Nannie Johnson's dead. I didn't know her, but nosing around in a West Jefferson cafe, a compelling description of her personal effects drew my eye to an estate sale ad.
The list filled most of a page. An excerpt: "Approx. 200 dolls ... 3 nice head vases ... 50 handmade afghans all different colors .. sm pint jar of marbles .. Occupied Japan figurines, duck cookie jar, butter print w/cow ... Sylvania floor model record player that was won in a contest from WJ Electric, with newspaper clipping where Mrs. Johnson won . . . lamp made from shell casings. THIS IS A SALE YOU WILL NOT WANT TO MISS."
Well, of course not. One needs to see a nice head vase to fully appreciate it. Having disobeyed the "9 a.m. sharp" admonition, I arrive some three hours after the bidding began, at the outbreak of a sudden thunderstorm typical of the Appalachians in August. In Nannie's front yard, a House for Sale sign is lost among the pickups and Park Avenues arranged politely in the grass.
Around back, the 100 other bidders huddle in lawn chairs under canvas shelters like a funeral audience. The detritus of one woman's long life cascades across trestle tables, pooling with raindrops.
The dolls are endless--Barbies and Kewpies and porcelain-headed brides. So is the kitchen equipment--cookie cutters and cake pans, gadgets galore, Depression-glass candy dishes. Clearly, Nannie was a cat-lover, judging by the plentiful feline figurines and the toys meant for real live pets.
The head vases turn out to be hand-painted ceramic likenesses of fancy ladies, with openings where their cerebrums would be. They are hideous, or maybe charming.
Nannie's handiwork is everywhere, in boxes overflowing with embroidered doilies, crocheted blankets, hand-sewn quilts. The winning bids are all over the map: Two electric weed-whackers and an enormous box of orange extension cords go for four bucks total; a Singer sewing machine commands a couple hundred; some of the dolls, they can't give away.
Up for bid at the moment are 33 decorative bottles of aging liqueur, dark-brown decanters featuring etchings of geese in flight. One bidder ponies up $5 a bottle.
The auctioneer, a local fellow at home with his microphone, isn't short on jokes.
"Folks, we done sold the liquor, now we're putting the cathouse on the block," he says, as an assistant holds up a carpet-covered playhouse and scratching post.
People who never knew Nannie mingle freely in her house like it's a good party, eerily minus the hostess. They critique her faux oak dining set (like new!), measure a fabulous antique work table, admire pictures of gawky teens stuck to her Frigidaire.
I wander through the house with the other voyeurs, pass an open closet full of pastel housedresses and silk blouses, and wonder why Nannie's family didn't divvy her belongings up among the relatives, give the pheasant-patterned couch and matching ottoman to the college-age kids setting out on their own, pass the silver cutlery down to the next generation.
Morbidly, I picture my own house full of strangers poring over my worldly goods, debating aloud the value of my couches (Like new! Except for the dog hair!).
The craft table I was eyeing goes for 10 darn dollars while I'm lost in reverie. I mosey out empty-handed, hoping some kind person bothered to find a new home for Nannie's beloved cats, and vowing to divest myself of stuff sometime before I kick the bucket.