Back in our early days of garage sale shopping, we had a holiday experience that was so unique that even years later, when this season rolls around, we still talk about it.
It was early on a bright winter day, and we were driving around looking for sales. We were in the once extremely wealthy Deal area. The neighborhood had been on the decline for years; now it was coming back. People were buying the tired, old homes and returning them to their former elegance.
We spotted the little, hand-lettered sign as we turned off Ocean Avenue that said, “Yard Sale Today.” We parked in front of a big, red brick house with a green tile roof. On the front porch sitting on a rickety wooden rocker, smoking a cigarette, was an 80-something-year-old man with a rather befuddled expression on his face. All bundled up on a sunny December morning, he was sporting a plaid overcoat and a worn paisley scarf, and he had a red hunter’s cap pulled down over his ears. We went over to chat a bit and maybe have a look at his stuff.
The man really didn’t have a lot for sale, mostly used household goods, some hand tools and a big pile of ancient wooden Venetian blinds. There were some beautifully embroidered, but stained and faded, velvet draperies; a few leather-bound books; some nice old prints in frames and some Oriental rugs – not much else. Everything he had was of the best quality, but nothing appeared to be any newer than from around the mid-1950s. When we asked him about that, he reluctantly replied, “Well we always bought the best so we really never had to replace anything, then when we lost our little girl, the whole family just sort of became disinterested.”
At first hesitant, then more readily, he told us his story: The family was from northern New Jersey, and it had consisted of the old man we were talking with, his two sisters, and the older sister’s husband, who had been a bookkeeper in a downtown department store. All of them lived together in a big house in the Italian section of Newark but spent summers and every Christmas holiday “down the shore” in this, their vacation home. Along with their father, a doctor who was born and educated in Italy but practiced here in the U.S., they had purchased it back during the “Second War” when elegant old places like this could be “bought for a song.”
The little girl he was referring to was his older sister’s much-adored 10-year-old child, who had lived with them all and was killed one night during Christmas vacation in the late 1950s.
On Christmas day, just before the sun went down, she had gone for a short ride on her brand new two-wheeler – and never returned. The police found her body by the side of the road under the mangled bicycle; she had been the victim of a hit and run. The family was devastated.
The man and his younger sister had always been single, and the older sister didn’t marry until later in life, so the family never thought there’d be any children. They were all surprised and delighted when their older sister announced that she was pregnant.
The whole family cherished the unexpected little heir. Each of them had established an exceptional relationship with her, and each thought that they were her favorite. Upon her they had heaped their immeasurable love, and from her they expected greatness.
After the funeral, the heartsick family gave up their big house in Newark, the old doctor abandoned his practice in the city, and they all moved into the shore house permanently. Tearfully they cleaned everything in the child’s bedroom, locked the door, and except for an occasional dusting, never touched any of it again.
The others were all gone. The last of them, the man’s younger sister, had died in June, and now he was alone. He was moving to a small studio apartment in a retirement community, and he found himself stranded with a house full of things he couldn’t take care of. The house and some furnishings were finally sold to some New Yorkers for almost $2 million dollars. The new owners were insisting that he dispose of everything that they hadn’t agreed to buy, but he was a frugal old bird and just couldn’t see throwing away all that “useful stuff.”
As the old man spoke, we took a closer look at the things he was selling. There wasn’t that much; what we were really interested in seeing was the inside of the house. We were surprised when he asked if we’d like to have a look at the little girl’s room. We thought it would be so personal, so private, that he would never let anyone near it. When we asked why he was allowing us, perfect strangers, to peer into his private past, he said, “It really doesn’t matter anymore. She’s never coming back. The house is sold. I’m moving away. It’s all over now.”
We followed him into the house and upstairs. As he unlocked the door to a large “L” shaped bedroom, he said sadly, “This was her first big girl room. She had just moved up here the summer before.”
There was some basic hand-me-down furniture: a single bed with a worn-out teddy bear on a faded, pink coverlet; a small, brown and white night table; and against the wall an 1890s oak dresser with a mirror attached. On a well-used desk was a colorfully decorated tin candy box filled with crayons and pencils, next to a neat stack of Christmas cards and some un-touched 1950s toys and a few picture books. Just beneath one of the pink, curtained windows were two dolls in tiny chairs sitting by a small table with a miniature tea set. On the dresser was a silver plated, green and black enamel brush, comb and mirror in the Art Deco style; some bobby pins and plastic barrettes; and a pink, leatherette jewelry box with a little ballerina on top. Everything in the room was covered in a fine layer of dust.
We immediately recognized the little brown and white night table as the work of the French Art Deco furniture maker Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. Typical of his work, it was finished in lacquer with a geometric mosaic inlay of natural eggshell and ivory. It was made in France in the 1930s and was still in pretty good condition. It’s worth a fortune, but it doesn’t look like much, so it wasn’t surprising that the new buyers didn’t spot it for the important piece of furniture that it really is. They simply left it for the old man to throw away.
We bought the Ruhlmann cabinet and some other things that day, and we made sure that we got a detailed, paid-in-full receipt. We thanked the old man, said goodbye and promised to come visit him once he was settled into his new place.
The talky exuberance, which should follow a great find, was absent that sunny winter morning as we pulled away from the house. We kept glancing at each other but couldn’t bring ourselves to speak. After a few blocks of driving, we began to understand why. We had gotten the chance to peer into the private sadness of an old man’s life; it had been shut down and emptied by a hit-and-run driver decades ago. But he would never stop loving his family’s long-lost child. He would spend his whole life wondering, after all the years of change in the world, what the little girl’s future would have held had her life not been taken as it was just beginning. We were overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. There was simply nothing that either of us could think of to say.