Following is a personal narrative that may find a home in a new book.
I have never entertained the idea of having a yard sale, and I have only been to one -which is the subject of this narrative. I have friends and family, however, who frequent yard sales (and thrift shops). I think of them as “hunters and gatherers.” For many years, my mother was a bargain hunter, and to this day, she tries to make gifts of objects of clothing with “good fabric,” clothes that are too hot or too formal for California, and shoes that are “practically new.” Now me, owning things can panic me; too much responsibility, but I do have some things that I treasure. Perhaps that is why I get excited when I pack my backpack: every item is important, most items have multiple uses, and I am dependent on every item; very exciting.
The one thing that might attract me to a yard sale? The possible stories there – which was the reason I went to the one yard sale: We were camping on the east side of the mountains, in the desert. Stu saw an advertisement for a yard sale in a small desert town called Benton Station. The idea intrigued him because we knew Benton Station and found the place to be poor and rather an eyesore – a very dusty place with nowhere to hide old hulks of cars, appliances, sofas, etc.. What kind of yard sale might be found in such a place? Well, it happened that it was a yard sale for a rock collection, and such a rock collection! Even our three little kids appreciated the scope of it: sawhorse tables and more sawhorse tables of rocks and other desert collectables including bottles, rusty tools etc.
To get there, we drove north out of Bishop for awhile, with the imposing Sierra in the west and the closer, even more imposing White Mountains in the east, through a long irrigated valley giving prominence to alfalfa - and carrots? The green against the pale colors of the desert was soothing; it was devilishly hot, and in those days we had no air conditioning, just wet cloths and squirt bottles, and so the green served to cool the eyes and trick the mind into thinking that it was cooler than it was.
After finding a place to park on the edge of a pool of shade provided by a cottonwood, we ventured into the backyard of a quintessential desert bungalow, beaten by hot summer winds and winter freeze, and discovered that the yard sale was an estate sale, and that every rock, every artifact had been found on the local desert areas and in the mountain canyons by the same collector, a “desert rat.”
Among the customers were Hippies, other families like us, typical (for the time) 50's retirees who emerged from campers, clean and pressed and pastel-ized, some serious rockhounds whose focus on the rocks made my browsing feel silly.
Straightaway, we passed by the household items and work shoes, paintings on velvet, tools, and greasy engine parts, and made for the long rows of sawhorse tables. There were hundreds of rocks, no, thousands of rocks; there were crates of rocks, pans of rocks, shoeboxes, packing boxes, tubs of rocks – and no prices, just an older lady wearing an apron who quoted prices, nervously, seemingly, arbitrarily.
We left with a few rocks (serpentine, I know now) and many questions that intrigue me to this day. How could one man collect so many rocks? Did he feel pride of ownership when he carried them home and stashed them? Were the rocks more valuable to him in his crawl space than they were on the desert floor or under a Creosote bush in the mouth of a mountain canyon where they had lain for 10,000 years?
It's true: I would have liked to go rock hunting with this rockhound. I would have liked to add a pebble to my shadowbox, chosen for me among millions from underfoot on an alluvial fan – chosen by this man whose passion remains a mystery. It's true: I am still curious about the nervous woman who wore an apron, but I think I know now: I think I recognize the silent language of loss. But Stu and I were many years from that reality; we had a lot of living to do together, including two return visits to Benton Station for reasons other than a yard sale; there is something about bareness that grows on you.
I confess that if there were a yard/plant sale, I would be a yard sale junkie. I do collect plants, although most of the plants on my five acres are natural and were there when we came in 1981. I enjoy two stands of Ponderosa Pines, five species of oak, cedars, etcetera. I have planted shrubs, a locust tree, a Sequoia, a Bay Laurel, and three Redwoods – which Stu watered for two summers; they are part of his legacy.
Most of us collect information. I collect information about natural features. My dad collected information about food and diet. So does his granddaughter. My sister collects words. Any collection is an encumbrance, though, because it has to be maintained in someway – even my shadow box needs to be maintained; it needs to be dusted.
At one time, someone asked about a plain rock in my shadow box collection. “That has a story?'
“Absolutely,” I said. “I (unknowingly) carried that rock from Tyndall Creek, over Mount Whitney, and down to Whitney Portal. It was a stowaway; it was used as an anchor in the wind, and then overlooked when I went to pack my pack. I discovered it when I got home. It reminds me of my backpacking 'prowess,' but more importantly, it reminds me of the patience it takes to travel on foot, carrying everything needed. It reminds me that we are simple in our needs.
The one person, truly simple in his needs, was Stu; he was “poorer” than a monk. His entire wardrobe could fit into a small suitcase. His tools could fit into one tool box (but he could fix just about anything). He owned a stereo system – which he built himself – a guitar, a bicycle. When he moved to California, he carried everything he owned in the smallest U-Haul trailer available, pulled by his VW Hatchback, his only car.
