Helen (Day 1)
The phone was ringing. Not yet 8:00 a.m. (in the frickin' morning). I rushed to get the key in the lock to our antiques store in Mystic Ct - the Archaic Clamjamfri. This was over 40 years ago (1974), but some things you never forget. Weekdays, I would drop Flo off at her teaching job at the Mystic Oral School, long before I'd expect my first customer at the store.
"I have some old bedsteads for sale." "Helen, I'll be right there". Who calls a business at 8:00 in the morning? And who says 'bedsteads'? The term 'bedsteads' had fallen out of use a long time past.
Helen's house was tight on the corner of 2 busy streets with a sloping backyard. Over the years, the town had widened the road until she had no front yard. An old hand painted sign on the house advertised her former business. "Ironing Done Here". The house had that dilapidated look that entices some antiques pickers to stop and knock. Just inside the door, in the small front hall, was the old mangle, (ironing press) one of the tools for the home ironer.
Helen was probably in her late 70s. Her hair was piled on top of her head with a crown braid - like Ma Kettle from those old comic movies.
The house had been condemned and Helen's daughter was helping her to find a new house. Her bed was just past the hallway in the living room. She had been so afraid of a car hitting her house and killing her, that she had placed a brass bed frame propped up between the wall and her bed in the hopes it would protect her. That was one of the bedsteads she was now selling.
Helen had lived her whole life in this house and seemed to have kept everything. She was most definitely a hoarder, though I had not known the term then. There was no space in the 2 bedrooms for Helen's bed. My shock was the greatest when I looked across the room to see a pyramid of junk that went from the middle of the room all the way to the ceiling of the opposite wall.
The other thing I recall from that first visit was that she had several cats, and the biggest cat, a Main Coon cat (probably the mother cat), was confined under an inverted metal milk crate. I don't know why - was it to protect me from the cat, or to keep the cat from running out the door. I don't remember seeing the cats again. Maybe, on subsequent visits, the cats were locked in the kitchen. Or her daughter had found a place for them.
That day, I bought the beds and a few other items and made an appointment to return the next morning.
In the afternoons, our friend Bill Petersen, who worked with Flo would drive Flo back to the store. When I described this house call to Flo and Bill, Bill told us that the house was a bit of a landmark. He asked me to try to buy that sign off the building. He could tell that it had been painted on the back of an old enamel sign and he was hoping that the other side would have some interesting advertising.
Over the following days, I made many trips to Helen's house. I did buy the sign, but even though the sign advertised Coke, Bill was not interested, because it was advertising coal, not Coca Cola.
On one of those trips, I saw something that, to this day, I have never seen - or have ever described. I really wish that I had owned a camera at that time. When I arrived, she had bathed and was in the process of combing her long long hair. It was at least 5 feet long, and as near as I could tell, she must have stopped having it cut at a young age. From the top of her white head it slowly changed colors till it was a reddish blonde hair at the tips. Is it possible that over her lifetime, her hair had only grown 5 feet? Maybe, it was much longer? At the time, it did not occur to me to ask her about her hair, but there's no doubt in my mind, that I had seen at least 5 color/ shade changes.
I carefully and methodically sorted everything that I came across. I started at the nearest corner of the junk pile and sorted into 2 piles: trash and things that I could resell. By trash day the first week, I had put out 10 full trash barrels for trash pickup, and paid her for several boxes with saleable collectibles. And I repeated that over 2 more weeks' time until the mess was finally cleaned up. Some of the fun things that I rescued were really not sale-able, but were still interesting and fun.
Like an envelope full of quaker oat men cut out - presumably to send in for one of their premiums offer; an unopened 1910 letter that she had written to Santa when she was a child, A 1916 Beechnut gum package (without the gum) . . .
DAYLIGHT Week 2 and 3:
Having a retail store, created opportunities to meet many people who had similar interests to us. We were fairly new in town and were glad to make new friends. Before I got this house call, we had become very friendly with another young couple who were connected to a local auction house. They had told us about a really interesting house that they had been buying from where they found a dead rat in a drawer next to a captain's long glass. We had bought a few items from them that they had brought to our store. They suggested that we come to the auction house that week where they had other interesting stuff from that same house.
One of the things we bought at the store was a round embossed tin face from an old topsy turvy flip doll. Imagine our chagrin, when the doll that was missing that very face was sold at the auction. What else did they sell that was separated from its parts?
Among other items we had bought were unusual doll hangers. More about them in a minute./
A few days after the auction, I was back at the Ironing-Done-Here House, I had worked my way to a bedroom on the back of the house. As I walked in the room, I could see light coming in from a crack between the wall and the floor boards. I could actually see the brook out back through this space. No wonder the town did not think the house was fit to live in. On the wall to the left there was a bureau. I reached in the middle drawer, and pulled out what felt like a piece of shaped cardboard. To my horror, it was a dried up rat that had died many years before. If there was any doubt before, at that moment, I knew that I was in the same house where our friends had gotten stuff for their auction. As I found other collectibles, I came across the identical unusual doll hangers to the ones we bought at the auction.
The next time our auction friends came into the store, I naively asked them about the house and how they could have missed the brass bed behind the door. The next morning when I went back to the house, the woman was there with her daughter. The daughter told me how the people who had bought some stuff from them previously (in other words, our auction friends) had come back, but they kicked them out. It turned out that the couple had not only bought stuff from them, but had created the mountain of trash that had originally shocked me. As they say, "with friends like that . . ." Never did see those people after that. Never missed them either.
THE SIGN: A year later
So you might wonder what happened to the Ironing Done Here / Coke sign? In a stroke of ironic punnery, we sold it to our friend Elliot, a welder and blacksmith, who thought it would be a great sign to hang outside his iron-working shop. Not long after that house call, Flo and I had moved back to Massachusetts and a year later, we went to an antique sale where our friend Bill Petersen had a booth. There on the table, he had the sign for sale. Curiously enough, Bill had gone to a tag sale at that very same house and they were selling it. Huh? We decided to buy the sign for a second time and keep it as a memento of that house call.The only way to solve this mystery was to pay a visit to Elliot. He told us that he had felt guilty about owning this old town landmark, and one night, he went back and reattached it to the house. We still own it.
looking on a map, I'm wondering if the house might have been Lantern Hill Rd - possibly crossing Whitford / Wolf Neck Rd.
I'm writing this story over 40 years after it happened so there are many fuzzy details.
Quaker Oats offered its first premium in 1915. When you sent in a cut out the picture of the Quaker man along with $1.00, you would be sent a double boiler to cook oatmeal.
When we were in college, we had seen the National Theater for the Deaf perform Gilgamesh. It was a great performance and several things had struck us. All of the costumes were macrame'd and there was a huge iron sound sculpture on stage that was used during the performance. When we met Elliot, the blacksmith, we discovered that he had made the sound sculpture and that his wife had made the macrame'd costumes.