A Yard Sale to Remember

By Susan Shone

A Yard Sale to Remember

The most memorable yard sale I ever attended was also the first one I ever went to. I’ve been to many since, most of them lighthearted events taking place on sunny spring or summer Saturday mornings. But that first experience determined the way I’ve thought about yard sales ever since.

I was going to college in Baltimore, and my best friend and I were out for a weekend drive to take a break from studying for a couple of hours. It was autumn, and the colors of the leaves were breathtaking, but we could only take so much leaf-peeking before boredom set in. We drove to another part of town and parked on a street lined with old churches and mostly-closed shops.

We started walking, wound up in a modest neighborhood and came upon a big yard sale at a house on a street corner. A good-sized group of people rummaged through the items while a patient-looking older woman presided over everything from the porch swing. Now and then she collected the dollar bills and quarters people clumsily gave her, their arms bulging with items. A younger man, possibly her son, sat next to her, smiling at everyone and sometimes laughing with the customers who stopped to chat.

Two college kids who didn’t often get far from campus couldn’t have asked for anything more tempting. Here was a possible adventure, a glance into someone’s attic. There were boxes of books to sort through; some of them maybe even first editions. There was a collection of odd-looking kitchen gadgets from the 1950s and 1960s, old magazines, furniture in good condition, vintage clothing and an amazing variety of knickknacks – all of it to be had for next to nothing, which was just about as much money as we had. For the young and naive it is easy to believe that any of us – all of us – can up and sell our own past anytime we feel like it on the way to making a new start and not even charge much for it.

We spent an hour or two lost among someone else’s memories. Naturally we ended up buying some things. My friend bought a lot of books, at least half of which he wasn’t interested in. I chose an old key chain with a Canadian flag and some small official portraits of Popes from earlier in the century. When we brought our purchases up to the woman on the porch, the other buyers and lookers had cleared out for the moment. While my friend paid for his books. I complimented the woman on her yard sale.

“Oh, well, we’re moving, you know,” she said, smiling. The younger man smiled at me too, and then looked away. Shy, I thought.

“It’s tough moving, I don’t envy you,” I said.

“It’s not so bad,” the young man said, then more loudly: “We’ve lived here too long, in this house, in Baltimore. We’re really sick of it, you know?”

“Yes, I do know that feeling.” I tried to look him in the eye, but there was something about him that made that difficult. “I get tired of living in the same place too long, too. Where are you moving?”

“To Pennsylvania. To York, Pennsylvania, it’s a small town…”

“Oh, yeah! I know where that is! I have a friend who has relatives there.”

“Yeah, well, so do we. We’ve got some family there. We’re going as soon as possible.”

“Yes,” said his maybe-mother. “We really do need to leave here – it’s not good for us to stay here, not anymore.”

I looked at the young man, and I wondered, was he thinking of how light my heart was on this utterly ordinary Saturday afternoon, telling me with a glance to be glad of that, to cherish it, remember it? He swallowed and looked down at the gray cement porch floor. With growing discomfort I watched his eyes filled with tears despite his struggle against them. When the first tear fell, I felt my stomach clench.

I looked at my friend. His face told me that friendly small talk wasn’t what the two of them needed anymore, not from strangers just passing through their front yard. My friend took in a slow breath and said, “We’d better be heading back,” only just loud enough.

“Don’t mind us, honey,” the woman said, stroking the young man’s back. “It’s just no good for us here anymore, that’s all.” Then, in a lower voice, “Especially not for my son, you know.”

There was nothing I could say to her, so I smiled and nodded. Later I wished I had bowed my head to her for a moment instead. Maybe that sounds melodramatic but I thought it would’ve been appropriate, and I would have done it if I’d thought of it, out of respect for their heartbreak, whatever its cause.

At the sidewalk I turned and wished them good luck in York, Pennsylvania, in the most normal tone of voice I could muster. But the young man didn’t look up again. His hands covering his face, he didn’t even move.

We walked back to the car in silence. To blindly stumble into someone else’s anguish was sobering, like having ice water thrown into your face.

When I got home I hid my pitiful purchases in the closet, where they would remain for months to come. Although I no longer live in Baltimore, the Papal pictures still inhabit my current closet. Eventually I did start using the key chain, though. I kept it on my key ring for years, until its hard plastic broke apart, a reminder to take joy in the present whenever possible.

About this writer

  • Susan Shone Susan Shone is a freelance writer from Texas currently living in Virginia. She plans to return to the Sunbelt when the real estate market improves.

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