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My sisters in Minnesota are having rummage sales this weekend. They live across the street from one another in a small town, so shoppers can walk back and forth between their yards and garages: a two-for-one rummaging opportunity. If I was there—which I’m not, because I live in Arizona—I’d be sitting in a lawn chair tossing quarters into a coffee can, making change for dollar bills, cackling with my sisters, and waiting for my parents to stop by with lunch from Burger King.
This reminds me of the Great Rummage Sale Disaster of 1978. We lived in Bemidji, Minnesota, and our house had a barn instead of a garage—an oddity, since we lived in town. Our barn was rectangular instead of square, with many huge gates that opened onto our yard; it was actually a livery stable. You would expect horse-drawn carriages to come clopping down the alley and into the barn, but that never happened. We just had rummage sales in there.
One summer day, my older sister Mary was helping our mom run yet another sale. This one was a two-day event and huge: clothes that five children had outgrown all hanging on racks, old camping gear we never used anymore, books that had been read, silverware and jewelry and knick-knacks everywhere. Our picnic table outside was stacked with old dishes and dolls.
Toward the end of the second day when most of our stuff was gone, Mary made a dreadful, dreadful error: Someone came up to her and asked to buy my mother’s tablecloth, which was neatly laid over one of the tables inside the barn. So many items had been sold that the tablecloth’s charms were finally visible: It was reversible, with a Happy Birthday motif on one side and a Christmas motif on the other. It was made of thick, soft vinyl—easy to wipe down after seven people spilled on it—and it had been in our family for years. On our birthdays, we would always get up in the morning to see the kitchen table covered with the Happy Birthday tablecloth—my mother made sure of that. During the holidays, the tablecloth would emerge again: old-fashioned Santas and reindeer soaring across the vinyl, holly and Christmas ornaments and colorful wrapped presents spilling everywhere. It would be on the table for weeks.
With my mother inside the house making dinner, Mary sold the reversible tablecloth for fifty cents. For whatever reason, she had forgotten or somehow never recognized the fact that this was a family heirloom and one our mother’s most prized possessions. Upon discovering Mary’s mistake, our mother was frantic. She put an ad in the paper offering a reward; she posted signs on telephone poles in our neighborhood. She even went on the radio during the local Swap and Shop program, my shy mother, begging for the tablecloth’s return.
We never saw it again.
My sister was devastated over our mother’s devastation; she would have gladly moved into the barn and lived there for the rest of her high school years if it would have helped facilitate my mother’s recovery. But there was nothing to be done except to endure a noticeably reduced level of joy during the next several birthdays in our house, and a toned-down Christmas or two as we all got used to less cheer coming from our round oak table.
This is an old story; my sister’s apologies and my mother’s forgiveness are now just facts of our lives. Hopefully the reversible tablecloth is either still in good use, or in a fitting grave. The loss of that tablecloth introduced a new era in our family—placemats—and we’ve been a placemat family ever since.
My parents still have that same round oak table, which is now two inches thinner than it was back in 1978 because Mary and I accidentally started a fire on it during the Great Candle Disaster of Christmas ’94. We all survived, and my parents had the table shaved down. You can only see a small burn spot in the middle now instead of a fire pit. Sorry about that.
If anybody finds the thick, sturdy, reversible holiday tablecloth that warmed my mother’s heart in ways a kitchen fire never could, please get in touch. I know a few people whose hearts would soar to see it.