by Sarah Bates
My dad left the day after my seventh birthday. After six years telling me we’d play football and go fishing and all the other things boys did in idle time with their dads, mine said goodbye.
“Mom and I aren’t in love with each other anymore, buddy,” he said, “but I’ll keep in touch and visit you.”
He never did. He didn’t send Mom any money for us either, so after six months of sadness and hope, Mom took charge of our lives.
“We need a business we can do together,” she said, “so we’re never apart until you’re grown.”
That began Mom’s weekend drives out in the farming country surrounding West Newton, Pennsylvania looking for barn sales. She’d put on jeans and a flannel shirt, tie a bandana around her head, grab our coats and we’d be off. Sometimes she’d get me a G.I. Joe or a plastic car for a nickel or so, and I’d be happy playing in our old blue Volvo wagon as she piled more and more treasures into the back end. She’d pull over under a tree or beside an abandoned shed along the road for lunch if it wasn’t too cold, and we’d feast on Velveeta cheese sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper and lime Kool-Aid that she’d bring in a big Thermos. As we ate, she talked about the finds, spinning wonderful stories about them, like the one time she bought a big red school clock from some Appalachian farmer who sold it to her for a buck. She told me the farmer said the clock came from George Washington’s schoolhouse. Then she told me all about how the first president, just a regular guy like me, went to school with kids who never knew he was going to grow up to be important.
“Like you,” she emphasized.
I believed every bit of those stories because, after all would Mom lie?
When we had enough stuff crammed into our garage, we’d go around the neighborhood, even Pennsylvania Route 31 nearby, and tack up homemade signs telling people where they could find our treasures for just a little bit of money. I really liked it when the cars rolled up to wait in front of our house while Mom pulled opened the garage door and carried out all the things we had collected.
“Not till eight,” she’d yell at the people who arrived before dawn pressing their faces against the car windows.
She made me her second in command, making sure the little yellow price stickers were removed from the plates and chairs and books and all, and stuck onto a piece of cardboard she’d cut just for that purpose. I felt pretty important sitting on a high stool beside the cash box while Mom negotiated the sales.
“You can pay that young man over there,” she’d say, pointing in my direction.
In the 1980s, Mom went into overdrive with the garage sales. She decided we needed a gimmick to draw people in, never mind we usually sold out by dusk on Sunday. Maybe she resented the competition in our neighborhood. After our neighbors saw Mom pushing wads of dollar bills into the cash box and the big smiles people had when they bought from us, the Mitchells down the street and Mrs. Cranberry one street over decided to go into the garage sale business too. When a car would pull to a stop in front of our garage, then speed up and park in front of the Mitchell’s, Mom would do a slow burn. Then she found out from her friend Marge who checks at the grocery store, that Mrs. Cranberry had weekend garage sales, too. Mom sent me round the corner to check it out, and I ran back breathless that Mrs. Cranberry also sold canned peaches and cupcakes she baked just for the occasion. Mom really got mad when she learned about this, and it was then she got the promotional idea she liked to call it.
“We’ll just have to be more interesting,” she said.
The idea, you see, was to have a theme for our garage sales. At first it seemed like fun, kind of like Halloween when you pretend to be somebody else and people give you candy. In the fall I dressed up like a pumpkin and Mom put on her witch costume. We decorated the yard in front of the garage with dry cornstalks and let the dead leaves just lay on the grass. She made up signs that said Fall Sale, like the big department stores do and I’ll admit people did seem to stop more often. For summer we wore denim overalls with straw hats and itchy hay sticking out of our sleeves. We painted our faces like scarecrows and people laughed a lot when Mom took their money and placed one of her precious finds into the hands of its new owner. By now, no sale day went by without a theme and some of them were pretty far- fetched. Since we roamed the countryside looking for things to buy on one weekend out of the month, rain or shine, we assembled quite a collection of old Halloween costumes and weird outfits people bought for fancy dress balls or school plays. They were all jumbled up in boxes in the basement and when Mom chose the theme we rummaged around until we found pieces that suited it, then put them on ready for the first customers. I sort of liked the pirate boots and found lots of themes where they fit just fine. I liked the mummy too, and when I got to dress up like a cowboy or a fireman, between sales, I sauntered around the yard feeling important.