Stu recycled before the word was coined. He purchased items carefully, keeping in mind the possibility of recycling as well as maintenance and repair. He tried to buy from manufacturers who made and sold quality goods. He was proud of American-made products, planned for dependability rather than obsolescence. It was a sad day for him when he had to acknowledge that American manufacturers had lost the edge.
Stu liked to shop, though he rarely purchased anything (except food). For him, shopping was like going to an exhibition; he really enjoyed innovation, but he did not need to own it in order to enjoy it.
His music, however, he did own - in the form of a record collection. I regard that collection as sacred. It is, since it was one of the few things that he truly did heartfully own.
The novels: The Signal House Blessing and Forgiving God may be purchased for the cost of shipping (for blog spot readers). See my website for details, http://www.mariemurnanemcnaughton.com/. My Solitude, a personal narrative, may also be purchased for the cost of shipping by e-mailing me. More information may be found on my website at mariemurnanemcnaughton.com
Excerpted from The Signal House Blessing:
We respect his memory. He is our great-grand and our great-great grandfather.
Some of us are descendants of his first wife who was a slave, a Piute Indian, sold to a Campoodie near Signal House, California. Some of us are descendants of Nancy, a butter vendor who kept a boarding house. We say that the Piute was bought by a man named Gregor, and that when Gregor died, Didacus came to help the widow – and stayed. Only two children survived her: one by Gregor and one by Didacus.
Nancy had eleven children, most by her former husband, but her descendants all lay claim to Didacus.
Didacus was old when he died. He disappeared one day, and months after, Nancy found his clothed bones in the Saint Joachim woods. This was fitting, we believe, since Didacus had been a monk at Saint Joachim’s as a young man.
We believe in his goodness since he gave his soul to God in habit and ritual – in 1876 – instead of prospecting in the California gold fields – like every other youth.
Some of us say that we know him when we work the land; he was a farmer. Some of us say that we know him in ourselves when we live ardently. And then there have been those of us who have said that we have seen his ghost . . .
Excerpted from Forgiving God :
The way above the inlet followed the cascading creek through deep shade that made the steep climb easier. The sounds of the celebration were fading and were being replaced by sounds of splash and gurgle.
After walking about a mile, and ascending several hundred feet, she began to anticipate actually seeing the famed Red House.
Was it not remarkable that she had never been there? She had seen it from a distance, of course; situated at the mouth of Alder Creek Canyon, the brick two-story Queen Anne, painted red, a splash of brilliance against the stark tones of the steep rocky canyon. Strangers often asked about it, and when locals mentioned it, it was with awe. It was an incongruity, an imposition–a protest against the ruggedness and wildness of that country. She admitted to herself that she was somewhat afraid of approaching the Red House. . .
But suddenly, she was there. The pathway emerged from the alder woods onto a strip of mown grass. Beyond the strip was rose garden, and beyond the garden was the Red House; its dormers burned gold in the light from the setting sun. She shrank back into the shadows. What now?
She thought about boldly approaching the house. She thought about calling out. She thought about skirting the lawn and rose garden and approaching the front door by way of a gravel driveway. Though her inclination was to retreat since she felt more like a trespasser than a guest, she finally decided to wait and observe.
Lush lawn, radiant roses–plenty of water, probably more than any other garden in Alder Creek enjoyed, she thought; there was a sprinkler running on the lawn. Brass doorknocker on the shiny red door, lace curtains on long windows. This was prideful ownership. Tidiness achieved with rake and broom, shears and mower; even the old cottonwoods that grew on either side of the house had been excised of dead wood. There was an inveterate quality about the house, as if–contrary to the impression it made from a distance–it were part of the mountain, a natural oasis at the mouth of the canyon. There were fan palms growing in a cluster between the gravel driveway and the creek. So this was where her mother and her aunts had grown up!
Excerpted from My Solitude:
Going To Yosemite, 1955-1960
Going to Yosemite meant going around Mount Diablo, the mountain “in our back yard.”
Diablo is one of a triumvirate in the San Francisco Bay Area, along with Tamalpais and Saint Helena. From any one mountain, one can see the others. But from Mount Diablo (on a clear day) one can see the Sierra Nevada to the east, Mount Shasta to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the long ridges of the Diablo range to the south. Within view are the agricultural lands of the Great Central Valley, the delta of the Sacramento River, and the San Francisco Bay!
On the west side of the mountain, one finds grasslands and oak savannah. Hidden, are the ravines and canyons of the watershed where oaks and California-bay Laurel saturate the air with the scents that are inimitably California. The east side of the mountain is formidable; it is steeper, and it is wooded with dense chaparral. There are springs on the mountain, surrounded by deep woods of oak and Laurel. There are oases of sycamore: great-leafed trees with tree bark, mottled white and grey. There are regions of spindly Coulter and Foothill Pines, and stands of fragrant juniper. The air on Mount Diablo is spicy; it smells like the mountains, like desert, like farmlands. Like the sea, when the fog rolls inland and makes it an island in a roiling sea of clouds.
