It begins in the early 1980s, when John bought a king-sized, goose down pillow at a farm auction in southern Minnesota.
Farm auctions were a thrill if you weren’t related to the family whose century-old homestead was on the block. Picnic tables and folding chairs filled barnyards and local folks sold barbecued chicken, iced tea, potato salad, and lemon cake. In the years John was bidding on boxes of household goods from old family farms on the Midwestern prairie, I was in western New York, waving fans marked with my number.
The last quarter of the twentieth century was not kind to Allegany (that's how they spell it) County, New York. Its dairy industry could not survive the needs of the market, and there were no other industries. As grandparents died or were moved to rest homes, families sold farms to bed-and-breakfast aspirants or the Amish.
These far-western New York auctions were not attended by dealers from Manhattan: Allegany County is a long, mostly dull, eight-hour drive from the City. Therefore, there was little or no competition for items useless to farm survival, but wildly hip in the City, such as vintage clothing.
In the summer of 1985, staying, as always, in Nana's Cuba Lake cottage, we followed signs to an auction in the nearby county seat of Belmont, population 950.
The auction was sited at the farmhouse where the recently deceased Miss Elizabeth Kinney had lived since her birth in 1888. Miss Kinney’s adult life, as the auction program informed us, had focused on her job at the Bank of Belmont, and her volunteer work with Belmont charities.
We arrived before the noon start, registered, and wandered over to the preview. Miss Kinney had seemingly divested of nothing and neither had her parents. The well-kept possessions dating back to the town’s founding in 1853 included tools, farm implements, dishes, glassware, kitchen supplies, garden ornaments, framed pictures, furniture, jewelry, books — and a vast wardrobe of Miss Kinney’s clothing.
The styles ranged from 1908, when she was 20, and ended in mid-1950s. The chic suits were hand-tailored. The dresses were of silk and jersey, cotton and wool; they had matching belts and wide collars. Miss Kinney was an accomplished seamstress and a fashionista: the lot came with an album of illustrations she had cut from magazines to inspire her hand-made patterns.
I tried on a blouse — a silky shell Ann Southern might have worn in “Private Secretary.” The fit was perfect. My heart raced. I avoided eye contact with the other potential bidders and feigned disdain.
Good auctioneers are brilliant performers, and the boss and crew at Miss Kinney’s was an all-star cast: the drama of the sidemen’s shouts for bids, the rejection of an object in the queue as the auctioneer senses the mood of the crowd, the quick judgment that a bread box is hot and a rocking chair is cold. Move it along, fan the fever.
The afternoon became increasingly hot and muggy. My son and his stepfather lost interest. I said I couldn’t leave. They said they could.
“Give me your cash,” I said.
Three hours later, only the clothes remained. The auctioneer held up a wool coat with a velvet collar, satin-lined, covered buttons, a stunner. He opened at $50. I sighed. Not in my budget.
No bids. He dropped to $25, then $10, then $5. I raised my number. I was unchallenged.
I had a coat.
The auctioneer changed strategies. He waved his arms directing his crew to gather up the clothes.
“$100,” he said, “One hundred and go.”
No bids. He dropped to $50. Silence.
He pointed at me. “$5 and go?” I nodded.
When Ewing and Max returned, they packed the car with Miss Kinney’s 107 pieces: dresses, coats, nightgowns, suits, jackets, shoes, belts, and gloves.
Home at the cabin, I staged a fashion show of my purchases. As I studied the individual pieces, the life of their creator took shape: Miss Elizabeth Kinney’s dreams, her modesty, her vanities, her humor, her elegance.
Over the decades since that summer, I have worn the pieces until they fell apart, like a beloved pink chenille bathrobe, its closely fitted silhouette capped with 1940s shoulder pads. I gave away a number of rockabilly housedresses. I sold an evening gown with a beaded décolletage (where had she worn it? Did she have a suitor?). I donated the shoes.
Today, all that remains is a turquoise felt “Mexican” jacket appliquéd with bananas, donkeys and sombreros. I don’t wear it often, but I keep it visible, in memory of Miss Kinney, she of impeccable, adventurous taste, the patron saint of my closet.
Now… where had I intended to go with this story? The king-sized down pillow? Oh yes, John’s auction purchase, which, on Monday, was in serious need of a washing.
I tossed it in the machine with a couple of towels and some tee shirts.
The thin cotton covering -- not ticking -- chose that moment to go to glory. The washing cycle finished, I opened the machine to a bushel of goose feathers — everywhere, on everything, embedded in the toweling, permanently driven into the tee shirts, plugged into every open surface of the machine’s interior, and, as I tried to move the mess, all over the laundry room floor.
I gave up and went to the office. In the late afternoon, when I left work and headed west, it became necessary to cross Main Street at a critical CalTrans construction moment.
“We’ve just resurfaced,” the traffic control woman warned. I roared through.
Driving down our lane, I heard the gravel sticking to my tires.
John greeted me in the yard.
“How was your day?”
“Not bad,” I said, “considering I was tarred and feathered.”