writes about her young sons and the challenges of new motherhood. Both the subject matter and the language hark back to a simpler time. Some samples: “What are you going to do the fourth? We aren’t going anywhere because of so much traffic.” (June 28, 1949) Little did she know what was coming to the area over the next decades.

“Our trip to Dinosaur was less than we’d hoped for…about three days of driving for a 2-hr look in the museum. The scenery was horrible, the heat worse, the roads even worse, the dry ice in our refrigerator carbonated the milk, the campground was full, both boys were sick, we forgot the camera; other than that, it was swell.” (July 17, 1951) I laughed when I read this. It helped me appreciate how much simpler it is to take the family on vacation today.

Many parts of the letters were about the weather or the seasons. “Gee, I hate to see autumn come. Life is so simple in the summer.” (September 5, 1953) and “This beautiful spring weather sure makes me eager to get out and do yard work.” (February 4, 1954)

Later on, Betty became a little more feisty in her opinions. “We also enjoyed the Republican dinner. I was sorry that Michaels couldn’t be there, but this Edwin Bridges spat the vitriolic phrases about as well.” (February 22, 1954) or “I’m back to reading Steinbeck again. He’s nowhere near as vulgar as you would believe (Grapes of Wrath possibly an exception) and as a craftsman he’s unexcelled in my experience”. (May 1, 1954). I was pleased to read these – it put a little more meat on the bones of Betty’s character, although she also shared the sensibilities of the typical housewife of her era. After a visit to Central City, Colorado: “They’ve re-decorated a lot of the Teller House – you’ll really enjoy going up just to look. That’s the thing about those Victorian rooms – they’re swell to look at with their carving and brocade and satin – but what a chore to clean!” (May 13, 1954) Always thinking practically!

The adventurous writer in me was disappointed. There were no real stories here. Just the daily ramblings of a young mother sharing her life. It was not what I expected or hoped for. The letters were not exciting or filled with intrigue and mystery. In one sense, their greatest value may be the collectible 3c postage stamps on the outside of the envelopes.

However, in another sense, these letters are priceless. The surviving family may have chosen to discard these artifacts of their past, but here they were in my hand. Concrete evidence of a daughter’s love and her commitment to staying connected.

As I log onto Facebook in 2009 to stay in touch with my family and friends, as I send out another batch of impersonal e-mails into vacant space, I wonder when was the last time I put pen to paper and truly shared about my life in longhand, in a format that could stay with the recipient forever. It’s been a long time.

One of my favorite stories is Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. The rabbit yearned to become Real. His dream only happened when he had been around a really long time and had been truly loved. The wise old Skin Horse had experienced life. He knew all about being Real. He told the rabbit “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

It’s the same thing with the author and recipient of these letters. Betty and her mother Lillian may not have lived the adventurous life of the Skin Horse, but they were around a long time and they knew love. Perhaps their descendants or the folks from the estate sale company didn’t understand. Their letters are a gift. They did not provide what I initially imagined, but they lead me somewhere else. An appreciation of what is real and what lasts.

Author's note: The photograph shows the pile of papers I found. I have changed the names to protect the innocent....

1 comment:

David said...

Salute!
A veteran of both Diaperville and the Middle East I’ll concur - the richness of our lives springs from our willingness to participate in the process wherever we are and be not afraid to go forth on new journeys.