Years ago my father discovered a unique strategy for keeping children quiet. He took four little girls along to a livestock auction. After he explained to them that gestures such as nodding or waving were ways that buyers signaled their bids to the auctioneer, they sat through the sale like little statues, hardly even daring to scratch their noses for fear of inadvertently buying a roping horse or 50 head of bred heifers.
To give credit where credit is due—and to prevent snide comments from my two younger sisters and two of my cousins—I must admit that all four of those little girls were the kind of children who would have sat quietly and behaved themselves anyway. Still, you have to admit it makes a better story this way.
It was a story I thought about several times this past Sunday. The occasion was an auction where my parents were selling some of their belongs as part of the process of moving to a smaller house. Their stuff was secondary, though. First the auctioneers had to dispose of the estate of a woman who had been a schoolteacher for years and who apparently had saved everything. Her furniture lined two sides of the old school gym. Laid out on rows of tables were old school books, dishes, Valentines from long-ago students, scrapbooks, shoes, costume jewelry, feather beds, kitchen gadgets, knickknacks, clothes, and hats.
Some of the stuff was probably junk. Some of it, to judge by the bidding, was collectible if not precisely antique. Some of it, like the magnificent old oak table with six or seven leaves, was obviously valuable. All of it in one place was overwhelming. It felt almost disrespectful, as if this woman’s life had been laid out on display without her having had a chance to choose what she wanted to reveal. One tour through all the tables, and I was ready to go home and clean out all my closets.
Not planning on buying anything, I hadn’t bothered to get a bidder’s number. I sat on the bleachers in the school gym and watched instead, wondering from time to time about the fuzzy line that separates “clutter” from “collectible.” At what point, exactly, does an old item become sufficiently aged to have evolved from junk to quaint keepsake? Two days after you toss it in the trash, probably.
In between pondering such weighty questions, I entertained myself by watching the sale. Auctioneering, I decided, requires a great deal of skill besides just the ability to rattle off numbers faster than the average person can listen to them. Conducting an auction is a bit like baby-sitting toddlers or herding buffalo—you have to be able to anticipate what they want to do next, just in time to tell them to do it. Is the crowd getting tired of dishes and knick-knacks? Go sell a couple pieces of furniture. Some odd item isn’t selling? Combine it with several other odd items until you find one that appeals to somebody. Have a collection of hats to get rid of? Model them, and do a little soft-shoe while you’re at it.
The bidders provided their share of entertainment, as well. There were several dealers, who scribbled in little notebooks, kept leaping up off the benches to go take closer looks at the upcoming items, and bid mostly against each other for the Depression glass and the old toys. There were the focused buyers waiting around for the one or two things they were interested in. There were the young couples hoping to get some inexpensive furniture or dishes. There were the onlookers who just stopped by to see what was going on and maybe get a piece of homemade pie from the lunch stand.
And there were my two younger sisters, who have learned something about auctions since that long-ago trip to the sale barn. Quite purposefully, they nodded or waved their way into ownership of some antique dishes, an old metal box full of buttons, some vintage clothes, a post hole digger, and a pick ax.
I sat very still on the bleachers and was careful not to scratch my nose.