We always start early, since summer days in valley and foothills are scorchers. Packing the station wagon is done the night before so that in the morning all that is left to do is to wedge us between the bulky sleeping bags and army-navy surplus camping gear. We eat donuts and oranges as the wagon travels into the dawn on the backside of Mount Diablo.
We head east toward the great central valley of California, winding along Marsh Creek, while in the mirrors, the sheer side of our mountain glows. We watch the colors of the summer landscape appear with the light, distinct olive-green imposed on the tawny colors, and in the shadows of the rounded hills.
We enter the great valley just as the sun rises. Here are the orchards of cherries, walnuts, almonds, and pears.
I know the walnut trees by their perfect symmetry, their profusion of large, green leaves. I know the almond trees because they are pale and their foliage is thin in comparison. The cherry trees have rough, dark bark, and the limbs are almost vertical. I can see the golden fruit on the pear trees, and I can smell it: like beer, like honey. My mouth waters.
We swoosh through fields of alfalfa, clover, and corn. I hang out the window so that I can smell the fields. We pass a roadside stand where melon and sweet corn are being stacked on slanted tables. I smell the melon, and then I smell the corn. Then I smell the hay again. I am left with the taste – of corn, of melon, but then I smell the earth; it smells like the water in the creek bed toward the end of summer. I see across the glowing valley to the dark wave that is the mountain range where we are going.
We pass a truckload of brown-skinned people. They are standing on the flatbed; they are holding on to the stakes. There are children among them. I pull my head in and duck. I don’t know why I do this, but I forget the question as soon as I ask it of me.
We stop and buy a watermelon. It is carefully nested in the stiff canvas folds of the tent. At that place, we relieve ourselves in a jail cell restroom, a cinderblock cube with stained fixtures and no toilet paper. There are red hollyhocks, taller then me, growing in the dry sand around the door. It seems strange that they should thrive there.
As soon as we leave the flatlands, the orchards and fields end, and the grazing lands begin. These are rocky grasslands with oak trees clustered in the folds of the golden hills. There are fences, watering troughs, and windmills. There are soft, rounded hills, table mountains, and rocks that look like monuments – like tombstones, like dinosaur teeth. These are the wide-open spaces. I breathe deeply of the warm, dry air. I smell oak trees and dry grass.
We go up, up. The engine whines. It gets hotter, and heat waves shimmer on the road; they look like puddles up ahead. The land is rockier, and the grasslands are giving way to brush lands – a steep and winding road is cut through these wild lands of dense, brittle, vigorous, scrubby plants that can live on the rocks and in the hot wind. They are the color of shadows, of fire, of bright light. We have already passed China Camp. We have already crossed the green river. This is Old Priest Grade, and we will soon be in the sweet Pines and passing through defunct towns with sorry looking buildings; there I hide my eyes.
When I open them, we are in the mountains at last! As we climb, it will grow cooler and brighter. The air we breathe will be spicy. We will be excited – then, more excited. We will chant, “Yosemite, Yosemite, Yosemite, Yosemite.” And though we remember how it is, we will always be awed by the spectacle of it – of perfect mountains and pure rock.
Excerpted from Hungry House:
I Begin My Story In The Middle
I went to the rose garden in our complex and sat on a bench. Surrounded with color and fragrance, and the lulling sound of buzzing insects, I realized that I was painfully bored, and Ben’s long letter had made me anxious, besides. Boredom is a luxury, I reminded myself. My brother Ben was not bored and had never would be.
When I was a young mother, I was purposeful. I was happy, and my happiness protected me from the pain and suffering of others, from the volatile inequity in the world. I was even inured to the discontent of my husband!
It was long after my children left, after the husband had made his declaration of independence, that I woke: I realized one day that I had not laughed for a long, long time, and that I was not excited about anything!
I leaned into the fragrance of roses. I had had purpose in my life, and my children were a gift. My adventures were imposed. True, the Hungry House stories of my childhood were of my own device, but I had forsaken them – even though the characters needed me in order to find some denouement.
I reflected on the day that I had just lived and compared it to other days. I could dispense with it, I thought, and never feel the difference. “I am considering erasing today,” I murmured. There was nothing worth saving, and I would not have to recall my sister’s ridiculing laughter ever again. Verily, the only part worth saving was the decision to erase today, I thought. “Verily!” I imagined my sister exclaiming. “How archaic!”
I leaned into the color of roses. “What if I could erase certain days?” I thought. What if I could even consider erasing certain days? Would that not be a relief?
What days would I save? Days of my children, certainly. The journeys with Ben, absolutely. Conversations with Father. Even, lessons with Mother. Gemetti. Gemetti. Ben. (What exactly did he do when he returned to the scene of the bullet-riddled doll? I wondered about that.)
I thought of my journals, the days recorded in dingy composition notebooks, records of days worth keeping as well as empty days. I leaned into the aura of roses.