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Anybody Give a Dollar
By Joy Swartley Sawatzky
The public auction was over and the family was standing around talking with one of the auctioneers and the woman who had set up to provide the refreshments to the sale attendees, lookers and buyers alike. The popular refreshments that afternoon were hotdogs with sauerkraut and a variety of sodas, as the temperatures climbed to make it one of the warmest days of the summer.
The last of the pick-up trucks and flat bed trucks were leaving their parking spaces in the front yard and meadow, taking care not to be one of the unlucky ones that would get stuck and need to be pulled out. They lined up to load the miscellaneous equipment they had just bought for prices from several dollars to several hundred dollars, mostly lawn mowing and farm equipment of every shape and size, a drill press or two, an almost unmovable anvil attached to a stump, and various things I had no idea what they were used for. It took a front end loader to lift much of the equipment onto the trucks, as the various items were mostly not in running condition, including the motorcycle that had not been inspected or probably run since 1974.
This was not an event from thirty years ago, this happened just last week on what had been my parent’s farm for forty years before selling it to a family member. The farm had never been a working farm in those forty years. None the less, there was plenty of space to collect and store an amazing amount of ‘junk’. As the auction wore on, it was almost magical to see how the fast-talking auctioneers would make the items disappear one by one. They knew exactly which items to sell by the piece and which items would have to be paired with something that the crowd really wanted just to get it out of there. Many a buyer walked away with something they had no desire for, simply to get the piece they really wanted.
After it was all over, the comments by those running the auction were, “This type of sale right on the property is becoming a thing of the past. There just isn’t space to do it anymore. People in town complain when there are cars parked on their side of the street, and they don’t want their lawns damaged. We hear all kinds of complaints when we try to hold a sale at a home anymore. Now we hold most of our auctions in the firehouse. The big farms are disappearing and being replaced by housing developments.”
The date that the auctioneer happened to choose for this ‘twilight sale’ of the belongings that mostly my father had accumulated over a life-time, fell on the one year anniversary of his memorial service. He died one year ago several days earlier. He would have been heartbroken to see all that he had collected so carefully over the years disappear into the hands of others, yet how he would have loved the eclectic crowd that gathered. If he had been there he would have struck up conversations with some of the most unlikely ones, and he would have been one of those bidding on what seemed like a useless piece of equipment. He would have brought it home and fixed it up or used it for parts to get something else working. Dad was a collector, a builder, a creative visionary. The ability to down size, sort through and get rid of that which was no longer useful was not something he was capable of doing.
Joy's father, Vernon Swartley, with his grandson Ian
As a family we puzzled over this as his physical limitations no longer permitted him to do the things that had in the past given him such pleasure. Even after two years in a skilled nursing unit, confined to a wheel chair, he was unable to let go of any of his possessions. For him that meant the end of something to hope for, whether it seemed reasonable to those looking on or not. He preferred that we wait until he was gone to get rid of anything. When it became clear that the farm house needed to be sold a year before his death, it was fortunate that the house was purchased by understanding family and we simply packed up everything and put it into the barn to deal with later. Last week later arrived.
The sale brought into full view Dad’s proclivity for collecting things, and especially collecting things that some of us would categorize as junk. When some of the items sold brought prices often far more than my mother expected (she had been prepared to pay someone to come and haul everything away and was amazed at the interest in so many of the items), we chuckled that the collection sold that day didn’t include his campers, boats, and Saab cars. Those had already been disposed of.
What made him not only collect, but hold on so tightly, to all that passed through his life? What he loved collecting the most was second hand things. He had no need for anything new. He thought that was a waste of money. It helped that he had the natural ability to make anything work. But he was not the only one that had grown up in the generation where little was had and so you wanted to hold onto whatever you got. Certainly his childhood was more difficult than some. As in infant his mother became disabled and he was sent to be raised by elderly grandparents. Even when he returned home around the age of twelve, his father was consumed by caring for his mother and running the farm they lived on. His life, along with his one brother, was dominated by male influences that had little time or resources for accumulating things, for leisure activity or for softening the edges of daily living.
While I don’t have the entire answer to the question I posed about collecting, as I watched the pieces of my fathers’ life being sold one by one, I came to understand him in a new way. He truly was a creator and builder of things in all aspects of his life. He didn’t think it necessary to bother himself with the ‘getting rid of’ part of the equation. That is just who he was. There was rarely anything he could not figure out, despite his never having finished (or even started) high school. He always had a better idea, a good idea, about how to do things, whether it was a business plan, how to jack up a boat sliding off of a trailer while traveling in the middle of nowhere, or many years ago starting to pay the pastors in our church conference by regular salary rather than by chance love offerings. He was often many years ahead of his time with his ideas of how to do something different and better, and he was successful by most standards. In the end, what did it matter if he could not get rid of things?
I am not a collector like my father. In fact, at the sale I did not even get a number to use to bid on anything. I collect words and images and stories, not tools and tractors. The afternoon of the sale gave me images and words to use to see more clearly, understand more deeply, and appreciate in new ways, the complicated man that my father was. That is worth more to me than any item of his I could have walked away with.
By the way, the basement of the farmhouse still has much of his exercise equipment stored. Stuff like that doesn’t usually bring anything when you go to sell it. Anyone interested?
Remembering Your Story
What kinds of things were collected in your household as a child? What kinds of things do YOU collect, and how do you like to find these things (yard sales, bazaars, auctions, mail ordering, TV commercials)? Do you enjoy holding on to things, or do you prefer to sort and get rid of? Do you have any experiences of attending public auctions? What do they remember about it? What antiques would you have that have been handed down through your family and what place does it enjoy in your home? Do you have a story of letting go and moving on? How was that experience for you?
Explore the story while doing a hands-on project
Copyright June 15, 2004 by Joy Swartley Sawatzky. All Rights Reserved.
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