How Much for That Toast Rack?

Adventures in yard-sale scav­eng­ing with my mother.


I WAS RAISED AT YARD SALES, taken there by my mother, where my job was to of­fer $3 for an item that cost $5 and then go home and tell my dad it cost $2.

We were con­spir­a­to­rial, my mum and I—the whole thing had an Ocean’s 11 feel. From May to Septem­ber, Satur­day morn­ings had a map to them drawn from the classified ads of my south­ern On­tario home­town’s news­pa­per (Guelph Mer­cury Tri­bune) the col­umns of which my mother an­a­lyzed with the kind of skill usu­ally re­served for sci­en­tific doc­u­ments.

If you had more than one yard sale a year, we wouldn’t even do a quick drive by your mot­ley col­lec­tion of clut­tered card ta­bles. “That’ll be junk,” my mother would say, and she did not care for your “crafts” either, hav­ing taught me from a young age that a box of Kleenex should only ever look like a box of Kleenex, and that the loopa­per-cover-Bar­bie-doll-hy­brid that fas­ci­nated me was a mon­ster.

Of­ten it seemed our role at these sales was to ask the price of all the toast racks we found amid the ash­trays and the Blue Moun­tain pot­tery menageries, just so the yard-sale host­ess could say, “I don’t know. $1.50? What is it any­way? It was a wed­ding present.”

“It’s a toast rack,” my mother would say, with the kind of ex­ag­ger­ated pa­tience I imag­ine early mis­sion­ar­ies used when ex­plain­ing the vir­gin birth. “You put toast in it.”

“But doesn’t the toast get hard and cold?” the con­fused host­ess would in­vari­ably ask, and my mother would sigh.

I think she al­ways hoped that once it was ex­plained, the sud­denly re­formed toast-hea­then yard-sale host­ess would seize the rack back from her and charge into the house cry­ing, “I figured it out, Doug! Our long night­mare is over! We need to get some mar­malade!”

SHE IS OF A COLD, crisp-toast peo­ple, my mother. Raised in South Africa by English par­ents, she at­tended a school that was as English as English can be—which is pretty English— and, for a peo­ple with a long tra­di­tion of soggy veg­eta­bles, the English have a lot of un­kind things to say about pli­ant toast.

My mother’s school in Johannesburg not only im­ported all its teach­ers from Eng­land but stag­gered its hol­i­days so that, as she tells it, stu­dents wouldn’t mix with other chil­dren and pick up an Afrikaans ac­cent. The school was a colony within a colony—an is­land of crisp toast and egg cod­dlers.

De­spite my mother’s fru­gal­ity, to the sell­ers’ de­light and my hor­ror, dur­ing my child­hood we bought all the or­phan egg cod­dlers from all the yard sales in Welling­ton County.

Why any­one would want to cod­dle an egg, I could never un­der­stand. The egg al­ready had a shell! Why de­cant the egg into an­other shell to boil it, in­stead of just boiling it as God in­tended? The whole thing made no sense.

It all seemed vaguely sin­is­ter. We had rows of egg cod­dlers in the kitchen—dozens of in­di­vid­ual overly pre­cious pods each await­ing the ar­rival of a vulnerable egg soul. It was like a Mer­chant Ivory pro­duc­tion of In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers on that counter.

“Please don’t take my of­fer on this egg cod­dler,” my eyes would plead with the seller. “She’s low-balling you—and I’m scared,” but to no avail.

Later, in what al­ways felt like a get­away car, my mother and I would spec­u­late tri­umphantly about what the egg cod­dler would have cost had we bought it new. “By fools!” was the un­spo­ken sen­ti­ment.

BUYING NEW WAS a harshly judged thing we rarely did in our house and I’m grate­ful, be­cause where’s the fun in that? What’s the game? The thrill of car­ry­ing a lamp shaped like a boat with a shade shaped like a mushroom around the side of the house, plug­ging it into the out­let used for the lawn mower and find­ing that “it works!” can’t be bought at IKEA.

Once, my mother’s ex­treme paci­fism was over­come by her love of a bar­gain, and she bought me a $3 pel­let gun, which I still have and with which I taught my own two chil­dren to shoot. These chil­dren are known to ig­nore Mother’s Day ev­ery year, a fact of which I am proud. It shows they’ve been pay­ing at­ten­tion, my skep­ti­cal an­gels.

But the three of us raise that pel­let gun in a salute to my own mother and, as the sea­son be­gins, wish you all smooth yard-sail­ing this sum­mer.


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