While I was serving our country as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, an article I had written earlier, “The Executrix Sale”, was published in the Sunday Magazine of the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, June 22, 1980. The Columbus Dispatch lopped off part of my name, reducing my byline to Ann instead of Annmarie, but they did include a blurry copy of my hand-sketched self-portrait.
The Columbus Dispatch was the only daily “mainstream” newspaper based in Columbus, Ohio, then and now. (Its first issue was published in 1871.) Columbus is the state capital of Ohio, the most populous city in Ohio, and it is where I earned both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Columbus, Ohio is the 14th most populous city in the United States, with a population of almost a million, so I guess that more than a couple of people read my tender, sentimental account of a midwestern executrix sale.
“The Executrix Sale”
It was a fine day for an auction—blue sky and cool but not cold. The leaves had turned, so the drive last fall through the Ohio countryside to a nearby small town was splendid with vivid yellows, an occasional red and plenty of earth browns. Rather than going in the car, we drove the new blue pickup truck, just in case.
The address in the paper brought us just a few blocks off the main street. This was an older neighborhood, but the yards were still tidy, and the trees that lined the street lent grace to the plain houses. The auction site was a porched old house that sagged in on itself comfortably. The sale had been ordered by the executrix of the estate.
Folks already milled amicably in the yard. They had come early to check over the goods. Only the major appliances — range, washer and dryer and TV — were left inside the house. The remainder of the possessions that had been accumulated, those things which had comforted, maintained or simply pleased whoever had lived here, were boxed, leaned into piles or stacked in rows across the small yard.
Soon almost a hundred people had gathered. Older women moved along the rows in familiar groups of three or four. Younger women and men had come alone or paired with friend or spouse. A shuffling old man in large, cheap slippers blocked the main thoroughfare. Some held back behind him patiently; others squeezed nervously past. A fashionable, carefully coiffured young woman turned from her country-cousin companion and laughed self-consciously in the sunlight. A stiff-faced farmer in work-stained, gapping overalls stood talking with his nodding buddy near a small apple tree. Already the air carried the sharp scent of windfall apples crushed underfoot. All rummaged with interest in this jumbled box, then that.
Titles on the loosely boxed books suggested that the owner was a teacher — Lippincott's Educational Guides; Brightness and Dullness in Children, 1919; and Progressive Methods of Teaching by Martin J. Stonnzand, 1924. The spinster had signed her name inside these books of her trade in open, blackboard script. She had tucked odd documents of her life into the pages of her books. An old program card from State Normal College, Bowling Green, Ohio, recorded that in that semester, she had taken Agriculture 23, History 210 and Geography 23 but elected not to take Education 22. A folded brown page gave a study guide for the third grade, “The Red Birds”.
A torn scrap outlined the hours of one of her days. The morning held a story hour, spelling, physical culture, music and arithmetic. The afternoon brought more spelling, nature study, “Butter Making”, geography, writing, poetry, and language. Recess was from 10:15 to 10:30 and from 2:15 to 2:30.
Receipts from Sechrist & Furstenberg, “Dealers in Staple and Fancy Groceries”, revealed that in the first decade of this century, both bread and shoe polish sold for a dime. The draft of a letter to the Joe Morris Music Company, New York City, requested their music catalog. Another letter draft ordered "one pair of roller skates, style number 137" for only $2. She had clipped a poem by Elias Lieberman, De Profundis. It began, “I'm lonelier than ships that ply along uncharted ways...”
A fresh-faced woman of indeterminate age tucked her full dress modestly against her body as she leaned over the boxes. The good china and silver had been claimed by family, but there were boxes of miscellaneous plates, and kitchen utensils of all sorts. A second woman called out to the first, "Watch out, I saw a snake there just a little while ago. Women nearby laughed, peered into the grass between the boxes curiously, then wandered off. One speculated, “I wonder how much the snake will go for!”
Under magazines, amid the stuff of another box, a sharp-eyed woman discovered a treasure — a View-Master library box containing two hundred well-kept reels of foreign travelogues and the "American vacation land series". These were 3D shots from all over the world, from the Taj Mahal in India, to the Tyrol, Austria, from the Canadian Rockies to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. A yellowed list priced the reels at three for a dollar. The woman quietly, methodically, arranged odds and ends, ceramic animal planters, a box of sharks' teeth, pens, worn crayons, and electrical doodads — so that the several View-Master viewers would be in the same box as the reels. Later she would take her prize with a bid of only $11.
Half-empty jars of inexpensive perfume sat on top of a dresser. A few piles of bold plastic jewelry lay next to them. A yellow-leaved twig had blown under a necklace of small orange globes. There were clip-on earrings to match.
Folks fingered the bedding piled up on the mattress of the bed set up in the yard. They checked the fill of the naked pillows, the French knots on the embroidered pillow cases, the wear on the quilts. A simple blue-and-white checked cotton quilt caught many an eye, but it was worn sheer in the center. A sign on the electric blanket read, “It Works." Two soft white sheepskins, the kind that hospitals use to ease the pains of bedsore patients, testified mutely.
Most scrutinized the clean, worn furniture eagerly. A lusterless woman and her husband mulled over the mahogany dining room set. The veneer was richly dark, and the plastic covers had kept the needlepoint of the chairs immaculate. On the other hand, the table legs did seem a little wobbly when all four leaves were in, and the needlepoint was only machine work. How high should she go in her bidding? How high would her son, for whom she wanted to buy it, want her to go? The indecision put her in an ill humor. She commented crossly to a passerby that she was surprised at how dirty everything was.
A couple of women sounded the stovetop fruit dryer. Not everyone knew what it was. Men picked silently over the small pile of rusted tools. A young woman reached into the pile and pulled out an ax head, its handle broken off. She gingerly put her finger to the rust of the blade. It was very dull, but she caressed the dust from the tool nevertheless. “Haven't you always wanted one?” she asked her friend.
The two auctioneers sat on a once-fine wood and velvet sofa under the trees in the front yard. The younger one directed a pleasant old woman with a thick gray mustache inside to pick up her bidding identification number. He made a general announcement that numbers could be picked up in the kitchen. Latecomers hurried inside to get their numbers. The auctioneers stationed themselves at the end of one of the rows of goods to be sold. Folks followed them, drawing into a large, loose group. The older auctioneer made the announcement that there were heirs in the audience but they would not be by-bidding — buying back objects that didn't get a high-enough bid — but, rather, they just wanted some of the things on sale. He briskly gathered up a pile of this and that from atop a table, commenting as to their usefulness and condition. He held them up higher to view. His clerk readied his clipboard to record the bids, and the younger auctioneer began his litany.
Everyone gathered closely, cheerfully, in the golden autumn light.
Ann Throckmorton (sic) is a member of the Peace Corps and is working in Africa. Her home is in Plain City.
Caption: Pencil Sketch Self-portrait
by Annmarie Throckmorton 1980
Caption: Columbus, Ohio—postcard