When I turned 11, working the garage sales in those costumes lost its excitement for me. But worse, I was embarrassed. Mom’s reputation for the promotional idea became so well known she got written up in the paper. Everyone at middle school knew me as the kid who dressed up weird each weekend to sell junk in his front yard. I tried to get out of my job working the cash box–now I was responsible for the stickers and could make sales on my own–but Mom wouldn’t let me go play with my friends, or even stay inside the house to work on my model cars.
“Never mind what those kids say”, she told me. “This is our business.”
One day, in my sophomore year in high school, Mom read a story about a lady from Pittsburgh who took an old painting she found to the Antiques Roadshow and it turned out to be worth a million dollars or so. Well, that’s all she needed to hear, because from then on throughout high school, every piece of castoff junk she bought, she’d run into the house and pour through catalogs of valuable pottery, china, silver, glass and toys, and furniture, and odd carved things from foreign countries. On March 12, 1998 Mom’s garage sale business hit pay dirt. We’d bought up the entire contents of an estate sale way out in the country behind some big gates. By now we had a truck and trailer to drag home what we bought so the tarps were stretched tight over our take when we drove away. Since I was now six feet tall and close to 170 pounds from lifting weights in the school gym, my job grew to include loading and unloading along with the cash box and sales. Mom chose Ye Olde Merry England as the theme for the March sale, and before the garage door went up, as usual she checked everything through the catalogs but nothing hopeful showed up. We didn’t see the man in the gray suit at first that Saturday morning, he was kneeling down looking closely at a large shovel Mom had propped against a dresser. It was a really ugly old wooden thing with carved beetles on it that looked like someone’s whittling project. I didn’t think it was worth much because it had a big nick on the end of its head, so I’d stuck a $2 sticker on it. When the man brought it to me, I looked down at his hand for the two bucks, but instead he offered me his card. His eyes were wide, and he had a big smile on his face.
He told me the shovel was a 4th Century Kota Reliquary that belonged to a Ba Kota Gabon African tribe that no longer existed. Then he told me he’d like to buy it, but couldn’t do it because if he did he’d be taking advantage of Mom and me. I looked at his card. James Keating, Antiques Appraiser, African art. Well, I called Mom over and when Mr. Keating repeated the news, she asked him how much the reliquary was worth. When he said, “$300,000”, she almost fainted. Someone must have called the newspaper because before I knew it a photographer from the West Newton Times stood in front of me asking me to hold up the reliquary. When I did, he snapped my picture. Selling that ancient relic ended our garage sale business forever. Mom doesn’t have garage sales anymore. She lives in Florida in a condo that overlooks the water.
We never did hear from Dad, but looking back I realize Mom filled my life with adventures so grand I didn’t miss him. I still have those merry olde England clothes. They’re in my basement in a box. But every once in awhile I’ll put my son in the car and we’ll go out into the country looking for treasures. He likes Velveeta cheese sandwiches and lime Kool-Aid, too. Oh, and me? I’m president of the board at Sotheby’s.
Sarah Bates is the author of The Lost Diaries of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Twenty-One Steps of Courage and co-author of Out of Our Minds Wild Stories by Wild Women. Her short fiction appeared in The Greenwich Village Literary Review, Bravura magazine, and the North County Times (now the San Diego Union Tribune). Sarah is an academic and creative writing tutor who lives in Fallbrook, California.
To read an excerpt from The Lost Diaries of Elizabeth Cady Stanton , visit Sarah's Website . Find out more about Sarah at Goodreads and on Facebook .
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Copyright by Sarah Bates
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