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A Yankee Notebook

August 29, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – My grandfather asked me once, many years ago, what I wanted to be when I grew up. Fired up at the time by the exploits of the Flying Tigers volunteer group defending China from the Japanese, I was sure I wanted to be a P-40 fighter pilot. I drew endless pictures of them in my school notebooks.

“You’d do much better,” he advised, “to become a mortician – a funeral director. It’s not very strenuous work, and it’s very good money. People are just dying to do business with you.” In spite of the little joke, he was (please excuse me) dead serious. A short time later my family moved to Syracuse, where my bicycle travels often took me past an almost windowless building with a big black-and-white sign painted on its brick wall: Simmons School of Embalming and Mortuary Science. I remember thinking, “Hmm. Maybe I should...”

Then one day I attended a graveside committal service for a decedent who’d been very popular; there were hundreds of people there. I remember being struck most of all by the activities of the funeral director and his assistants: They unloaded folding chairs – heavy, rattling wooden ones in those days – set them up in careful rows, and after the brief ceremony, loaded them back onto the truck. I presumed they’d be unloading and carrying them inside once they got back to the funeral parlor, and I resolved at that moment never again to countenance even a thought of that career. To spend a life schlepping folding chairs was nothing to being a fighter pilot.

A few years later, myopia and a 4-F classification doomed both my flying and any military career; so I got married instead. And whom did I marry? A woman who turned out to be an indefatigable organizer of church luncheons and suppers and yard sales. Wakes, funerals, and outdoor weddings are nothing compared to the number of folding chairs and church tables I’ve lugged, set up, taken down, lugged back inside, and put away during the past half-century.

Try to imagine the worst possible things we human beings have to endure: root canals, for example, without anesthesia; shivering all through a winter night in a wet sleeping bag; helping our spouses with yard sales. Having done each of the three at least twice, I’ll take the middle one every time. In a wet sleeping bag you at least know that dawn will come. With Mother, every time she says, “That’s the last one! I’ve had it! I’m done!” I believe her. And then she strikes again.

A few weeks ago I noticed her sitting in her office with a lapful of file folders, a trash can by her right knee, and a shredder at her left. “Whazzup?” I asked.

“Just sorting out stuff I don’t need anymore.” I noticed she was emptying a large, two-drawer, side-loading filing cabinet, as heavy as unrequited sin. “Here we go again,” I thought. A little later, she was in the cellar, moving old hardwood kitchen cabinets and doors toward the cellar entrance. You didn’t need to be a spy or a logistics expert to sense something was in the wind.

Something was: She and a friend in Hanover were collaborating on a yard sale, and the filing cabinet was one of the objects that had to be transported to the Upper Valley. Before I loaded it into the truck, though, I extracted a promise from her that, no matter what, it wasn’t coming back.

Mother’s been through this a number of times, and is appropriately wary about the process. We’ve all seen video of the crush that occurs at big-box stores when they open before dawn the morning after Thanksgiving. The same thing happens at advertised yard sales. Her first experience with that was in 1985, when we held a moving sale. So-called early birds began showing up hours before the scheduled opening, and none of us was guarding the stuff. Some antiques disappeared down the driveway; one woman I stopped said, “Well, I didn’t see anybody to pay, so I figured...”

Her next experience was running a really large and beautifully organized sale in downtown Hanover. After everything was arranged, priced, and tagged the evening before, she slept – very fitfully – in the garage with the dog, and asked the police to swing by now and then if they could. Luckily, I was away during that one, which ended up literally a free-for-all. Everything went.

My job for this one was to show up during the afternoon before to unload the filing cabinet, make little posters, go after a folding table at the church – nothing requiring more than a minimum of brains and willingness. Next morning I drove around town posting signs pointing to the scene, and made one more large sign to be posted at the end of the driveway: “9:00 – NO EARLY BIRDS!” and the little circular symbol with the bar running across an early bird. Mother reinforced the message with a strip of orange surveyor’s tape and directed me to stand between the gathering crowd and the objects of its desire until the clock struck nine. I tried to amuse the folks with lighthearted banter, but they were looking past me. Talk about a tough audience! When the announcement finally came, the orange tape and I were swept aside as if we didn’t exist.

I don’t know why people do it. I guess for some it’s in hopes of profiting by a resale, or of finding just the thing for a funky gift – like a tiny pillbox labeled “Dr. Braithwaite’s Stomach Pills.” I just kept my eye on that big, black steel filing cabinet, and when I heard a man say, “Yeah, I’ll take that,” I was over there like a shot with my hand truck. I’ve thought of offering Mother money in exchange for my service, like the guys who got out of the Civil War that way, but she enjoys it so much that it’s the least I can do to lug a few things in hopes of never seeing them again.

Photo by Willem Lange