Life’s half-off sale

Poll+Apple+for+TeacherWell, I’m back from Wisconsin. It was an emotional trip this time… because apparently, Murphy thought I needed blog material. So let start with Saturday-Sucked part 1: Life’s half-off sale.

I love finding treasures among the stacks—antique stores, strange little second-hand shops, estate sales, etc. I blame my mother for this. I grew up going to every little out of the way stop she could find, and still giggle knowing her habit of slamming on the breaks to check out a country garage sale or out of the way antique store.

And I blame her for this blog entry.

Saturday, mom said there was an estate sale. She was told it was for a photographer/professor. Bob and I looked at each other, imagining the books that may be there, and gleefully agreed to go check it out with her. We all hopped in the car and headed into town to find treasures.

Now, as I said, I love estate sales. Everything but the kitchen sink, and sometimes even those, are tagged for clearance. You can find books and dishes and furniture, antiques and games and even dice. But I generally run into a problem at them—because I’m a sentimental pansy. At some point during every estate sale, I see something with a price tag on it that just shouldn’t be for sale. Something that rings of history with personal value. Something that smells like a family heirloom an unknowing relative has put out for sale. Something that just should not be sold for any amount, because it has intrinsic value rather than commercial.

This maudlin moment generally comes with an overwhelming sadness, as I realize I’m walking through someone’s life. This person spent a lifetime collecting these items, and their family has put a price tag on everything important, trivial, hand picked, purchased on vacation, etc. It’s depressing and kills the treasure hunting bug in me. The feeling then twists into something morbid and I wonder what my estate sale will look like. What will they put a price tag on that they shouldn’t. What item should be passed along to my grandchild, but will instead be marked $3… half-off tomorrow?

That moment struck me when I saw the wedding veil for $15. Something in me twisted and cracked and the fun became sadness. I continued to walk through the house, but there was a cloud over me now. I went to the basement and saw tools and old jars and boxes of photographs and the dark room. I found Bob and we briefly discussed our belief that the deceased may have been a writer due to telltale items on his bookshelves, and questioned whether the family knew the value of the antique photography equipment or not.

And then I saw a table completely covered with photos of nature and still shots, in both color and black and white. Above the table was an 8×10 glossy “Photography of Richard Leighty.”


I froze. My stomach flipped. My mouth went dry. Tears threatened my mascara.

Bob asked if I was okay. I wasn’t. I was speechless. I think I may have shook my head and mumbled something to let him know that I thought this was my English teacher’s house. And I darted up the stairs to find the girl at the cash register.

Happy and bubbly, she talked to everyone as she took their cash and gave away her loved one’s memories. I stood in front of her for a moment unable to form words. My mom, at a nearby bookshelf, gave me a questioning look. I finally popped the shock-bubble in my voice box and asked the girl, “Is this Richard Leighty the high school English teacher?”

“Yes it is.”

A flush of emotion ran through me that I could not control and my eyes watered up.

“Is he…. gone?” I cringed, afraid of the answer. Afraid that one of the most amazing teachers in existence was no longer in existence.

“Oh no, he’s in assisted living.”

I may never be able to explain the cool spread of relief that met with a renewed anger at his memories being sold. I talked to the girl for a few moments about him. Mom and I rehashed classroom memories (she had him years before I did). Bob came up from the basement to tell us  another student of Leighty’s was talking to him downstairs and telling him how great this guy was.

And I looked at the book in my hand that I had pulled from a shelf before my discovery. A book of poetry from one of my favorite inspirational teachers suddenly had much more value than the $2 written on the inside cover. I looked around the house with different eyes. I handed it to Bob for checkout and talked to mom for a moment. Then I basically ran from the house for fresh air.

We talked about him all the way back to mom’s. We told Bob what kind of man he was, and what kind of teacher he was, and I relived some of my favorite high school moments. Mom talked about treasure hunting and how, while it may be morbid, she enjoys it more when she knows who it belonged to. I wasn’t sure I agreed with that.

I had two amazing English teachers—one that sharpened the pencil and one that beat me with a red pen. They are absolutely part of the reason that I do what I do. I’ve talked about them before and I’m sure I will for years to come. After much talk and consoling, I remembered that people get old. People die. But memories don’t. My closing comment on the thought was a very serious, “He needs to stay with us long enough to get a copy of my novel.” And we went back Sunday morning for the half-off sale—I needed to get his address, so I could send him a copy of the novel when it comes out.

We went back that morning, and with a bit of depression I looked through the house again. I got an 8×10 dragonfly photo he’d done, a coffee cup from his kitchen that says “those who can, teach”, and his copy of The Exorcist. Because it was his copy.

