The clam steamer that started our odyssey.
My uncle is dying and he's central in my mind as George and I board the bus for FedEx.

A buyer purchased a vintage clam steamer with the provision I'd get it out right away. I ship quickly regardless, so I agreed to work a special trip into my schedule in order to unload it. I'm grateful for each sale, but anything that's languished too long--especially if it's large and expensive--generates fist-pumping glee, punctuated by a loud whoop.

George loves bus rides as much as I enjoy selling vintage kitchenwares. It's Ozone Action Day, meaning dangerous air quality and free rides on The Rapid. I tote the bulky package a few blocks to the bus stop. I would've taken my cart, but the parcel is too big to fit and I figure we don't have far to walk. As we approach my favorite FedEx along the river in downtown Grand Rapids, I feel anxious when the bus detours. I debate getting off, but figure it will come back, closer to its original route; instead, it goes farther, leaving us a half mile from our destination.

George at FedEx, in 2010. This time around, though, both boy
and package are much bigger.
But I'm a fast walker, even with the box. I juggle it hip to front, then back again, and consider putting it on my head. My arms beg relief but there's no time to rest--the pickup is in 10 minutes, and I must be on time. I foist it upon my son, who, though bigger by the day, barely sees over the wall of corrugated cardboard.

Point Roberts, Washington is an exclave. So was FedEx.
It's easy to cross roads when they're closed, so we arrive with minutes to spare. I'm thankful to be walking, big box notwithstanding; barricades block the street leading to FedEx, completely cutting it off from the rest of downtown unless approached from the opposite side of the river. Recently I sold an item to Point Roberts, Washington, a town on the tip of a peninsula that requires driving through Canada to reach. Fascinated, I googled. The phenomenon is called an exclave. But just as I begin to pity FedEx for losing business to this geographic oddity, I come to pity myself. FedEx appears ominously dark. A sign on the window reads "Closed for road construction, May 21-24." I round the corner anyway.

I'm not the swearing type, or my son would augment his vocabulary as I futilely try the door. I haven't cussed ever, a factoid that amazed my friend Tammy when I mentioned it the week before. Even so, I feel ill-used by the FedEx management that opted to shut down rather than endure Maytag Man boredom, leaving me with not the gloriously empty arms I had anticipated, but an oversized parcel I hardly know what to do with.

We pass restaurants hopping with dinner patrons on our return to the bus stop. I feel self-conscious whenever it's George's turn to carry the box, fearing they'll question my parental fitness. As much as I strive to save resources--both financial and natural--I question my decision to leave our Nissan garaged. But I promised the buyer I'd send the package today, and though I've already missed the 6:00 FedEx Ground pickup, I begrudgingly resolve to keep my word by upgrading the shipping and taking it to another location for the 8:00 Express. My free bus ride--in a situation I call "frugality gone awry"--will cost me dearly in additional shipping fees. I silently curse the clam steamer, failing to remember that--inconvenience and extra expense aside--my problems are not real problems, and my thrift saves an astonishing amount in the aggregate.

George and I finally divest ourselves of the parcel two and a half hours after leaving home. We wait at the bus stop again. And wait. And wait. The bus is late, and I feel desperate to be done.

George's first bus ride of the day.
Today it's far from his last.
But, as George and I sit in the grass, necks craned in the direction the bus will come from, I'm smacked with a blessing--the overwhelming feeling I have the best child in the world. One who has been on a staggering eight bus rides today sits next to me, quietly, with a gentle smile and supernatural patience, waiting for his ninth bus to take him home. Repenting for my bad attitude and a self-righteousness that deceived me into thinking only my words count, I try to practice the patience modeled by my autistic son. I pray for my uncle, and thank God for the strength and stamina to carry the box on our long walk, and that we no longer bear our burden.

Our journey has taken turns we didn't expect. And as I linger on the sidewalk, chatting up a neighbor who's mulching his flower beds, George hurries to his waiting father.

It is sweet to be home.

Dear Uncle Mark, may you, too, be surprised by blessing on the tough road you face, and cling to the truth that a loving heavenly father awaits.

And it is sweet to be home. It is sweet to be home.

Have you ever felt blessed when blessings seemed they should be farthest from your mind?

Swimming in Satisfaction

While many college students go for the Spring Break debauchery, a more wholesome activity drew me to the Sunshine State: a bassoon audition for the Florida Orchestra.

My school friends, future husband, and Bob,
who came to every school orchestra concert.
Having purchased a professional instrument a few years earlier, I struggled mightily. The Heckel bassoon's $18,500 price tag and its attendant monthly payments stretched me to the limit, even though a music scholarship covered all but room and board. As I scrounged for empty soda cans on my college campus, I often thought to be thankful I lived in Michigan, the only state with a ten-cent bottle deposit.

