Friday, August 28, 2009

Making the Best

It just didn't seem right to mix technology and Maine, so even though I brought a computer and a cell phone, I didn't use them, didn't check the Internet, answer or return calls or write on my blog.

Our time at the house in Woolwich this year was too short, a mere five days. But it was bliss, from the first moment we pulled up to the wooden fence and saw the spectacular view of the water through the trees and Eli sighed, declaring it "the most peaceful place on Earth," to the last gasps, when I finally hit the Montsweag Flea.

I am never happier than at a flea market, this one in particular. There is something about meandering through aisle after aisle of assorted objet d'art, the found and created treasures of the people standing behind them, imagining what item might make it into my life, that makes my heart sing. The flea marketers of Maine, in particular, are an amazing lot.

"Did you make your necklace?" an older long-haired lady behind a table of assorted jewelry asked.

I looked down at the brightly colored creation I had put on with my orange flirty linen skirt and grey ruffled tank to suit the occasion.

"No," I said, "my son did."

She looked impressed. "Wow," she said. "He's old is he?"

"Five," I said, "he's very talented, isn't he?"

"Yes," she said, "you should encourage him."

I sighed. "I do, but there are so many things I want to encourage him in, both of my kids!"

She nodded, understanding. "I raised 4 children, 8 grandchildren, and the ones of them that do the best have something creative that they can do, that gives them that feeling of success, like making a necklace. All you can do is show them by being creative yourself."

Following her words of wisdom, she gestured to a smattering of small paintings, swirls of colors surrounding a main image that I hadn't noticed in my search for another necklace. I immediately lighted on a chicken that I could clearly see in my kitchen.

"I love this," I said. "How much is it?"

"$25," she said.

"I'll take it," I said, not even bargaining like I'm supposed to. Hard to undersell someone's own art, especially when it came as it did with such sage advice. It was a small price to pay.

I moved on, purchasing a set of delicate cups and saucers and a ceramic bowl for next to nothing, and then picked up a few little stuffed cats made of scraps of material with little yarn noses and old button eyes. I had a similar one at home that I had bought elsewhere, that had reminded me of the stuffed cat I had as a kid made by my favorite of my mom's friends, a crafty Italian woman from the East Village whose home had inspired my love of found objects.

"These are great, do you make them?" I asked the woman behind the table.

"Yes," she said.

"They're awesome!"

She sighed loudly. "Well, I wish I was doing something to really help people instead of just making stuff..."

I stared at her in shock. "You are helping people. I love these. They make me happy and they'll make my kids happy!"

My words didn't seem to help much, even when I backed them up by buying three. I couldn't resist. They were only $5 each and I wasn't lying, they did bring me joy.

I thanked her profusely and moved on. I stopped next to peruse some jewelry made completely out of old buttons. I have a thing for old buttons, always coming close to buying jars of them at junk stores but never knowing quite what I'd do with them.

"So cool..." I said to the ladies sitting in lawn chairs on the side.

The creator piped up as she stood to come nearer. "Thanks," she said. "My friend here gave me the idea when I had bad asthma last year and was stuck in bed. I just got to playing with them. What I really wanted to do was drink..."

At this last unexpected turn, I threw back my head and laughed. "Wow," I said, "if I had one of the gold stars I usually give out, you would get a big one for that, for being honest. Good for you. Making jewelry probably makes you feel a lot better than drinking."

She didn't look sure. "I don't know, I was in a lot of pain..." she said. But crafting had clearly won out over boozing to get her through. Here around my neck and around my wrist was the proof.

She shook her head back and forth. "I just don't understand how people can sit in front of the TV hour after hour, so boring..." she said.

I nodded vehemently in agreement. "I know," I said.

I went back and forth over which necklace to choose, then finally paid the mere $12 she was charging for my initial favorite, a variety of brown buttons mixed with some silver and gold ones. Perfect. I bought the bracelet too. I wouldn't wear them together, but I needed to have them both, not just because I loved them but because they were the product of someone's desperate attempts to stave off depression and pain by creating something beautiful. I would appreciate that fact every time I wore them.

I thanked her profusely for the items she wrapped carefully for me, and for her bravery, and moved on. I mistakenly asked the basic question "How are you?" to a man packing up the rusty knicknacks he was selling, that Maine is famous for.

"Not good," he said.

"Oh, sorry, bad day?"

"Bad life," he said. "I got evicted yesterday from my place after 24 years." He nodded sadly as he continued to clear his card table. "The cat is takin' it bad, real bad. I gotta get back to the room I rented before they find her and kick us out. No pets."

"I'm so sorry," I said. What else could I say? I picked up an old paint-peeling piece of wood with the word "Diner" written across it. I kind of wanted it, but it just didn't seem right to ask a price. I felt that even if it was too much I'd be forced to buy it out of guilt and then every time I looked at it I would think of this sad man and his sad life. I put it down.

"Good luck?!" I said.

"Thanks," he grumbled.

I was more careful asking 'how are you?' after that. Sometimes, sadly, you don't really want to know, especially when there is nothing you can do. Mostly, I guess, people don't tell you.

I ended the day on a high note, however. I found a small sewing table with a built-in ruler on the top that was perfect for the kids' room. I had been looking for a desk but had bought a chair earlier in the week, at my annual trip to Ed's Stuff, a rust-filled treasure trove my husband's Uncle, the owner of the Woolwich house, makes merciless fun of me for loving. Oscar had castigated me, as he often does for doing the wrong thing.

"You need to buy a desk, Mommy, remember???" he'd said, shaking his moppy hair, mouth agape in wonder at my doltishness. He would be proud. I had the chair I'd purchased with me and pulled it from the car to check that it worked. It did, perfectly. The pricetag said $30, which was a steal, but I only had $27 left of the $100 I'd started with and the woman said she'd only be around for another half an hour, not even long enough for me to head home for more cash. I offered up my paltry cash sheepishly.

"It's all I have," I said. "Is it enough?"

She nodded. "It's for a good cause," she said, imagining it, I guess, giving joy to little bodies, as it would.

"Thank you!" I said. It even folded, like the chair I'd bought, so my husband wouldn't curse me as he packed the car for home.

A few hours later, purchases proudly shown to the kids by the pool, the cottage cleaned nearly to the perfect state we'd entered it in, we were on the road back to Brooklyn. It seemed wrong after a fabulous day at the flea to stop at Freeport, at the outlets, where the masses moved along paying far too much for mass-produced items.

We skipped it happily. Feet up on the dash, I was reveling in my morning, in the people I'd connected with, and the fruits of their labor I'd appreciatively purchased. I looked over, catching sight of a sign in a trucker's window. I leaned in, taxing my near-sighted eyes to read the hand-written note pushed up against the window on a clip board.

"I LIKE YER FEET," it said. Beside it, the truck driver was smiling at me.

Oh my God. I died laughing, throwing back my head as much as possible against the seat back, giving him the big thumbs up in lieu of a gold star. Hilarious. I always wonder how these guys entertain themselves on the road. Here was one who was really trying. I applauded him, and laughed thinking about it the whole rest of the six hours home. Gotta give people credit for making the best of their lot.

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