Back in the mid-‘90s my mother asked me to go to an auction. It was at a house in Warren, Indiana where she lived as a girl. “When we cleaned the place out back in the ‘60s, the only thing the family didn’t take was a big oak wardrobe,” she said over the phone. “It’s in the sale. Thought you might like to have it.”
I don’t turn down free stuff. I went.
We arrived to find the cabinet in the back yard crowded with other furniture. There was a tent set up in the yard filled with tables of what auctioneers call “items too numerous to mention.” While the auctioneer started on linens, we went through the house.
Scattered memories flooded my mind. The house was Italianate, a style popular in the Midwest in the 1870’s & ‘80s. My great-great grandfather built it. I remember running my hands along the curved hallway wall when I was a child and a Christmas visit when I tormented my great aunt’s cat and it turned on me, leaving me bleeding and crying.
My mother stopped and stared at the ceiling. “When I was a girl, the ceiling collapsed,” she said, looking up. “Bees got in under the clapboards and built a hive between the floor joists. The honey got so heavy and the plaster so gooey . . . bees and honey everywhere.”
We bought hot dogs at the Kiwanis booth and sat on the front porch steps. The auctioneer started on glassware.
“My father - your grandfather, lived here when he was a boy,” she said wistfully. “He told me once about the first car they got,” she smiled, looking at the gingerbread woodwork overhead. “His father told them he was going to buy a car before he came home that night, so they waited here on this porch before dinner. Finally they heard the Model-T come ‘round the corner, and there was my father’s father behind the wheel.
“My father, only about 8 years old, ran out to the street, but his dad didn’t stop, he went on around the block. A moment later he came ‘round the corner once more and again, didn’t stop. On the third go ‘round, he yelled, ‘I can’t stop this thing!’
“On the fourth go ‘round my father ran alongside the car and jumped in, worked the peddles for his dad and got it stopped. My grandfather never drove that Model-T again. My dad used it though. He was just a kid, but he got a job delivering pies for a bakery. He’d sit on his mother’s lap in the front seat. She’d work the peddles and he steered and they delivered pies.”
The auctioneer was working his way toward the backyard. My mother stood and stepped back to look at the house. “I remember coming home from a party when I was a girl and sitting on this porch and telling my mother about all the fun I’d had. She just shook her head and said, ‘You kids don’t know how to have fun.’”
“Your mother was born in 1907 and she said you didn’t know how to have fun?” I asked, incredulous. “When was this?”
“Oh, I don’t know . . . 1940s.”
We went back to bid on the cabinet and paid more than it was worth in dollars. A young couple was bidding against us. Made me feel bad. There was no way they were going to get it.
The cabinet broke down into 4 pieces. Three sections made up the big clothes-hanging body on top. This sat on a low base cabinet with 2 drawers. When I dismantled it and loaded it in my truck, I found a wooden ruler in the bottom drawer – the kind with imprinted black numerals and a metal spine. I studied it for a moment. In a child’s handwriting, the name “Jack” had been scrawled across it. I handed it to my mother. Her mouth dropped open.
“My brother Jack kept his things in that drawer when we were kids, during the depression,” she said.
While I finished moving the cabinet, my mother walked about the crowded yard, clutching the ruler in her hand.
At home, in my house, there was a new baby named Jack. Since my uncle Jack had recently died, it seemed right somehow.
We pulled away from the house and drove down the streets my mother had known so well in her youth, past the theater where she once worked, making her a trivia expert on movies and actors from the 1940s. She brought me here often when I was small. I remember the hat shop and the drug store soda fountain.
“I remember you cleaning out the house after your aunt and uncle were killed in that car accident,” I told my mother as we crossed over the bridge at the edge of town and drove past the grain silos. “You yelled at me for sliding down the banister. Remember?”
“No, I don’t remember. I was in a daze,” she said. “Trying to accept that my aunt and uncle were gone . . . and I wanted the piano, but your father didn’t want to move it.”
“Thanks for the cabinet, Mom,” I said, patting her hand. She smiled, then looked back out the window, clutching the ruler in her hand.