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When smiling and walking away is its own treasure

Poking around at Jacksonville's citywide yard sale last weekend, I couldn't help thinking of my mom. And remembering ghosts from my childhood.

Mom could spot a hand-painted yard sale sign a quarter-mile off. And she invariably wanted to stop at every single sale. Even if it meant being late for an appointment, or a party. Bargain hunting was in her blood.

Mom volunteered at a charity thrift shop for decades. A veteran at poking through mountains of junk to find hidden treasures, her practiced hand would sweep over piles of donated costume jewelry, plucking out the pieces likely to be resold for a buck or two to benefit the nonprofit clinic she supported.

For her own enjoyment, Mom loved sifting through boxes of dog-eared paperbacks. She'd crow with delight if a favored author was unearthed. Historical romance novels by Georgette Heyer and Patricia Veryan were particular favorites.

"Look! I don't think I've read this one," she'd say.

She'd read them all. But she might have forgotten a few pages of dialogue in the intervening years.

I, too, have a fondness for collecting things that have been previously loved. And I inherited Mom's taste for bargains. But I am not a good barterer. In fact, I detest haggling. I don't even like to hear it happening around me.

Yes, I know. I am a fiscal wienie. And I am mocked for my hen-heartedness.

"Don't be a sucker. You're supposed to barter. It's expected," people say.

Maybe so. But telling folks I don't want to pay what they are asking for their goods makes me squinchy. I'd rather smile and walk away.

A few weeks ago, I spied a yard sale sign about a mile down from my place. On a whim, I headed up the driveway. The tables were full of my favorite things — old kitchen utensils, vintage cookbooks and aged tin boxes. I popped open my wallet and cheerfully plunked out cash for as many items as my arms could hold.

On the way back to my car, I spied a weathered red leather box sitting on the grass. It looked vaguely familiar. I lifted the lid and there it was — my baby accordion. Its ivory keys were splayed and peeling. The bellows, albeit dry, were covered in a dusty film. Several moldy holes were visible. The price tag said $45.

On Dec. 30, 2005, the Rogue River flood rose up from its banks and flooded my cottage's basement, destroying box after box of family treasures. After the waters receded, I sifted through the wreckage. In the midst of the soggy mess was a red leather case containing my old child-sized accordion. The case rained buckets when I picked it up. The mini instrument's bellows were covered in muck. Its keyboard already had a sticky film covering it. Reluctantly, I figured it for a goner and set it out by the highway in the "free for the taking" pile at the end of the day.

Like the fans, vacuum cleaner and other assorted soggy wares I set up on the roadside, the squeezebox was gone by the next morning.

Staring in surprise at my old instrument, I briefly thought about telling the yard-salers its sad tale. The poor thing had survived my childhood poundings unscathed. Schlepped to Oregon in the back of a truck in 1999, it lay buried and forgotten in a dark basement while I started a new life. A few years later the pint-sized accordion almost washed away as flood waters swirled. Plucked from the murky depths, perhaps the gasping music maker might have been saved had it been immediately lovingly restored, rather than cruelly abandoned like roadkill.

Battered but unbowed, the little accordion stared up at me, daring me to make an offer.

No question this was a finders-keepers situation. The instrument was now the property of the yard-salers. But I was unwilling to pay $45 for something that was once mine. And that left haggling. Ugh. No way.

I briefly considered sharing the bedraggled accordion's torturous tale in hopes the new owners might opt to give it back. But that option seemed whiney — which is even worse than haggling. Besides, I couldn't afford an expensive restoration even if they were so magnanimous.

Truth be told, I was terrible at playing the accordion. Turns out I'm more of a guitar gal. So I knelt down, gently touching one warped key and said goodbye. "I hope someone buys you and fixes you all up," I whispered.

Then I smiled and walked away.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.