The Hand-Painted Signs of Autumn

Forget golden-red leaves and crisp, sunny days. The true signs of fall in our city neighborhood are the hand-printed notices on every other telephone pole that read, "Flea Market, Saturday 9 a.m." Put up by dedicated volunteers from churches, synagogues, and schools hoping to boost their treasuries through trash, these innocent-seeming advertisements spell only one thing for my husband and me: T-r-o-u-b-l-e.

That's because when it comes to flea markets, my husband and I have a mixed marriage: He's a buyer, I'm a browser - or, as our arguments sometimes escalate, he's a "mindless spendthrift" and I'm a "heartless skinflint." The core of the problem is that he fancies himself a master collector and sees me as his faithful curator (knickknack duster). Earlier, before our attic looked like the warehouse in "Citizen Kane," we tried to compromise. "Why don't you go by yourself?" I would say on those bright Saturday mornings. "After all, I hardly ever see anything I want. I'll just [sigh] get at these leaves ...."

Not my smartest move, The poor guy not only bought my tolerant pose, but also practically everything else he saw: books, plates, pictures, figurines. I'm convinced that when my husband walks into these basement bazaars, a secret alarm goes off, alerting fund-raisers that they're halfway to that new roof or computer lab. Let some sweet old church lady bat her eyelashes at him, and what little sales resistance he has melts. That's why we are the only family in the rolling fields of our city block with a farm plow in the backyard. (Don't ask how big.)

This year, we had worked out another admirable compromise - or so I thought. My Mr. Sotheby would limit his buying to his own church's bazaar, and I, for the first time, would volunteer to help at a table.

That's how I found myself standing in front of rumpled-looking Beanie Babies, play kitchen sets, Happy Meal toys, and other temptations for the junior bargain hunter one fall Saturday at 9 a.m.

When the opening bell rang, I looked up to see scores of eager treasure seekers streaming down the basement steps. Picture the movie "Titanic" and the determined, desperate look in the steerage passengers' eyes as they stormed toward the locked gates keeping them from the lifeboats.

Just as I was wondering how I could bail out, the mob was upon me. In a few frenzied minutes, the Beanie Babies disappeared. Then the mob swarmed on to other tables. For most of the morning I had a steady flow of customers, mostly kids who examined and deliberated over each purchase with the gravity of diamond merchants.

"How's it going, hon?" my husband, a vase discreetly tucked under his arm, had our daughters in tow. "The pastor asked me to help with the refreshment booth for a while," he said. "So's it OK if I leave the little one with you?" He was gone in a flash, taking our eight-year-old with him.

Our six-year-old, knowing her mother's tendency to throw away perfectly good toys - say, dolls with only an arm or two missing - eyed my wares. "What's Yellowy doing here?" she said in her tortured-child voice. "Remember?" I said in my patient-mother voice, as the ladies at the knitted-goods table looked over. "You said I could donate him because you haven't played with him since you were 4, and you're a big girl now....

"I changed my mind," she said, grabbing the yellow dinosaur, "He's my favorite."

Then, borrowing a never-fail argument from her father, she added, "Besides, Mom: He's part of my collection."

Ah, yes, her stuffed-annual collection, displayed so artfully underneath every bed, chair, and table in our house. I glanced over at my husband, who had stopped pouring sodas to admire the new-to-her necklace our older daughter was wearing. No doubt, I thought, that's a new addition to her collection of castoff jewelry - the gaudier, the better - gleaned from her grandmother's jewelry box and flea markets like this.

Like father, like daughters?

I handed our youngest collector a bag for her treasure and slipped $1 into the money box. "We will sell no dinosaur before its time," I said, glad to add the slightly mystified, but clearly overjoyed look on my daughter's face to my own private special collection. Memories, you see, require no dusting.

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