I don’t recall what the sign claimed the three barns were full of. Maybe the words included “antique” and even “farm” or “tools.” The faded letters were hand-painted. That alone promised adventure in an area grown increasingly suburban, sprawling and dull.
Besides, three barns?! What an alluring start to our national season of Too Much.
We rolled down a long dirt drive to find not barns but chicken houses. I don’t mean coops. I mean old commercial chicken houses, bare wood showing through the blistered white paint.
A woman in a white sweatshirt, gray stretch pants and matching hair stood in the center door, talking on a landline. Actually, she wasn’t talking, just listening. She waved us in.
Now, our home is filled with old stuff. The bed I sleep in, my mother and grandmother and great-grandmother also dozed the night through; my great grandfather’s old plantation desk once housed his pipes and tobacco. I still have my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine, a misshapen desk that once belonged to a Vance County sheriff, aqua canning jars, cut glass, family china. I am a lover of tobacco barns and antebellum houses.
On top of which, my husband has never seen a tool he didn’t suddenly need. Which is why I can say with some authority that the contents of these barns were stunningly unnecessary.
No old farm equipment, hand tools, or furniture. We’re talking the detritus of 1960s, ’70s and ’80s America cooped up in one unfortunate jumble. Table after table of ceramic mugs for every season and occasion. Broken plastic laundry baskets overflowing with polyester blankets and linens that had never seen better days. Tables tumbled over with wavy romance novels dropped in the tub one too many times and old lamps, plastic and ceramic and glass, that shared only one feature: they hit every branch falling from the ugly tree. Chipped fans, stuffed acrylic animals, bric-a-brac broken, old parkas and ice buckets. Christmas decorations even the moths had refused.
Hoarding requires space. Three chicken houses certainly provides it. This was hoarding on a scale I’d never imagined.
I was a little terrified of the new vistas opening to my husband’s imagination. I left him digging through a bucket of crude whirly birds which he did not need and I did not want, as I tramped the dirt floors in an increasing state of horror.
I remembered the circle of Greed in the Inferno where hoarders and wasters pit eternally against one another: “Why do you hoard?” versus “Why do you squander?” I’m sure anthropologists will someday uncover a similar hellish layer of stuff in our local landfill and wonder the same thing.
At least at the far end of the final chicken house, some actual chickens were pecking about. I wandered back, feeling depressed and slightly ashamed of our insatiable need to produce stuff we don’t need and then hang on to it, even if it means filling our ever-larger houses, garages and basements and then paying extra to rent offsite storage. How in hell did we get here?
Back at the entrance my husband waited, an old tinner’s hammer in hand. (Told you.) The woman ended her phone conversation with “give them a good soaking with a little vinegar and pour off that water off.” I smiled and asked if she was talking about greens or beans, since it works for both.
Turned out she was talking to a woman from New York, who had appeared out of the blue one day on the threshold here. Her son had been shot dead on the railroad tracks nearby and she had come from New York to collect the body. The barn woman had given her some money to help.
“I didn’t know if she was some kind of angel or what,” the old woman said. “But I figure when somebody gets put in front of you like that, you do what you can; it don’t matter what color they are.”
We nodded and she continued, “People just show up here, you know. Some on foot. So I tell them to look around and take what they need. Couple weeks ago, this little girl found the purtiest red rose you ever seen, painted on a rock. She asked how much it was cause she only had about a dollar. Her mama’d just died and the girl said it was probably the only flower there’d be at the grave. I told her to take it. That’s why it’s here.”
It is immensely humbling to be reminded that I do not know what a single other person should be doing in this world. Perhaps wasting time and energy hoarding judgments is the greatest sin of all. Or maybe it’s pretending we know someone else’s destiny instead of taking care of our own. Maybe it’s best to assume everyone put in our path is an angel, fallen or not, and either way, good company.
We gave her a little money to send to the woman from New York. I hope her greens turned out tender. I hope the little girl’s mother was laid to rest, and that the prettiest red rose was flower enough.
Lynden Harris is the founder of Hidden Voices. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.