By Kurt Ullrich
It was a brief stop in Arcadia, the only sounds were those coming from a steady breeze through the trees and a small public address system wherein an auctioneer was offering up the detritus of household items no longer needed by an elderly woman in Maquoketa.
It could have been an auction of any household in a 1950s or ’60s neighborhood, white appliances lining the front drive, chairs in the yard holding occupants who didn’t own them, a firing squad of lamps leaning on a portico wall and the ubiquitous hay wagons on the front yard loaded with a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff.
For me, this was not just any neighborhood; this was the place of my growing, my family having lived two doors up the street from the sale, 40-some years and a million quiet miles ago. Just behind this house, where on this day a vendor hawked food, I once fashioned a snowman, Abe Lincoln sitting in his chair at the D.C. Memorial. Somebody called the local paper and a photo of the sculpture, along with a cutline mentioning the weird kid who fashioned old Abe are now on record, more permanent than the melting snow, more real than the man now in his 60s who too will one day melt to nothing.
One woman in attendance was my mother’s best friend until the day Mom passed, 20-some years ago. She is still articulate and beautiful, beautiful in the way one is when wisdom has outlasted everything else. She was troubled by seeing her neighbor’s lifetime collection of stuff out in the open air, on a lawn, saying something about the sale of her own mother’s goods having been handled the same way, knowing it was wrong.
Under the bright light of a summer sun, it is unlikely anyone’s furniture looks good. There is a shabbiness to our beloved belongings that becomes clear when out of context. Out in the open, a mom’s old La-Z-Boy will always look forlorn and slightly embarrassing. And the bed? Well, we don’t even want to think about that.
None of these household items tell us anything about the life of the owner, any more than an obituary informs us about a decedent. An auctioneer holds up brooms, canes, fishing poles, and we are no closer to knowing anything than a line telling us someone loved the Chicago Cubs or Iowa Hawkeyes. One’s essence lies elsewhere.
We show up at these things for different reasons, some hoping to gather a bargain to their bosom, others out of curiosity and a few of us for sentimental reasons. Some day, someone will have the task of sorting my accumulation and God help them. I say pile it all on hay wagons, get what you can for them, thank everyone for attending and ask them to think of me on a warm summer’s day when immortality seemed possible.
As the auction wore on, a 92-year-old retired U.S. Postal employee and I leaned against a soon-to-be auctioned fishing boat, talking of the old neighborhood, neither of us much interested in the bidding. A natural raconteur, he left me with this: “Postal workers are like an old gun. They don’t work and you can’t fire ’em.”
That’s more like it. Nostalgia had beat a hasty retreat, waved off by an old man living in the moment.
I’m still smiling over that one.
Kurt Ullrich is a freelance writer/author who lives in rural Jackson County. The University of Iowa Press will publish a book of his photos and essays on the Iowa State Fair next spring. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org