Once upon a June Saturday there was a yard sale, a very big neighborhood yard sale with over 100 households selling the things they didn’t want or need any more. For weeks families dug through their basements and garages and closets, pulling out furniture and lamps, coats and boots, garden hoses, bicycles, buckets and books for the sale. Then, when Saturday arrived, they got up early in the morning and set their things out, marked with price tags, in their front yards, awaiting the first buyers to arrive.
One family decided this would be the year when they would finally get rid of many things left behind by the father they loved. One day he had died with no warning, and the things he left behind helped the family feel close to him. But four years had passed, and now they knew that his memory would not fade, even if some of his things passed into the hands of others.
So on yard sale day, they hung out his colorful shirts along the top rail of the front porch. Blue and yellow and red and white, flowered and solid and checked and striped, they fluttered in the breeze. From their kitchen cabinets, the family had pulled out all the vases other families had sent when the father died, filled with beautiful flowers then but long empty now. And from the bookcases in their house, they had pulled out hundreds of books they had loved and those the father had loved as well, heavy books with stiff spines about presidents and generals, about wars and God and history and the world.
The yard was filled with these things and many others. Soon, a steady stream of shoppers arrived, looking for something they needed or for an unexpected treasure. Some of them knew exactly what they wanted, bought it quickly, and left. Others lingered, especially over the large array of books, bending to scan the titles, reaching out to pick one up and
read the first page.
A young woman came up to the family, her arms loaded with the vases from the kitchen cabinet. “I want them all,” she said, smiling the happiest June smile, as if an important problem had been solved all at once. The family packed up eight vases in a box and told her that would be two dollars. “What will you use them for?” they said. “I’m getting married,” she said, “and I’m doing the flowers myself.” And just like that, the funeral vases became wedding vases.
Another young woman, a girl of 14, ran her fingers over the soft shirts, looking at them carefully for the longest time. She chose one, then another, and finally she chose exactly seven. The family put them in a bag and said, “That will be seven dollars. What will you do with them?”
“It’s my father’s birthday,” she said. “These shirts are just his size. I’ll wrap them in a box and give them to him as a gift.” And just like that, the shirts of the father who had died became the new shirts of another father, a gift from the daughter who loved him.
The yard sale shoppers bought lots of things. A tiny boy with a fist full of money bought a little red chair just his size. A very old man bought two loose chair cushions to set on the chairs in his house where his miniature terrier liked to perch. An elegant woman with her hair pulled back in a tight bun searched through a table of women’s clothes and picked out a soft pair of linen pants and a matching white linen blouse. She rubbed them against her face and said, “These will be my summer pajamas.”
“That will be fifty cents,” said the family.
Just before noon, black clouds began mounting in the summer sky and from the west, claps of thunder echoed. The shoppers rushed down the sidewalk as fat raindrops began to plop on the yard sale. The family rushed to cover the remaining books and clothes and shoes and everything else that might be ruined by the rain. The rain came fast and hard, and the storm passed as quickly as it came. But by the end of the rain shower it seemed the yard sale was over.
The family began boxing up what remained in the yard. One of them counted the money.
One of them pulled a soft shirt up to her nose before dropping it in the box. “It still smells like him,” she said. And it did.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.