My neighbor, Gordon, buys and sells other people’s treasures. Weather permitting, on the first Saturday of each month of the summer season, he will hold an estate sale of sorts in the lily lined driveway of his ornately trimmed, Victorian home. The event is advertised in papers as far north of us as the Springfield Republican and as far south of us as the Hartford Courant, but after all of the years he’s been having the sales, anyone within reading distance, who enjoys antiquing and collectables, knows when to come without being told. Friends, neighbors and strangers arrive by car or bike, with a basket of course and sometimes pulling a wagon. Everyone marvels at the history they encounter there, where past and present mingle and an affection for vintage goods is a shared passion.
One afternoon, I was surprised to see my father there, bent over a long table, a sturdy black cane supporting his 99 years as he poked through the items on display. There were ancient hammers whose grips and faces were worn and chipped and pointed awls with bulbous handles, there was a six inch mortise gauge made of fine grain wood with brass fittings, browned with age, there were planers and saws, hatchets and clamps and even a wooden box to keep one’s favorite tools. He picked up a bevel edged chisel, obviously admiring the quality of the tool, the heft of the steel and wood in his hand. The traces of paint that remained on the handle, the fact that it had seen better days, didn’t seem to take away from his appreciation of its utility. His eyes sparkled under the weight of his sagging brow and the corner of his mouth turned up just a bit.
“What are you looking for dad?” I asked.
“Files, I’m looking for files. I need a half-round.”
“Oh really, what are you making,” I asked.
I found myself talking to him in a sweet tone, as if I were talking to a child, which was silly, because at 99 he was still as sharp as ever. It wasn’t his partial hearing loss or his slow and uncertain steps that made him seem vulnerable to me, it was really his refusal to recognize his own frailties. He hadn’t asked me for a ride to the sale that day; instead he drove his John Deere Gator through the woods, over muddy trails and across a small stream.
“A spurtle. I’m making a spurtle,” he said, as though I would know what one was.
“Haven’t seen one in years so I thought I’d make it myself,” he continued, running his thick old fingers, rough with New England life, darkened from the sun and hardened from handling rope and rigging on sailboats, for most of his younger years, over the piles of trinkets strewn before us on Gordon’s table.
Many people arrived that afternoon and the tables were picked clean except for the old tools. People seemed to gravitate toward the table lamps, the ones with the rooster base or the blue and white dish set with just a few chips and not enough cups. They liked the furniture too. Mahogany desks and bedroom sets, tables and chairs and sofas. I myself, furnished three bedrooms for a very reasonable price, just by showing up first to Gordon’s driveway one Saturday morning. But the tools were always a hard sell, most likely because there were newer and better tools to be had.
We searched through the heaps of items on every table for the files, but there were none to be found and so my father, brushing me aside as I tried to help him return to his gator, motored off into the woods where the trails would lead him home.
Many months later, on Christmas morning over at my parent’s house, I received the most wonderful gift. In my stocking, I found a long wooden spatula of sorts, or maybe a flat spoon would better describe it. It was smooth and sleek, carved from Maple, the wood from my father’s property and tied with a red ribbon. From the ribbon hung a tag that read, “This is a spurtle. Love Dad.”
The spurtle turns out to be a very useful tool. My husband loves it because it slides across the bottom of his nonstick pans and causes no harm. I love it because it mixes my blueberry pancake batter so nicely and scrapes the curving sides of a bowl unlike any of our less gracefully shaped spoons or spatulas.
I never asked my father where he got the files he needed to make my spurtle, I suppose I’ll never know. Surely he searched far and wide, risking life and limb, which is what living requires when one is 99.