Respecting the Buyer: Who Gets Grandma’s Feather Bed?
July 17, 2013
“Often it is the distant family members that are the most difficult to deal with before the sale,” she noted as I admired the antique basket filled with linens sitting on the table beside me.
She had opened her home to me so I could enjoy a hot shower and clean clothes. Her son, a colleague of mine, had been excited to learn I would pass through his small town and suggested I stop by her house.
As I peeled off my favorite riding shorts, I glimpsed at the bug bites trailing across my body, looking more intently for the telling black spots, indications that the pest had not just sucked me for what it needed once and moved on but had decided to take up residence for a longer period of time.
Iowa’s historic Lincoln Byway had been littered with refuse, and the tree-lined marshes were riddled with broken, discarded pieces of furniture, bags of trash, disused toys, cars and tractors, and my body bore the marks of the wreckage that served as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers.
Assured that I had successfully removed the invasive critters, I stepped into the first warm shower I had been able to enjoy since crossing the border.
I sat looking at her rich collection of antiques and better understood where my colleague had acquired his exquisite taste – and biting, self-deprecating humor.
She had spent her life as an educator, and her son with his Ph.D., had to a certain extent followed in her footsteps, though her path through education had been spent behind the steering wheel of a bus rather than sitting on a series of steering committees at universities.
Her children had all received excellent educations in the hands of the academic and disciplinarian rigor of Diocesan priests and nuns, and my colleague had the extra training of Jesuits while pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree. She didn’t hesitate to add that she wished that standard of education were available to all students without the exorbitant costs often attached with excellence in education.
Unlike her son, whose passion lies in instruction, though, hers lies in the sale of beautiful objects (though there is an echo of that in his life as well, but he excels in selling brightly colored cashmere on the side).
As with the other antique dealers I met along the road, she observed that after death, one’s family squabbles over minutia, yet the end game always seems motivated by the same driving force: greed.
While the antique dealers deal with what to do with a lifetime of vertical files (or sometimes two, if the business happened to be handed down from grandparents), the family begins to haggle even more than the customers who later attend the estate sales: so-and-so wants this piece because of sentimental value, whereas another claims it had been designated to them a few Christmases ago by yet another family member.
And so the arguments begin, tearing apart what few shreds of ribbon may still bind the loosely connected family together.
“If I have enough pieces of value, I advertise the sale as far away as Omaha,” she added, trailing her finger absently along the intricate carving of the wooden stand beside her. “Once I have advertised a specific item, no family member, regardless of who they are, has any more precedence over the purchase of the piece than any other potential customer. I have to respect my buyer,” she insisted.
“Do you feel as though you got what you paid for?” he asked, after I had presented my ten-minute synopsis of my past two years’ worth of research.
He gave me pause. I had been prepared for every other question except this one. He knew the answer before he even asked it, but he challenged me in front of our peers.
My response would have honestly been a resounding, “No.”
I glanced across the crowded theater, wondering whether or not I should let that single syllable slip through my lips. I hedged, dodged, and skirted around the question, uttering a string of distracting words that slid off my tongue like a well-trained auctioneer.
As educator, that has always been the most troubling question I have faced: will the student ever receive a returned value for their investment?
“I never know what to do with the sets of encyclopedias,” she told me, adding, “It seems as though nearly every estate has one. My son wants one to make a set of bookshelves.”
Like me, he is a bibliophile, insisting upon purchasing books, assigning a series of 200-400 page theory-based books rather than shorter published essays in his class. His syllabus always reflects his earlier training: rigorous and disciplined. And I admire him deeply because he believes in challenging his students.
“Self esteem is built only upon successfully overcoming a challenge,” one of my earliest professors had noted when we were discussing her classroom rigor. “My class size is perpetually decreasing because of my reputation, but I can’t compromise my standards.”
What, indeed, is the value of a good education? Will it be like a skillfully designed piece of furniture that endures for generations to come, or will it be an obsolete piece of litter discarded beside the side of the road?
I push toward another town dotting the map as I press toward my final goal, and I return to the question every single time I encounter the inevitable junkyard on the outskirts of each city limit sign I pass.