Being broke honed my resourcefulness. I invited my mom and grandma to Florida to share the cost of hotel and car rental, making the audition trip just barely within my limited means, while still allowing for minimal sightseeing.

Traveling side roads along Florida's coast, we passed sign after sign beckoning, Fresh Fish! Fresh Fish! "When we get to Key West," my mom and grandma resolved, "we'll order fresh fish!" They could not pass an eatery without reiterating their dream of consuming seafood straight from the Atlantic, creating a soundtrack for the veritable slideshow of restaurant signage.
Courtesy: Pleasant Bay Trading Company
Venice: "Fresh Fish!"

The Everglades: "Fresh Fish!"

Key Largo: "Fresh Fish!"

Marathon: "Fresh Fish! Fresh Fish!"

And finally, Key West.

Reluctant to leave my prized bassoon unattended in the car, I hauled it along as we wandered, Goldilocks-style, from restaurant to restaurant. One was too smoky; one, too loud; another, too expensive. Hungry, my mom and grandma settled upon a restaurant that was just right: an oceanside Burger King. In a striking display of irony, each ordered a BK Big Fish sandwich. I was appalled. They were satisfied.

I crashed and burned at the audition. I had dreamed of being a professional musician since 7th grade. I loved music, and practiced hard. Enjoying a fair amount of success, I scored, as an undergrad, positions in four part-time orchestras, besting graduate students from more prestigious music schools. But I coveted a full-time job that, in my mind, bespoke success.

At my first concert as a full-fledged professional musician,
an outdoor concert with the Omaha Symphony.
Taken by my mom, who drove from Michigan
to participate in the momentous occasion.
Having failed repeatedly, I rejoiced upon winning a spot with the Omaha Symphony. The "one year, may become permanent" status never felt tenuous; all my colleagues expressed confidence that my predecessor would remain in his cushy new post, as principal bassoonist with Sydney Symphony.

Months later, rumors swirled that he missed America. Yet, I had not properly steeled myself when the personnel manager approached me backstage with what he considered non-news: "I'm sure you've already heard that Roger is returning from Australia." I nodded, then hurried to a dressing room and sobbed.

Faced anew with the soul-crushing audition process, my husband and I crisscrossed the country. Bassoonists seem rare until you're on the audition circuit. I came close sometimes and felt I'd get another shot at my dreams.

My mom, niece, and son,
at home in Grand Rapids.
When we learned we were expecting a baby, my mom urged, "Come back home!" And we did. Flipping through the employment section of the International Musician that hit the mail slot of our new home each month, we opted to sit out audition after audition.

Phoenix? Too far.

Richmond? Too far.

Buffalo? Too far.

My hometown? Just right.

And I realized, babe in arms, delighting in the presence of family, what my elders realized at Key West's oceanfront Burger King:

Sometimes we bail on our dreams. And we're satisfied.

Angels Among Us

A derelict grocery store that for a short
time was an Eberhard's Food Center.
Our refrain attracted the attention of other shoppers at Eberhard's Food Center.

Whenever Eberhard's offered triple coupons, we piled into the Citation to score deals worthy of Extreme Couponing. My mom studied elementary education in college, and though she never held a teaching job, she applied creativity to educating us. Having learned to triple the discount and subtract the product from the item's price, my brother, sister, and I buzzed around the store, each with our own stack of coupons--in a way a modern parent never would allow--returning just long enough to ask, "Mom, is this cheap enough?" if we weren't sure. Items which weren't suitable bargains we conscientiously returned to their correct spots; she taught us math and price comparison while seamlessly integrating thoughtfulness into the curriculum.

This shelf of vintage food at a
Missouri estate sale
reminds me

of my mom's cupboard.
On these shopping sprees, we bought things normally anathema to the frugal: Fruit Roll-Ups, Cap'n Crunch, Gerber Baby Food (my mom favored vegetable and bacon--until someone decided bacon wasn't appropriate for babies and discontinued the flavor). She took practically anything if it was free or nearly so. The choicest treats we gobbled up within days, but some items which seemed so well-priced went into the cupboards, where they remain decades later.

