“Number 1-6-4, number 1-6-4,” the auctioneer announces, as I up lift the strange orange lamp. Its prisms sway, as I quaver under its weight. I smile, then laugh out loud, as I stroke the bright orange shag shade. “I don’t know,” I say doubtfully, “it’s cool. It’s funky.”
“Totally,” my mom agrees.
“I can sell it for more than ten dollars,” I say, and though it’s a statement, it has an edge of a question to it. I spent ten on it and I really can’t afford to lose any money.
“Sure you could,” my mother agrees.
I peer at it. The shag shade looks dangerous. It probably hasn’t been cleaned in decades. Probably never, actually. I hold it a little further away.
“If I clean it up…” I say hesitantly, “…somebody will think it’s neat.” Inwardly I whisper, Yeah, somebody who absolutely loves monstrous, furry vintage lamps. It’s probably a dust mite hatchery. A cloud of cobwebs and dirt and other even less desirable things rises from it.
I gently set it by our pile. Old tables, quilts, paintings. A wooden cradle of dolls and stuffed cows wearing dresses. Cows wearing dresses? Whatever. My ten-year-old brother, Nevin, holds two rusty lanterns. He was the first one to bid here and we silently snickered as he dished out $10 for these, a few decaying license plates, and a pile of electrical cords. “I’ll scrub the rust off,” he announces confidently.
“There won’t be anything left,” I respond, chuckling.
“There will too!” he insists.
“If you say so…” I smile at the oldest of my brothers, Brennan, who winks. (In case Nevin reads this, I must tell you that he later sold his two rusty lanterns and we learned that people actually pay good money for them when they have “the aged look.” Us older siblings had to give our younger brother the pleasure of being right…again.)
I scoop up an armful of my purchases and tramp down to our Volkswagen. I hope to go home and make a little bit of money. I have some summer plans that include airfare. And I don’t have enough to pay for a tenth of a ticket.
As we pile items into our car, we are all silently thinking about who this stuff belonged to—an elderly lady, who had recently died. Now everything she loved and cared for was being sold like a heap of junk. Well, much of it WAS a heap of junk. But I knew in my heart that, to her, it wouldn’t have been. I slide two pastel portraits into our trailer. They are of Mr. & Mrs. Eastman, I was told. Beyond that, I know nothing more. Information stops at their softly smiling faces. I have no idea who they are. I imagine the pleasure these two must have had as they got their portraits drawn. “We’ll save these forever!” Had they said that? And now forever was up.
That was one lesson that we learned as we tried to start a temporary little antique business of sorts. Life is short. Everything we were buying was somebody’s history; somebody’s story—the old Corning Ware dishes that some mother fed her giggling babes with and now those babes are grown with adult children of their own. The doll that a little girl once loved. The dresser that was once a cherished piece and is now shoved into a barn, warped and molded.
Nothing lasts forever. Least of all, life.
I was intrigued about the people in the portraits and tried to find out who they were. A man who had also been at the auction (and who happened to be an old family friend of ours) gave me a few boxes of photos he had gotten there. In those boxes, I found images of the elderly man in my pastel. Only, in many of them, he was just a young boy. The earliest shows him at about two years of age. His face is sweet and inquisitive as he peers out happily from beneath his hat. His eyes are keen, gentle. And his pointy ears give him a bit of character. He looked so innocent, with his whole life ahead of him. He looked so…alive. There are more photos of him—playing with his older brothers, standing by his father; by his wife.
I also have a couple pictures of him as an old man. Even those were taken long ago.
Life is fast.
And it always ends.
What struck me is that we all pretend we aren’t going to die, but we all know we will. We won’t admit the fact—usually not even to ourselves. I once read a quote that said something like “We are all terminally ill.” And it’s true. We’re all in the same boat. Life ends. You might not want it to, I might not want it to, but it will. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in eighty years. The point is, we aren’t here to stay.
And, yet, we sure act like we are!
In auctions, I’ve seen people’s treasures—what they saved up over a lifetime—completely liquidated in a few short hours. Gone.
You leave this earth empty handed. Everything that matters to you will be nothing. And I found myself wondering, “What if those people had reached out and took time to make a difference instead of taking time to collect a thousand bells, used-up stamps, or Duncan Phyfe tables and chairs?
“What if, instead of hoarding things, they had spent time with their families? Would they be remembered?”
When I started cleaning the lamp, I realized that it was homemade. Half as tall as I am, it was created from bits and pieces of other lamps and odds and ends. I imagined who had put it together. Was it a family that had placed it on their dresser and laughed together at the intriguing absurdness of it? And how it had ended up in a barn covered with dust?
Today, we were selling at a flea market. A lady bought my huge orange lamp. It was clean now. It WAS funky. And I was seventy bucks richer. We’re happy to make extra cash here and there from people’s old things, but, each time we buy or sell, a silent reminder tells me to remember the lessons this business is teaching me: Life is not forever, but you WILL survive on. We must make sure that we don’t only work for what we can’t take. And, let me tell you, that cuts out a lot of stuff. Fuzzy old lamps aren’t on God’s list of treasures that can be transported to heaven. You may be surprised to consider that family photos and heirlooms certainly aren’t, either. Anything that you can hold in your hand will be torn away from you. It’s the invisible, yet unshakable things you are allowed to bring. It’s the intangible, yet very real profits of deeds and faith and love. This is what you can gain. And keep. Forever.
McKennaugh, age 17, has never been in a classroom and she’s proud of it. Homeschooled in the mountains of rural Pennsylvania, you can often find her following an ovenbird that’s slipping among the trees, leaping into the freezing water of Rock Run, or stowed away in a corner with her typewriter as she records her adventures, imagination, and beliefs. You can contact her at email@example.com or let her know what you think about her work for Homeschooling Teen by leaving a comment at homeschoolingteen.com/category/laughter-tears-and-our-teen-years.