I’ve started to cautiously embrace going to the occasional “estate sale” on a weekend for amusement and curiosity. Before I sold my empty nest and moved to where I work (cutting 300 commuting miles a week from my time behind the wheel) I used to ride shotgun once in a while with my friend Mary who sells buys and sells antiques. I was along mostly for the female bonding on a Friday morning, but every so often I’d pull a couple of dollars out of my wallet and buy something that struck my fancy. Like an old book, or a porcelain vase.
Since the move, I haven’t been on one of these excursions with her for more than two years. I just can’t bring myself to roll out of bed at five in the morning to feed the pets and and then drive fifty miles on one of my days off. I miss those excursions! But I also miss the sense of discovery and mystery they represent, and so lately I’ve started to visit estate sales on my own. Not looking for anything monumental, but I’m a sucker for a pretty ceramic bird.
A couple of weeks ago, though, I couldn’t have possibly foreseen the time-warp journey I took back to my own childhood in a stranger’s kitchen. There, on a formica kitchen counter, amid neatly organized stacks of cups and saucers and candy dishes and bowls, were a pair of vintage glass tumblers with a pattern I recognized instantly. For the record, the tumblers were made some time in the late 1950s or early 1960s by the Jeannette Glass Company which operated in Jeannette, Pennsylvania between 1887 and 1983. They sport a blue and white Roman frieze motif involving horses and chariots and attendants and the exotic aura of antiquity.
But for me, on so many levels, they were the absolute embodiment of my Aunt Mary.
My late godmother, Mary Therese Griffin, was the epitome of fearlessness. The middle daughter of three born to my Irish-born grandparents in Chicago, she never married at a time when most women’s lives were constrained by that modest convention, but instead devoted her life to teaching and learning and traveling the world. Modern European history was her specialty for most of her teaching career, and I certainly wish she was here today to give me her take on national and international politics! When she died, people who she had taught a half century earlier in grade school showed up at her wake to tell me how she had affected their lives and their career choices and their willingness to cross oceans in search of adventure. Here’s a link to the obituary I wrote about her and her ripple effect on others.
For me, of course, the effects were far deeper. As I held one of the tumblers in my hand, I suddenly recalled how my aunt had the glass ice bucket with the same pattern of Roman chariots on her bedroom dresser. That’s where she tossed her spare pennies, and as a little girl, I played with those pennies as children do, stacking them over and over in little piles of copper. I remembered also how I used to play dress-up with the sweaters in her dresser drawers, and tried on her makeup as well. Unconstrained by the responsibilities of a spouse or children, she enjoyed shopping at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller and Lord & Taylor, and her travels took her to Egypt, China, Russia, and all over Europe. The Parthenon. The Pyramids at Giza. The Great Wall of China. She’d been there, done that.
We did a great many things together, not the least of which was horseback riding, a shared passion. Museum-going was another, and we thought nothing of making weekend jaunts to New York and Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh to take in significant art exhibitions. When she “retired” from teaching, she swung right into a second career as a docent at various historic and artistic venues in Chicago, continuing to teach and to learn and to share her enthusiasm
And so I bought both of the tumblers, of course, for fifty cents apiece. And every day now, as I look at them, I remember my aunt, who never turned down a chance to travel, or to learn, or to enjoy a new adventure. I credit her with, among many inspiring things, the fact that I’ve always got a valid passport at hand, ready to cross the Atlantic at a moment’s notice should the opportunity arise. And when I look at that Roman frieze with its horses and chariots poised and ready to move forward, I think “how perfect” a memento…and a reminder to take the trip, eat the dessert, make the memory.