I grew up eating 1950s Jell-O my mom
had purchased for next to nothing at an old
general store auction.
Broke as a college student, I employed creative means of feeding myself. The local Meijer store doubled coupons which I had rescued from the recycling Dumpster near my apartment, sometimes allowing me change back at checkout, to the befuddlement of the cashiers. My roommate--whose parents paid for her food-- felt squeamish about even the smallest bad spots in produce, donating her rejects to me. And when visiting home, I raided the pantry, which, though full of groceries long expired, offered sustenance I couldn't afford to turn up my nose at--things my mom was as happy to part with as I was to take. No stranger to old food, when we attended the estate auction for Dutton General Store, my mom bought a case of Jell-O. It was easily a quarter century old when we got it, yet it tasted as Jell-O should. Eventually we stopped eating it before we had finished it all; my mom deemed the remaining packages too collectible to consume. They're still buried in her cupboard somewhere.

There's a thin line between sanity and insanity, and sometimes my mom, when she shops, tiptoes over it. I forswore coupons several years ago. Since we shop at the local produce market, our own kitchen garden, or the salvage store an hour and a half away, I mostly avoid the temptation to collect groceries. I find thrift stores and garage sales problematic, though. It's easy to overbuy for Laura's Last Ditch. Attending a Voluntary Simplicity study group helped me control the impulse by hammering home that just because something's cheap doesn't mean I have to buy it. I'm constantly admonishing myself, "Leave it to bless someone else."

Kristi offers Halloween candy to George.
Our neighbor, Kristi, had a kind and gentle spirit and a dog to match. George loved to visit her in her lavender house with the fanciful stars on the door. Curious about the person who lived there, we met Kristi soon after moving in. We took to her immediately, and she to us. We visited Kristi and her sweet Saint Bernard often, learning that she loved vegetarian food, but could no longer cook for herself. So, when we made a pot of soup, a homemade pizza, or fresh flax and apple muffins, we'd share some. When the weather cooled, we'd leave it as a surprise on her front porch, earning us the moniker "food angels." Kristi possessed a special skill of engaging our autistic son in little conversations. He loved her, and we had ample reason to ponder, too, if there was an angel among us.
The flax and apple muffins were
Kristi's favorite.

It came about so slowly, we hardly realized it. We gradually saw less and less of Kristi, until one day, Lori, her caretaker, told us she no longer needed our food. Kristi was too ill to eat. Not long after, parked cars filled the street in front of her house, and we feared those closest to her had come for final goodbyes. The next day we learned she had passed away.

With Kristi's joie de vivre; she ordered pizza for her funeral. But Kristi had another surprise just for us. She bequeathed us the contents of her cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer--wonderful, expensive, and fun foods we would never, ever buy. If we were Kristi's food angels, it looked like she had dispatched a multitude of the heavenly host to fill our back porch. I doubt most people, as they're dying, give much thought to their neighbors or an over-full pantry, but she took care to bless us with her abundance.

On my mom's first shopping trip after marrying my dad, she bought a jar of Crosse & Blackwell mincemeat. Bearing a 35-cent price emblazoned in wax crayon indicating it was a markdown, she intended to make mincemeat cookies like Anna-Mae Kaiser's mom's, but never got around to it. While many of our favorite possessions we sold or gave away while preparing for our many moves, the mincemeat remained a constant through my childhood. A few years ago, my mom--as if to substantiate her sanity--attempted to throw out the 40-year-old mincemeat. Eating old Jell-O consisting of sugar, citric acid, flavors and colorants is one thing, but the mincemeat pie filling--its contents escaping the confines of the jar and drying on the label--she wouldn't risk. Yet, Becky and I intervened. Who says an heirloom has to be a rocking chair or a wedding ring?

My mom never filled us with mincemeat cookies, but she filled us with her love--and with her love of frugality, even if it was sometimes frugality gone awry. And in a final benediction some day, she may leave one of her children the mincemeat pie filling. But as for the rest of the food? She'll have to leave that to bless someone else, though only a movie set designer or museum curator could appreciate such a windfall.

Even though she failed to impart to us the importance of needing an item when considering if it's a good value, in teaching the values that matter most, she excelled. And with her kindness and generosity evident to all who know her, I'm sure some wonder if they have met an angel.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. -Hebrews 13:2

Real Deal Theo

The dirt parking lot--littered with derelict refrigerators, stoves, and washers--promises little. 

Theo's Appliances & Books near Grant, MI.
As I enter Theo's Used Appliances and Books, Theo himself rises from his easy chair, leaving remnants of a frozen dinner in front of his TV. I can't quite figure out if he lives here, but the makeshift kitchen and homey quarters carved from the shop's corner suggest the possibility. A thin layer of dust covers everything, and he appears surprised at my entry.

