I confess to a weakness for estate sales. Perhaps it’s the writer in me that is fascinated by the myriad of eclectic treasures one can find. Strolling through an estate sale is like wandering through the years of someone’s life: wondering where they acquired this particular piece of art, pondering what types of outdoor dinner parties were held on that wrought iron table. How many rounds of Battleship did they play with their grandchildren? Judging by the dog-eared box, quite a few!
Whose aunt or grandmother made that wedding quilt?
A few months ago, I attended an estate sale held by the daughters of a dear friend named Mary Sue. That sale did not have the usual draw for me; after all, I felt like I knew her life. Rather, I went partially to support Mary Sue’s daughters because I know just how hard it can be to hold such a sale. Those hagglers! Someone trying to negotiate me down a few dollars over my mom’s Pyrex bowl almost reduced me to tears. Didn’t that buyer realize the birthday cakes that bowl had produced?
I was also at the sale because I really wanted to take something of Mary Sue’s home: a trinket that would remind me of her. I never, ever expected to come away with an asparagus plate.
First of all, I have to ask: Are asparagus plates incredibly common and I’m just too uncouth to realize? (Looking at the Crate & Barrel website, I think the answer is yes). On that Saturday at the sale, I stood in Mary Sue’s kitchen, turning the plate over and over in my hands trying to identify what the odd grooves in the plate might be for. Draining bacon? Not deep enough, and why would you use a shiny porcelain plate for that?
Her daughter told me the plate’s purpose and we got a good giggle out of it. I could imagine Mary Sue laughing, perhaps rolling her eyes over the “treasure” I chose to remember her by. But it’s actually quite appropriate: the plate is dainty and whimsical and fun. Just like her.
I miss my friend.
I had not thought of that asparagus plate in several months until today. I was in North Carolina speaking to a church book club about Mt. Moriah’s Wake. Amidst a few weeks of work stress, it was the perfect respite to be with book lovers, discussing the story. To remember that, at my core, I am a writer. We spent time talking about the sense of place in my novel—and how a sight or smell can take you right back to a precious place from your childhood. We talked about sanctuaries—the real structures and those that rest in your heart. About the beloved ghosts of your past who hover around and within you as you sit in a church where you’ve belonged for so many years.
It’s certainly that way for me. Every time I’m in my church’s sanctuary I can close my eyes and imagine my parents seated in “their” pew. By memory, I can feel the slip of paper—with caricatures of puppies—passing from the old man sitting behind us to my young daughters. Listening with my heart I can hear the majesty of bells, trumpets and soprano voices lifted on Easter mornings.
At the end of the book club, several people asked me to sign their copies. One woman held out a book and said that someone had anonymously left it in the church. She asked if I would sign it so that it could be donated to the church library.
To my shock, when I opened the novel to sign, there was the inscription I had written to Mary Sue a year ago at my 2021 book launch party in Nashville. In my hands was Mary Sue’s copy of Mt. Moriah’s Wake.
I recall the email I received from Mary Sue late one night when she finished my novel. The email pinged my phone just as I was drifting off to sleep. She told me my parents would be proud of me. She said she had loved the book and that somehow I had captured how it feels to survive something. I asked her if she wasn’t a little too old to be up that late and, of course, she responded that I was a little too young to go to bed so early. Touché.
Fast forward a year, and there I was, 500 miles from home holding the very book that had been Mary Sue’s. I remember when she presented it to me to be signed. “Write something nice!” she had said in her sweet Southern drawl, as I put pen to paper.
You can chalk it up to serendipity, or the fact that many people travel between Tennessee and North Carolina. After all, it’s only logical that the book has been out long enough to be recycled or resold.
Or you can file this under those unexpected moments of grace that reach out and tickle us just when we need them the most and expect them the least. Shadowy hands grasping ours—if only for a second. Gentle sunbeams lighting our path, caressing us with their warmth. Reminding us where we come from. Who we are. And whose.
What if the lady had not shown me the book? What if I had not opened it and found the inscription? What other delights slip by without my noticing?
For today, I’m thankful for blessed coincidences, for long drives through the mountains, for women of faith who are readers, for the Mary Sues whose love is recycled and reborn and forever logged in the recesses of our hearts. And for the sweet, tender whimsy of an asparagus plate that made me smile and laugh.