And I snagged his old wire-rim glasses.

After all, he had looked at me over their edge, repeatedly, as he beat me into what I am. They may not have enough value for the family, but they are full of memories for me. And they deserve a place on my bookshelf…

5 thoughts on “Life’s half-off sale”

  1. Jeff Prettyman says:

    I apologize in advance for the length of this post. Trust me, it easily could have been much longer; like the movie will be.
    George Carlin had a famous routine about how we spend our whole lives collecting “stuff” and how, when we go on vacation, we take a smaller version with us-only our very best “stuff”. Moving a loved one from a house where they have raised a family and may well have spent their entire adult life, as in my grandfather’s case, into an assisted living facility is a melancholy exercise in stuff dispersal. After someone has lived in one home for over forty years there is an overabundance of stuff.
    About ten years ago I helped my grandfather sort through his belongings and figure out what would make the trek from his ten room house to his four room apartment. It is a difficult task, made more so when the person you are assisting is the sentimental fool’s sentimental fool. Everything, it seemed, came with a story of who gave it to he and my grandmother, or what trip they bought it on, or how long and hard they saved to be able to afford it. Most of the day went like this:
    “Jeffrey, I want you and your boys to have my Mason’s ring and my pocket watches. Your grandmother gave me this watch on our first Christmas together.”
    “That’s awesome, DadDad. We’d be honored”.

    Or like this:
    “Jeffrey, do you know where your Nana and I got this bathroom mat?”
    “No, DadDad. Tell me where, then let’s throw it out. The bottom is all mildewy.”
    “I guess you’re right. It’s just a bathmat.”
    And then he would continue to gaze lovingly upon the bathmat, pot holder or other object, of which I could see no possible monetary or sentimental value, for a few more moments, before giving his blessing of finality, “Okay. Pitch it.”
    It’s impossible, no matter how close you are to the person who is tasked with getting rid of what they have spent their whole life accumulating, to know just what they are feeling at that moment. Do you know the feeling you get when you find a favorite, old toy at a parent’s house that you haven’t seen, or even thought about, in years? For a moment you just feel completely transported to that time and can feel exactly the way you felt holding that toy as an eight year old. I’m pretty sure that is what my grandfather was feeling that day and in the days leading up as he was filling boxes with his life. Moving day to “Morningside House” was a strange brew of laughter, compromise, teary-eyed memories and more than a little cajoling.
    This estate sale was also for a writer and teacher. My grandfather lived in North East, Md., where he was a teacher (grade school, high school and community college), lay minister, and school administrator. He authored a long running column, “Rural Ramblins”, for the local paper, too. Dude was a rock star in tiny Cecil County. I couldn’t go anywhere with him without meeting somebody who he taught and whose parents he also taught or a person who owed a debt of gratitude to him in some fashion. Any of those folks who he gave something to when he moved, or who bought something at his estate sale, were delighted to have a piece of his life to call their own. A physical memory. And their appreciation made him happy, too. Not a bad thing.
    In regards to your Mr. Leighty, I bet he is wearing an exact replica of the glasses you purchased right now and that somewhere a child or grandchild of his has yet another pair sitting on their mantle.

    Editor’s Note:
    The entire process was repeated on a lesser scale three years later when the family realized his savings was running low and he apparently had zero interest in dying, although by now he was in his early nineties, certainly a respectable dying age. So we moved him down one floor and over three apartments from his two bedroom unit into one with a single bedroom. And again he had to rate the importance of his stuff by necessity, financial value and emotional attachment. And again there was more dispersal.

  2. Obviously I can understand the depressing and morbid connotations to your visit to your old teacher’s estate sale, but man… from another perspective, I am so jealous. I, like yourself and probably everyone else on the face of the Earth, have a small handful of people without whom I would not be even a pale shade of who I am today. Some of them I even respect and admire! I envy you for the chance you got to take away a piece of your influential mentor; I may never have that chance. I can think of at least two teachers I had back in the day… hell, I’d probably pay a hundred bucks for their last toilet paper tube, just to have something of theirs.

    I hope my outlook dulls the depression for you a little bit. Lord knows there’s enough other things to get dark and doomy about!

  3. Susan Scofield says:

    I love this one. It touched me profoundly. I am so very very glad you went back and got some things that represent who he is to you and will inspire the memory of him in your work. <3

  4. Kelli, I should have made this comment BEFORE I linked to your blog of course, but I just wanted to let you know how helpful this post was to me. Having read through your blog more thoroughly, it is clear what a fantastic funny insightful writer you are and I look forward to enjoying many more posts by you.

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