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It was a full-on ritual: Friday night scanning the classifieds with a highlighter, marking the likely addresses in order of anticipated desirability of treasures; Saturday up at dawn, coffee in hand, city map covered in Post-its, dog in car, and away we would go, my husband and I, to the yard sales.
In the beginning, we were on the lookout for precious objects to add to our own growing stash of mid-century collectibles. A piece of jadeite, a stack of multihued Pyrex bowls, funky lamps, teak furniture.
When our collections grew wildly out of control, we turned the treasures of the hunt into an enormously enjoyable and hugely unprofitable weekend side business – selling our finds to others with a similar nostalgia for well-made artifacts from 40, 50 or 60 years ago.
While this relieved the pressure of accumulation within our home, it also freed us to purchase ever-more-kitschy things that we wouldn’t have wanted to live with ourselves but just could not pass by.
It was a ton of fun. There was the adrenalin thrill of beating other collectors to a site and scoring the one collectible item hidden in a sea of made-in-China junk.
There was the camaraderie, which extended to a nice police officer who stopped me for speeding as we raced from one yard to the next. We talked, he acknowledged that his own wife was, in all likelihood, speeding from sale to sale at that moment, and I received only a friendly warning.
There was the peace of early Saturday mornings exploring the side roads and byways lined with blossoming fruit trees and lilacs and, later, ditches full of tiger lilies.
Our treasure hunts took us far afield, and we sometimes made overnight excursions to more remote areas that we hoped would be less picked over than places nearer our home.
It was on one of these trips that we came upon an old man with rheumy eyes sitting behind a long table at the side of a country road.
The table was completely covered with fish. Ceramic fish, pottery fish, glass fish. Fish that stood up and fish that hung from walls. Fish that could serve you cream and sugar. Turquoise and red fish. Bright green and yellow fish. Fish of all colours, mostly unrealistic, all glorious.
Now, it so happened that at the time I had a nascent fish collection of my own; just a couple from the fifties that swam around the shelves of our shower stall.
I fell in love with the table full of fish. Someone was bound to want them, I thought. I bought them all.
As we were wrapping them up, the rheumy-eyed man said the collection had been gathered by his wife over the six decades of their marriage. She had died recently, and he was downsizing slowly, starting with the fish.
I wondered if maybe the rheumyness in his eyes was really unshed tears.
But we were in a hurry to get to the next yard sale ahead of the other hunters, so I quickly stashed the fish in a box, assuring him they would find a good home, and off we went.
We eventually gave up on the fun-but-unprofitable side business. We now let others search out treasures for us, and we’re more particular about adding to our collections.
But the fish remain. Some did gradually find homes, but there was a core group I could not get rid of. So they found their way into our shower stall, where they continue to swim around the shelves.
Over time, I have given each of them names: earthy, country names such as Ralph, Edith, Fred and Mabel. Names I imagine could have been those of the old couple married for 60 years.
I dry my hair and look Olive in the eye. I rub cream on my face and greet Harold. My mascara and lipstick look a lot like Francine’s. Teddy occasionally glares at me.
Here’s what I wish: I wish we hadn’t been in a hurry that day.
I wish I’d taken the time to really talk to that old man.
I wish I had asked him if he had children to care for him and look after him now that his wife was gone.
I wish I had told him that I would hang onto those fish and say good morning to them each day when I stepped out of the shower.
I wish I had told him that he and his wife would be in my mind every day for the rest of my life.
And here’s what I hope: When it’s my turn to divest myself of a lifetime’s accumulation, I hope there is someone waiting to give our fish a home. To take their turn to protect and remember.
To carry forward a little ritual of saying good morning to Ralph, Edith, Fred and Mabel. And maybe to remember me, the rheumy-eyed man and his wife.
Wendy Reynolds lives in Kingston.
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