The small spruce and burning bush that we planted in front of my study window have become substantial and gnarled, radiating out from their original plant, allowing for dead in the middle and providing empty hollows for bird nests. Through an open patch in the branches, I can see our small crab apple tree and the marshes beyond. The delicate branches of the burning bush, with its ruby like berries, are set off against the dark green spruce. It is wonderful.
If a bird nests in there in the spring I see that as a gift. My heart rises when I catch a glimpse of a tufted wing heading into a hidden home. I feel protected by my natural shroud and comforted by the dark shadows. All summer I watched a spider who had found the perfect spot. Sheltered from careless mammals she had grown quite fat. As the mornings became darker and the nights colder, she bunched up into a ball and left her body. I kept vigil on her small fat body until one day it disappeared. I suppose she fulfilled her ultimate place in the universe by feeding a hungry bird.
But sometimes I leave my cozy window and head out into the tiny local village or head down the mostly empty highways of wild rural New Brunswick. Same, same. Heading to the market, the bank, the library. But last weekend I came upon two announcements for estate sales and went off to search for treasures. In the first case, I heard about a content sale for a home in our small local village. An elderly woman had died, someone I had only met once and knew mostly as an apple cheeked elderly woman who would wave at my car if I waved first. I saw that her family were selling the house contents of her house, so I decided to take a peek while out getting milk.
Any excuse to walk through an old house, really. My mom loved to explore and often dragged us kids to country auctions and derelict homes. She would walk through the forgotten house, shooing away the wild animals that had taken up residence and stomping on the floors to see if the foundations were strong. In one such house we found a forgotten teddy bear slouched in the corner of a barn, and I took her home. That bear, who never quite lost her barn posture, was well loved. You never know what you will find, you never do.
I love other people’s houses, their stories, their style. I also enjoy Christmas Tours, in which people decorate their homes and then open them to visitors, a pre-COVID thing I imagine. It is a tasteful alternative to the grasping transactional atmosphere of an estate auction. People can satisfy their curiosity while chatting with a hot cider. But estate sales and auctions are about finding deals. Neighbours will be there, and antique dealers. On my way back with my milk, I found the gracious old home on a tree lined street.
The house had not been painted or cared for in some time but everywhere I could feel the spirits of a full family life shimmering and flickering in the shadows. I saw that the porch had once been bright and dusted, busy with children and gatherings. Inside the home we, the pickers, curious and greedy, shuffled from one dark room to another, picking through the detritus of life. I felt like I was in a scene of A Christmas Carol, riffling through once personal items.
There was an overstuffed velvet couch and matching chair, heavy and uncomfortable, a pile of preserved hat boxes with small, bizarre hats from the fifties, books, framed pictures, and cheap lamps. There was a small secretary desk, a wooden stool and some nice old dishes. There was also a small pile of snap shots on the corner of the fireplace mantlepiece that felt personal and contemporary, as if the mother of the house had placed them there on her way to the kitchen. It made me feel her absence even more.
I wandered into the kitchen to search for my dream bread box and found that the kitchen had not been touched since the forties. There was an old pantry in the back with a window on to the garden, an uninsurable enamel stove and big wooden cupboards with drawers that stuck midway. It was a relic, and I loved it. It needed modernizing and would get it soon enough from a new owner, I am sure. But I would not want to change a thing. I love the enclosed wooded spaces, the tall dark cupboards.
Alone in the small pantry I turned to the cupboard and was suddenly overwhelmed with missing my mom. Every dish that the house owner had kept could have been my mom’s. I picked up a lovely juice glass with daisies painted on it and knew that this was the last of six in a set, broken over the years. Deeper in the shadows of the dusty cupboard there was one single whiskey glasses decorated with red and black hearts and spades. The type that my dad would use at the cottage, while strumming on the ukulele.
While the light from the garden was streaming into the dark room like an Andrew Wyeth painting, I paused. I noticed a pile of old mixing bowls on the counter, and because I seem to need bowls all the time, to put fruit in, to serve dishes, to mix cakes, I lifted them up and found among the serviceable serving bowls a small dark green mixing bowl. Such a pretty bowl, and such a beautiful green! I am sure it was her favorite.
I gathered my treasures and headed out, tears stinging my eyes. All the rummaging among the woman’s home had made me feel a wash of emotions. The young family members charged me two dollars for my treasures. Crossing the gracious porch on my way out, I could not help but think of my own personal belongings being cast before strangers. Grubby with use, chipped and loved. Would they wonder why I had kept those egg cups given to me as a child? Can the memories, the love, cling to the objects? If you look closely, do they hold energy? I don’t know. Maybe a glass is just a glass.
The next stop was an estate sale for the library of a man that I did not know. I did not recognize his name, but an online post had emphasized his library which piqued my interest. It was a fabulous day, the very best kind of fall day, a warm sunny fall day when the air smells of fallen fermented apples and dry leaves. The sun, the blue sky, and the balm of the air were intoxicating, and my face felt like lifting into a smile. My arms felt like lifting too, as if to welcome and honour the joy in everyday life, in a religious gesture. Arms up, chest open, sun on the face. It felt like that type of day. We rattled down the highway until we came to a small lane with a collection of parked cars marking the location of the library sale.
A broken-down house sat in an overgrown yard, surrounded by large steel sculptures. The sculptures were bulbous, dark and rusted. With further inspection of the sculptures, it seemed that some of the shapes were almost human, almost like a body. But it did not feel like the human form was being represented. And although the sculptures were not beautiful to me, they were also endlessly interesting. The artist had created shapes that were unpredictable, unexpected, and visceral. There was also a decrepit studio with pieces of art leaning against walls that were open to the elements, and a barn full of huge, framed paintings. Art collectors and posh townies circled the sculptures and massive framed paintings with educated, calculating eyes.
After speaking to a friend of the deceased who was running the weekend auction, we learned that the man who had died was well-known artist and professor from Mount Allison University, Tom Henderson. I discovered that Tom was a pure artist who enjoyed teaching and made art because he felt like it. He was a humble man who described his work as, “good enough for art” and had concentrated on making art rather than self promotion. Among the art strewn here and there were steel and mixed media sculptures, stone sculptures and massive free expressionistic drawings and paintings. The sculptures were left outside on purpose because natural deterioration was part of the planning for the artwork; Tom wanted to watch them rust and let nature do its best.
I put a few bids down on some smaller stone torsos that were buried in the weeds and after gathering a few books with a moldy hue, we went home where I called my artist/photographer friend and told her about this auction on an idyllic farm littered with genuine heartfelt art. We returned together, her with her camera and me to participate in the bidding. When I saw that two different women were determined to outbid me on all the sculptures I turned to the kinder looking woman and put my hands into the prayer position and begged her to allow me to take just one sculpture. I believe my eyes must have expressed my heart as she smiled and relented, and I will always appreciate that.
We were delighted to return with one beautiful naked man. He sits on the ground, deep in thought, his back curved, his head resting on his hand. There is a chip out of his head and his foot is broken, but he is perfect. We also brought home one of Tom’s huge vivacious paintings that reminds me of an aerial view of our home in Baie Verte. We only have one wall large enough to hold it, the curved back of our central stairs, so it will greet be the first thing our visitors will see when we greet them at the door.
It was a fabulous weekend with a mystical quality to it. The sun is going down now and from my window I can see a patch of the horizon, the dull gold of the marshes seems to float between the silver blue sea and its source of reflection, the fading evening sky.