It’s 4am, Mom backs into a trashcan as we pull out of the driveway, turns to me and says, “Let’s go to Starbucks.” An assortment of newspapers from the local area scatter the floor, but she buys another one at the coffee shop anyway and says, “Find something that looks good,” without any sort of indication of what might be “good,” but I know Mom and I’ve been on enough of these particular journeys to know. I take my red pen to the classified section and begin read carefully, very rarely actually circling anything. Today, we go to the estate sales, garage sales and yard sales. Today, we will conquer the vast openness of weekend furniture sales and bring back our bounty to her small booth in the antique market.
My life was defined by these journeys. Almost every weekend growing up, I ‘apprenticed,’ for my mother and learned the trade of antiquing. I learned how to carry my bills in my pockets so as to not appear too wealthy when making an offer (we weren’t so it was kind of easy). I learned how to look at a drawer and tell by oxidation and other means how old it is. I even learned various markings and numbering systems to tell what type of item is valuable. I learned about Bree wax, almond luster and other ways to refinish furniture. I learned different periods of art and design. But, these, I realize now, were not the most important lessons.
Confidence. “This is my Mom’s furniture, she tagged it, she will buy it and she will kill me if I even let you touch it. Please leave. Leave!” Like vultures descending on dead carcasses, fellow antique dealers would flood the gates of a home when an estate sale opened. Running around as if it were Filene’s Basement Running of the Brides they would run and tag any item they thought: might fit in their booth, might sell for more than they bought it for, might fill the empty gaping holes in their lives. Mom would put me in charge of her prize item. She was always first. Whether we had to hop a fence, peak in the windows or try to get in the night before (with permission, definitely not break-in style), she always knew which piece she was after and got to it first. Then it was up to me to guard it. As a child I was terribly shy, but I knew if I let that particular prized item go, the day would not end well.
Empathy. Even though we were buying items left and right off of people for her booth, Mom always made sure to speak to the owner of the furniture or the house or the family member of the deceased. She recognized that the places we were going embodied a huge change in people’s lives and we should be respectful of that, and care about that. Either they were downsizing because of rough economic times, moving, divorcing, replacing furniture because times were good, or mourning the death of a loved one. One particular estate sale, we saw that no family members were there and it looked like the house had been in horrible disrepair. She made sure I recognized that material items only last so long, you want to have people who love you and stay with you through your old age. I’ve always been cognizant of who’s going through what and what it might mean for them as I’ve gone through life.
Creativity. Mom claims that she is not a creative person. She’s worked in sales her entire life and has truly ‘made it’ as a career woman despite taking countless years off, and working part-time jobs when she raised my sister and I. But she’s wrong. My mom is the most creative person I know. She’s a problem solver. She could turn what looked like a piece of crap furniture into something amazing. She could spin a piece to a buyer by making them feel like it was the only piece in the room, the only piece they wanted or needed. She could fit countless items into her tiny booth and still make it look like there was space. Because of her, I learned to solve problems, I learned design and I learned to form my own aesthetic.
But the best part of the day came when I had finished my apprenticeship and mom would give me $2.00 to spend in the antique mall. I would go to the comic book/book booth and sit on the floor spending hours looking at the art and reading everything I possibly could. I devoured it. I would select a comic book or two as if it were the holy grail by the end of the day because I had selected it for it’s superior art and writing. Now, while I write my current novel, I start to think about making it into a graphic novel and I know it goes back to my roots sitting on the black and white tiled floor of the antique mall reading Marvel, DC and independent comics.
I never understood until two summers ago what drove my mom to wake up at the crack of dawn to spend all day searching for and carting furniture. I could never quite put my finger on why that prized piece of the day was so important, why it mattered so much if we did or didn’t get it. I’m sure a lot of it was the chase, but part of it I realize now, was her journey. My parents divorced when I was in high school, but I’ll never forget one of our hunts when I was younger. My mom pulled the car over on the side of the road saying simply, “I don’t think your father loves me anymore.” We sat there in silence because at that age, I didn’t know how to respond. Then she pulled off and we went back to the hunt as if it never happened. The antique business was her escape, a world in which she was in control of her life. Things at home were always strange and stiff due to the problems boiling under the surface for so long until they burst. I can understand now why she needed it so much and I’m appreciative that I received so much quality time as a result when a lot of people could have forgotten their responsibilities as a parent when things got tough. A couple of years ago, I went to the Portobello Market in England. I was ecstatic beyond believe and I forced my boyfriend at the time to come along with me, full well knowing he did not want to go. I was on a mission. I wanted an antique pen or book or anything really to ‘define’ me as a writer. All day we searched and searched. I found my prized possession, realizing sadly that I could not afford it. But it hit me suddenly that it hadn’t been about the item, the item was just a sign-things were not working out with this guy. We had been together for so long, but in that moment I got a distinct flashback from my childhood. I realized that I should be able to be the person I wanted to be instead of feeling stifled and that the only way I could ‘define’ myself was with a material item. I ended it with him and am now in a healthy relationship. I’m thankful everyday that I learned from the experience in my family instead of choosing to live it out again in my own life.
Everything I learned from these journeys with Mom, have become an integral part of my life. Although at times there were silent rides or outright arguments, and although at times I struggled to keep up with her and guess what to do in situations I had not yet encountered, it made me a confident, creative and empathetic person. I still use all my design skills on a daily basis and enjoy the occasional estate sale. Most of all, I hope that someday I can also be as strong and successful as she is because I admire her so much. It’s not even Mother’s day, but I can honestly say, “Thank you Mom, you were right.”