That's About It for the Clothes, Do You Want To See My Donkeys?
Here's the second installment in my "Adventures in Vintage" series. This one is about my very first one-on-one, in-home, sizable estate purchase. It was a memorable experience. As always, names and locations have been changed.
I received a call from Mr. Miller who, sounding a bit flustered or perhaps shy, told me that his mother had died and he really needed to clear out her things. I offered my condolences. He said, "Well thank you, but actually, she died 10 years ago." Ooh. Creepy. And her stuff's still there?
Sensing my confusion, he added, "I just haven't got around to dealing with it yet." Busy guy.
I said something about how emotionally trying it can be to sort through and decide on the fate of a loved one's belongings. This wasn't lip service; I'd been there. He mumbled his agreement and said, "Yeah. But it's time."
Curious about the decade-long delay, I asked if she'd had an untimely passing. "No," he said, "she was 92 when she died."
I did some math and determined she'd been born around 1919. That meant she'd been in her 30s in the 1950s. Promising. But before an unprofessional excitement crept into my voice, I asked him calmly what sorts of things she'd had and what shape they were in. He answered that to him, it seemed like "she never got rid of anything."
Let me pause here a moment to say, "she never got rid of anything" is the vintage-seeker's equivalent of that coveted thick envelope arriving in the mail from your top-choice college. You are in like Flynn. Jackpot!
He then explained that she'd lived in an early 19th-century farmhouse on his farmstead well outside Atlanta. And that unfortunately, the house had flooded from broken pipes a few years back , then had the air-conditioning go out for a time . He wasn't sure anything was worth buying. Oh, dear.
I said I'd be happy to come take a look. The next day was a Friday, and quite conveniently, my husband had the day off, so I was available if it suited Mr. Miller.
He said that'd be fine, but to call his cell phone when I exited the interstate, so he'd have time to come in from the woods, where he'd be working all day , to meet me at the house. He told me to take down his directions, because what with the bridge out over the creek, once I turned off the paved road I'd surely get stuck and lost (or something more sinister, he seemed to imply) if I followed the GPS.
I asked what sort of farm he had, and he told me there were many acres, both pasture and wooded, and that he raised cattle. I told him I'd always wanted to live on a farm, with lots of animals. He said he'd be happy to show me his donkeys if I'd like (not sure about the color, but a flag was definitely raised with that one). We agreed on a time, and I said I'd see him tomorrow.
First thing I did was look for a friend to accompany me. I only had one whom I knew to be available during the day. I explained that she didn't have to do anything, just come along for the ride and, possibly, kick hard and scream really loud. Her husband balked and she said, "Sorry. Not happening. He's just not comfortable with it." Now where was their sense of adventure?
I discussed it with my own husband, who came to the same conclusion I had. The odds of Mr. Miller being an ax-wielding murderer, and any harm befalling me, were extremely low.
I'd post my destination on Facebook for all 500+ friends to see and request a search party be sent out if I hadn't checked in by 6pm. I'd leave my cell phone's GPS on so I'd be trackable, and I'd take along my 8-year-old daughter for protection, I mean company. I wasn't afraid. Hey, I'm from New York.
As Susannah and I got into the car the next morning, my husband said, "Listen. If you get there and find his dead mother's things, that's great. If you find his dead mother, run like hell." And off we went.
Mr. Miller's directions were perfect. In just under an hour we arrived in a place that had, probably not all that long ago, been very remote, indeed. Although it now sat 8 or 10 miles from a Super Target and every fast food chain imaginable, it was far enough outside the city, or even a town, that I was surprised we had cell-phone coverage. The first thing we saw as we drove up the driveway to the farmhouse was a barn with two donkeys. The setting was bucolic. Just dreamy. Meadow and barn behind us, woods ahead up a gentle slope. Wooden storage shed with tractor and plow to our left. The farmhouse sat to our right, surrounded and shaded by enormous oak trees.
We got out of the car as Mr. Miller, wearing overalls and accompanied by another very large, intimidating-looking man in similar work clothes, came down the hill from the woods to great us. He held a shovel. I asked if he'd been burying the last vintage buyer who'd come to see his mother's stuff. Fortunately, he had a sense of humor and chuckled. No... they'd been repairing a fence in the big cow pasture beyond the woods.
I then related my husband's warning and he chuckled again, saying, "Oh yeah, like that Psycho movie, huh? Come on in."