 I find a mix of newish appliances and nice vintage units, exceeding the low expectations set by the squat building flanked by overgrown arborvitae. "I don't spit-shine them," he declares, "or I'd need to charge another $100."

I wish I needed an appliance, because I want to buy from Theo. But he'll sell anything that isn't nailed down, he says, so I seek an item that might enrich both of us.
vintage swing a way can opener
Vintage Swing-A-Way can openers,
made in USA, available at
Laura's Last Ditch.
A book is out of the question--they occupy a single shelving unit in his improvised living room that I'd have to climb over him to reach. I spy an old made-in-USA Swing-A-Way can opener that would do for Laura's Last Ditch, but hardly dare inquire; with empty Chunky Soup cans filling a bin, I suspect he'd regret selling it.

As I near the exit, making a mental note to return when our iffy stove expires, I spot two retro box kite lamps. I assume they're knock-off vintage, but on closer inspection, the labels give them away as the real deal. Theo and I negotiate a price and he pulls change from his pocket--no cash register needed for this little hole-in-the-wall used appliance and book store.

I can't help but feel a kinship to Theo. We're a team, he and I, urging "Save and conserve!" while society bids "Waste and consume!" It can be lonely. Sometimes dust collects on my merchandise, too. But
Tsao Designs box kite lamps available
at Laura's Last Ditch.
Theo's Appliances and Books and Laura's Last Ditch Vintage Kitchenwares survive thanks to low overhead; the unpretentious demands of their owners; and customers who stumble into modest shops looking to save money, protect natural resources, or find the quality lacking in today's merchandise.

At home, I research the Tsao Designs box kite lamps but turn up nothing. Distinctive as they are, and by a designer that commands good prices, I aim for $190--enough to buy a range from Theo when the need arises. It'll be another deal, from the real deal.

Which business do you like to patronize that most people would overlook? Please leave a comment below!

Love, Unabridged

We had this same dictionary, full of
delightfully obscure words and colorful
lithographs.Courtesy: PeachyChicBoutique
Mom read to us daily when we were small, then set us free in the public library as soon as we were old enough.

We had a giant old tome, a Webster's Unabridged, on an oak dictionary stand an arm's reach from our dining room table. My brother and I often looked up words, leading us to wend the maze of its yellowed pages, then beckon anyone within earshot to share the delight of our choicest finds. My sister unwittingly coined words of her own, which she spoke with such authority, the other students--even the teachers--never thought to question them. And we read each evening from the King James Bible--the Authorized King James Version. Despite--or maybe because of--its antiquated words and syntax, we preferred the KJV to the comparatively sterile New International Version.

This phone is available at
Laura's Last Ditch.
I suppose my brother, sister, and I have always loved language.

It's hard to say how much of our character, our likes and dislikes, come from mothers. But I attribute my love of old stuff, quality stuff, and my penchant for selling it--not just my love of words--to my mom. Saturday afternoons as we'd listen on AM radio to the Bargain Corner--a sort of Craigslist of the air--my mom would drop whatever she was doing to call on our rotary phone about any antiques that seemed advantageously-priced. Many she resold quickly, either from ads in the newspaper or at an occasional flea market booth. One day she brought home a Victrola, to keep.
One day my mom brought a Victrola home.
She didn't know what she was getting herself
into. Courtesy: HartongInternational

Quaintly obsolete, the Victrola came equipped with records. Flipping through the stack of thick 78s, one short number on each side, few piqued the interest of youngsters, until we got to the Okeh Laughing Record.

The Okeh Laughing Record, produced in 1922, features a cornetist wailing a mournful tune. A woman chuckles softly, then louder. The cornetist, struggling to maintain composure, eventually abandons his lament to extravagant laughter. We'd play it when friends visited, laughing together until our sides hurt. Mom hated the record--loathed would not be too strong a word--likening it to an insane asylum.

We've all had favorite childhood belongings simply disappear. Perhaps parents get rid of them on the sly, as I did with my son's little doodad bag. Filled with treasures, Santa gave it to him at a Christmas party. George added to it little by little, until the sides of the felt bag thinned, aburst from the strain. Not only did I weary of the bag's contents strewn throughout the living room, but I flinched as he carried the ratty thing in public, everywhere he went. One day it had an "accident."

I marvel that the Okeh Laughing Record didn't realize a similar fate. But my mom, having a certain respect for anything old, instead of smashing it, simply forbade us listen to it. The Okeh Laughing Record mocked us from inside the storage cabinet, until the Victrola and its accompanying record collection fell victim to our move.

