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The Keys to this Old House

Privacy on Display

We pulled off the country road and into a driveway lined with cars. The bill on the fence post announced the auction: "Sale on till everything is gone." Antique dealers, curious people from other counties and neighbors milled around - some in search of a rare find, some in search of an old friend.

My husband and I slipped from our car, held hands and strolled past household goods spilling over the edges of old wooden tables. I ran my fingers over silver napkin rings, trinkets and spoons tied together with rubber bands, jars of nails, a bag of bottle caps. A fiddle sat on the edge of the table, and I gingerly lifted it. The tanned wood felt warm and soft. Young fingers, old fingers, slow and fast had probably played on it.

family storiesfamily storiesWe stopped when we reached a table saddled with tools. My grandfather would have loved this table with all its hammers and screw drivers and not one bright plastic handle in sight. These were real tools. I lifted a press and a set of keys tumbled loose. Not keys like I carry on my key chain, silver and small and clinking softly in my purse. These keys were old, older than me.

"Aren't these beautiful?" I asked as I inspected the ring of rusty skeleton keys.

My husband took the keys and turned them over, feeling their size and weight settle in his palm. He smiled and handed them back to me.

"It seems a shame to sell all this stuff," I said, asking the price of the keys.

"Well Armand's family don't want none of it," the young woman behind the table said. "City folk, lives of their own to lead." Her voice trailed off as she looked at an old man rocking back and forth on the porch.

I nodded, a lump forming in my throat, and paid the price she asked.

The auctioneers' calling made it more difficult to talk. Two men standing on opposite sides of the field throwing their energy to the crowd like pitchers in a baseball game. Buy this; it has untold value. Bid more money on that; outbid your neighbor and take home a bargain.

this old housethis old houseI looked up at the house, carved from the land it stood on. It looked more like a tired old lady than a building about to be demolished. Lost and forgotten, she drooped and sagged where she'd once stood as bulwark for the family within.

The house seemed to be staring at her life spread out on the lawn, at strangers picking through her bones. The auctioneer sang his songs and people paid a pittance for things that once meant the world others. One hundred acres of sweat and soil that saw generation after generation of farmers through icy winters and drought ridden summers. Wreckers would soon arrive to replace the beaten down house with a shiny new factory.

It didn't make sense to me. The new owners - a corporation - would hire employees whose hands would work on computers and whiteboards, far away from the life-giving soil.  

I shook my head as Stacy pulled me to see an antique flat-to-wall kitchen cupboard, complete with a pie shelf and hand-hewn oak cabinets. Dining chairs with wicker backs sat stacked in the garden, their back legs sinking into the soft black earth. Orphans who no longer belonged to anyone.

I looked back to the old man sitting along on the porch and wondered if he really didn't understand what was happening. He watched as people bought his things and took them away. His hands, worn and wrinkled from hard work and the weather, sat limp in his lap. Those once strong hands could no longer hold the paper deed.

I didn't want to be here any longer wanted. I wanted to be far away from the taking.

My husband understood my unease, but what could anyone say? No one could change what was happening here, watching a man's life being sliced up and sold to strangers. Privacy for sale.

Garage Sale-ingGarage Sale-ingWalking among the tables I thought about Saturday mornings during my childhood. My mother, grandpa and brothers and I drove from garage sale to sale, searching other people's trash for a windfall. Imagining what stories lay hidden beneath the scratches and dents inevitably consumed the rest of my day. My mother called it an over-active imagination, rolling her eyes in exasperation when she'd catch me holed up in my room on a sunny Saturday afternoon writing furiously.

Garage sales and auctions had always been the very best part of my week when I was a kid. When I met my future husband, I hooked him into my secret joy, turning trash into treasure. As our children marched into our lives we'd used garage sales to buy things that would have been beyond our reach otherwise.

But this auction was a life being carved apart because no one knew what to do with it any longer. The only things not for sale were the memories.

I looked down at the keys clutched in my hand. Keys unlock doors, they unlock stories hidden within. I looked back to old man on the porch, his eyes now closed against the world and his head resting against the rocking chair. I wondered what memory played across his mind, comforting and consoling him. The cool metal of the keys grew warm between our hands, and I felt a story weaving itself around my heart.

I wanted to be home with my children to begin the telling. To take what I'd bought and fashion a new memory from it. A memory that couldn't be sold.

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Such a touching article, Julia. You have such a wonderful gift with words. It's good to be able to slow down once in a while and think about the things that really matter most in life. That's what your article got me doing at 3am. :) Compliments to you!

What a remarkable find! I cannot imagine building a house from the local wood, but back in the day, people were resourceful!

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