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On Doilies and Meatgrinders

Have you ever noticed how Humboldt Boulevard becomes Rummage Lane in the opening weeks of summer? As I was driving between North Avenue and Kern Park on the first weekend in June, I counted signs for 11 different yard sales. Some were “Huge Yard Sales,” some said “Everything must go!” and some just said “Rummage,” but all were pointing to what has become a rite of this changing season. Time to clear out the old, make room for the new. I think back to last year when I stopped at a sign on Humboldt Blvd. that announced an estate sale at a very ordinary duplex on the west side of the street, just south of Gordon Park. “Monday and Tuesday only,” it said. It was Tuesday, so I was in luck. Who knows what bargains I might find? It is one thing to look through miscellaneous household goods that are set out on someone’s front lawn or in their driveway, but quite another to browse inside the house of someone who is absent, presumably because of some definitive development in their life. As I wandered through the rooms of that estate sale, I had the vague sense of being a vulture. I had no connection to the people who had lived there and yet I was now nosing into the closets where they’d hung their clothes, rummaging in what had been their pantry, and sorting through sheets that they had slept in. I had the image of myself with the other shoppers being a flock of scavengers picking over the remains of another human being. Creepy. To see the contents of a person’s entire household is to learn a great deal. The woman who had lived in the house was being exposed in ways that led to a peculiar intimacy. I know she was frugal: she mended her sheets. I know she was Catholic: she decorated her walls with prints of Mary and cooked out of a recipe book from the ladies of St. Mary of Czestochowa parish. I know there were children in her life: in the attic I found a hand-built doll house with shingles made from tongue depressors, and in what was once the dining room there was a small framed cross-stitching that said “To Grandma with love.” That really touched my heart. There were many, many stories hidden within that estate sale. I was a voyeur looking through a tiny window at a woman’s life. There was really very little that I wanted to buy. I spent less than ten dollars. I did find my treasure, though. For 75 cents I bought a pair of small round doilies that were crocheted by hand. It’s hard to imagine a time when women actually sat around to do hand work like that. Those doilies are antiques, remnants of a by-gone era. Which leads me to look back on that Humboldt estate sale as an anthropologist. What I sorted through that day was not just the contents of one woman’s household, but the inventory of a largely by-gone way of life. That estate sale was like a museum exhibit. It could have been titled “Ordinary Life in Riverwest in the Mid-twentieth Century.” For example, there was a meat grinder, certainly a tool that has gone out of fashion now. The new people who would move into that duplex would more likely have a microwave than a meat grinder. They’ll have a very different lifestyle from the former occupants of the house. They won’t be interested in those pint-size jelly jars; they won’t appreciate the intricacies of a pressure cooker; they won’t consider fixing their own shoes, and they surely will not take the time to mend their own sheets. But I do expect that they will appreciate the condition of the house. Beyond the assorted tools and artifacts that were on display, that household on Humboldt represented a culture of careful housekeeping. The woodwork had been polished and cared for over the years, the rooms painted, the floors mopped, the shelving wiped, the stairs swept. The legacy of good housekeeping was everywhere apparent as I meandered through the rooms. The people who had lived in that house hadn’t had a lot of money but they obviously had put a high priority on maintaining their personal living space. Maybe they came from a country where they had very little and they felt proud to have their own house. I don’t know. What I do know is that the culture of plain, old-fashioned good housekeeping is a legacy of this neighborhood. It accounts for the good condition of much of our present housing stock. I salute those Humboldt Boulevard householders, whoever they were.