He led us inside the modest, one-story house, furnished top to bottom with a remarkable collection of antiques. The entry hall walls featured framed charcoal portraits of Mr. Miller's earliest known relatives. The pictures dated to the early 18th or late 17th century. I was already sneezing from the mildew, and advised him to take the pictures somewhere with a more controlled environment. He agreed that was probably a good idea.
The kitchen was retro heaven. Entirely unchanged and fully intact from the late 60s or early 70s. Avocado green appliances, stained wood cabinets, white canisters stamped with golden-brown mushrooms, and enough vintage cooking and serving accoutrements to outfit your Etsy shop many times over.
The farmhouse had maybe six rooms in all, each packed with an eclectic mix of items from colonial to mid-century modern. One bedroom featured a Victorian bed frame the likes of which I had only seen in dollhouses. But I'd come for the clothes, of course, and he never mentioned that anything else might be up for grabs.
Mr. Miller explained that various friends and relatives had occupied the house on and off since his mother's demise. He lived in another house on the property, which was not visible from our vantage point and we never saw.
He led us into his mother's room and started pointing at dressers and opening drawers and doors, saying, "Look in here, and there, and there. See what you want." Then we followed him through a short hallway to another large closet, which he opened, saying, "She kept stuff in here, too. Just see what you want."
He said he needed to get back to the fence repair, and that he'd leave us to our work. I could call him if I needed anything, and he'd come back down in a couple hours to see how it was going. I thanked him, and he left.
We stood in the middle of Mrs. Miller's bedroom, at the foot of her bed, surrounded by her things. I told Susannah she could wander around and look at things, but to be very careful not to break anything. She whispered, "I think I'll just stay here with you if that's OK."
We drew open the curtains to let in as much light as possible, and got to work. I handed items of interest to Susannah, to place on the bed, and returned unwanted items to their original location.
There was a lot of mildew and many items were damaged beyond repair, but there were also plenty of things in good or (with enough elbow grease and money) salvageable condition.
I sifted through each drawer of the bureau (gloves, scarves, underthings), the dressing table (jewelry, fans, odds and ends, and a framed photo of the young, newly married Mr. and Mrs. Miller), and then tackled the walk-in closet. We began sorting through the extensive collection of clothes. Modern items were interspersed with plenty of high-quality, mid-century gems from the chicest shops in downtown Atlanta.
I was getting to know Mrs. Miller. Her style, her preferences, and, perhaps, her personality. As would often happen as I visited estates privately and at length, I had the strong and melancholy desire to talk with the deceased woman. I wanted to find out more about her -- how she came to own these items, what the world and her life were like when she acquired them, why she'd kept them. But this was my first such visit, and my first experience of missing someone I had never known.
Mrs. Miller and I were just about the same size. I slipped on a red cashmere swing coat and it fit beautifully. This made me inexplicably sad.
In addition to the bulk of her clothing, shoes, and hats, the bedroom closet housed sewing supplies and a stash of memorabilia. Here I found a small stationery box containing a stack of four by six inch white cards. Each had lines for entering student name, teacher name, school name, and dates of attendance. At the top, in a serious font, and bordered by floral and curlicue accents and gamboling lambs, were the words "Certificate of Attendance, 1925." The teacher had completed each line of information in a beautiful hand. Mrs. Miller hadn't missed a day of First grade. Wiping my eyes, I set the box aside to give to her son.
As we headed down to the hall closet, Mr. Miller returned. He helped us reach the items on the top shelf, and provided a bit of commentary where he could. This closet yielded more hats, skirt suits, and outerwear.
I showed him the items on the bed, and Mr. Miller and I decided on a price for the lot. We each carried what we could to the car, making several trips before we'd cleared off the bed.
As I took the last of the hatboxes from the towering stack in his arms, Mr. Miller said, "Well, that's about it for the clothes. Do you want to see my donkeys?" Susannah and I enthusiastically replied, "Definitely!"
I shut the car's trunk on Mrs. Miller's wardrobe, and we crossed to the barn to meet the donkeys. They were a mother and baby, and tame enough to pet. Flies and mosquitoes were tormenting them. Mr. Miller explained that every time he tried to spray their legs with insect repellent, they'd kick and run. Even if he sprayed into his hands then rubbed it on them, the donkeys were still spooked by the spraying sound. I told him that OFF! was now available in towelettes, which might just solve the problem.
We shook hands and said goodbye. Susannah and I headed home. That evening, into my thank-you note, along with my business card, I tucked several OFF! towelettes.