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144 Weeks

There was a small box of vintage ornaments tucked inside a larger cardboard box. The larger box was soft and frayed with time, the way water and basements handle permeable organic materials. In addition to the ornaments, it contained a small Christmas tree with all of its arms folded upward, narrowing the frame just enough to fit.

The white tag read $5.00.

How much for just the ornaments? I asked the woman in the booth.

I’m not selling them separately. It’s $5.00 for both, she replied, ever so slightly annoyed with my question.

What if I pay you $5.00 for the ornaments and you keep the tree? I already have a handful of small artificial Christmas trees and I am just looking for the ornaments. I was hopeful she’d like my idea enough to let go of the ornaments, but not have me walking around the rest of the flea market with a three foot artificial tree tucked under my arm.

Oh, she paused, okay, she said finally. I will keep the tree. I will donate it, she continued. I’m not sure if she was still talking to me or herself, but either way, we had come to an amiable agreement.

I was unsure why she wasn’t seeing the brilliance in my – now you can make more money plan – selling the tree and ornaments separately. But, flea market people are my people. I like to think I understand them. It is sort of about the money for those who sell there, but usually, the main driver behind why they scour, search, clean, buff, paint, tag, carry, load, unload, display and sell their wares is much more complex.

Of course, there are a handful of folks that come just for the money, selling a Victorian fainting chair for hundreds of dollars, or that perfect Red wing crock or industrial metal cart, but more often than not, there’s a story wrapped up in the stuff. In fact, when I buy an antique, I try to ask the seller where it came from. Often, the item does tie back to a more interesting human element, and retracing the item’s origin is a fascinating exercise.

The umbrella I carry has a solid curved wooden handle, with gorgeous, brightly colored poppies covering the canopy. I bought it at a barn sale for $4.00, but each time someone compliments me on it, I smile and think of the woman who sold it to me. It was her mother’s cherished umbrella, and it was difficult for her to part with it. I told her I would be a good caretaker of the umbrella and use it often. And, I do. Now, when it rains, I retrace the lines of that story in my mind. I think of Sandy and her sweet mom. One silly umbrella repeatedly sparks a meaningful memory.

The most eager and appreciative collectors love the hunt because there is beauty hidden in the stories and the people behind the individual items.

And so, in close quarters as you walk the length of each person’s booth, you can’t help but eavesdrop on the seller’s bartering style, banter with other sellers and general demeanor. It’s like walking into one of those jewelry stores in the mall. Everyone’s business is everyone’s business.

After our agreement was settled, I set the ornaments on her brown folding table and told her I wanted to look around a bit more. A handful of customers had come and gone. The few that interacted with the woman all brought her to one topic – her late husband.

Now, I was purposely lingering because I could tell, all she wanted to do was talk about her husband, but no one was engaging with her. She mentioned cleaning out some things in the house since her husband died to one customer. To another she noted the item being purchased was her late husband’s.

I walked back over to her to pay the $5.00 I owed and retrieve the items I purchased.

How long ago did your husband pass away? I asked, because no one else did.

144 weeks ago, she said. I count it in weeks because it still feels like weeks.

I’m so sorry, I said.

Relieved to let the words out, she sighed and her shoulders visibly relaxed. We use to joke that we’d be together forever and we’d grow old together, and then he died. I try so hard to live a good life, so I can see him again in heaven. 

I wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to try so hard to live a good life, because surely she was, and surely just accepting Jesus as her Savior was enough, but it felt preachy and flat up against her long suffering grief and I didn’t want her to think I was dismissing her pain with some religious feel good words. But the truth couldn’t escape my brain by way of words that seemed to sympathize with her pain, but hold hope for a reunion with her husband.

The only weak and useless words I uttered were, You, will. You will see him again.

And just like that, someone else was eager to cut our conversation short and interrupted us to buy whatever it was they were buying.

I felt incapable and inept. I felt like this woman was divinely placed in my path to recognize her pain and encourage her, but I let her down. The reassuring words I should have spoken I didn’t.

In this tiny circle of space, which makes up my world, I repeatedly call my children by the wrong name. I count diapers, milk and coffee grinds in order to see how many days we can function on just the bare necessities. Our house is a museum of sharpie scrawled boxes, tiny cars and toys one must be ever vigilant about, lest you sit on, trip on or step on one of the sharper, meaner toys in the bunch. And, my experience has taught me that the volume required to grow up and brother is constantly set to ten. It is loud in my house. It’s for sure messy in my house. And all of this is what I would consider sweating the small stuff, but I cannot deny or out positive the truth that this does make it loud and messy in my head from time to time.

Clarity is so elusive to me on these days, it is hard to grasp it, even when I am alone. My head is a comic strip with a thousand word balloons jumbled about. Even this two dimensional comic strip version of myself longs for the quiet frame in which the punch line is revealed. The articulate kind of clarity I’m seeking, looks someone in the eye when they need encouragement and delivers the message they need. A message that does not only live quietly in your head or in your heart.

So, when I’m actually out and called upon to pull my $%&# together, instead of feeling inspired and confident, the log jam in my brain leaves me feeling small and sluggish. The small and quiet is beneficial for the listening, but the sluggish is highly detrimental to the encouragement of others. Good news is meant to be shared.

While, I don’t think my encounter with this kind woman was a complete failure, it does leave me wondering, if we all have to earn wings in heaven like Frank Capra’s Clarence, then I can expect to be at this for awhile.

Or maybe, none of that was the point at all, maybe I was placed in this woman’s path so she could enlighten me?