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.
WHY ANYONE WOULD WANT TO CODDLE AN EGG, I COULD NEVER UNDERSTAND. THE EGG ALREADY HAD A SHELL!