Our little bungalow. We couldn't possibly
fit all my mom's antique furniture into it.
We downsized from a two-story, four-bedroom house to a tiny two-bedroom bungalow. And before we found the two-bedroom, we looked at a handful of used RVs and campgrounds. Not knowing where we'd go or how much space we'd have, little in our house escaped being slapped with a price tag. The day of our big moving sale, my giddiness at conducting the sale tempered any sadness from parting with my belongings. The consummate saleswoman, my mom had eager buyers queued outside our front door well before opening. Vulture-like, they snatched up her antiques and our everyday belongings. I relished assisting her: taking money, answering questions, and, once I grew weary, closing my bedroom door to rest, reflecting that my spoon-carved antique bed had already sold, and this could be the last time I'd use it.

My mom, with a fastidiousness she failed to impart to me, had recorded her furniture purchases in a repurposed address book, noting not only their sale prices, but where she bought them and to whom they were sold. In nearly every case, she profited handily. This was the magic of antiques: not only could she enjoy beauty and superior quality, but having chosen judiciously, she made money when the time came to pass them along.

She still owns the address book. When I stumbled upon it a few years ago, it rekindled memories long dormant: an auction at a country schoolhouse where we played on the ancient seesaw; the friends with whom we abused our piano; my mom loading furniture into the back of our pickup truck to take to the parking lot of the Auction House, knowing, with large for sale signs attached and the right demographic sharing the lot, the truck would return home empty, without the furniture ever suffering the indignity of the auction block. My mom is creative--creative and bold in a way that at once humiliated her children while garnering amazement and pride at her resourcefulness.

I never needed the old address book to remember the Okeh Laughing Record, though. As soon as my brother and I could visit antiques shops on our own, we'd thumb through stacks of old 78s, hoping to find another. We never did.

When I see a Tupperware Fix'N'Mix bowl, I think of the Spelling Bee.
Two years after our big move, I entered the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee. I excelled, winning my classroom contest, followed by my school's, then the regional Bee. I learned every word in the book, practicing until it seemed impossible to err. My mom cut the book into strips, paper linguine for the giant yellow Tupperware Fix 'N' Mix bowl. We'd sit on her bed evenings; she'd read a word and its definition from the bowl, I'd spell it.

On the big night of the contest that would determine who'd compete in the nation's capital, the reader mispronounced a word, making its first two syllables identical to the next entry alphabetically on the list. I began to spell the wrong word, realizing my error too late. Instead of first place and a trip to DC, I settled for third, winning a dictionary and a savings bond. The rules state that the speller may ask the word reader to give a definition. Had I done so, I wouldn't have flubbed--at least not until they moved from the official word list to the dictionary. I knew the definitions as well as I knew the spellings.
Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt, the comedians
responsible for the Okeh Laughing Record.
Courtesy: Landesarchiv Baden-Wurttemberg.

I've had plenty of time to forget the words; few truly proved useful.Cachinnate, though, stands as a notable exception. When I learned its meaning, "to laugh raucously," I immediately recalled the Okeh Laughing Record, ruing that I didn't own the word while we still owned the album.

A few years ago, at my sister's New Year's Eve party, we reminisced about the record. Ironically, I couldn't recall its spelling--Okey? Okee? O'Keefe?--but that didn't stop me from tripping downstairs to google it. My joy at finding the recording on YouTube--eclipsed only by the shared glee of hearing it with nieces and nephew--was quashed once again, as the very matriarch who bought the record to begin with, who taught me the word cachinnate from yellow Tupperware, resumed her decades-old protest that it sounded like an insane asylum.

I might wonder about anyone who can listen to the Okeh Laughing Record with a straight face. But even if she was a killjoy when it came to our favorite record, my mom showed us her love in myriad ways--not least, helping with Spelling Bee words night after night after night, so I hardly begrudge her refusal to cachinnate with us. Since my autistic son, too, maintained a stoic face when I played it for him, it's fortunate love transcends laughter.
A family Bible, in my shop, Laura's Last Ditch.

I hope, if George knows what happened to his little doodad bag, that he'll forgive me, too, for killing his joy; sometimes a mother's fragile sanity trumps a child's fancy. And I hope, as I sit next to him on his bed, reading his bedtime stories and his NIV Bible--devoid as it is of the KJV's poetry and delightful turns of phrase--that he knows that not only does God love him, but I love him, just as my mom loved me--despite the times I drove her crazy. I hope he knows, even though his language skills are years behind, his reading rudimentary, his spelling skills practically non-existent, and I'll never shepherd him through a Spelling Bee, that love transcends both laughter and language.

And love never fails--even if your loved ones fail to laugh.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. I Corinthians 13:8 (King James Version)