Words of Children
It was an unseasonably cool but sunny Saturday morning in early May; still a few hours from midday. I’d just run to Ace Hardware for some knickknack or another for whatever projects were on my workbench in various stages of completion. The great thing about the Ace Hardware by my house is they always seem to have that oddball size nut, screw, bolt or accessory you just can’t find at Home Depot.
Prior to heading to Ace, I’d hit an ATM for some cash. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer paying cash for things rather than using a debit card. No, I’m not a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist; it’s just a habit I carried on from my dad and my grandfather. My dad often said to me when I was in my teens and twenties, “a man should always have a little jingle in his pocket and some cash in his wallet.”
After purchasing my items at Ace, I was heading home when on the side of the road a neon green sign taped to a cardboard box caught my eye. On it, in thick black magic marker, were the words “Yard Sale” with an arrow pointing which way to go.
I love yard sales. I could spend hours and hours visiting yard sales. When I go, mostly I’m looking to augment my collection of tools in the shop, find some small treasure that perhaps my wife would like, an item for the outside bar or something that reminds me of growing up in New Mexico. That said, I must admit that in hindsight I’ve made some pretty silly purchases. One man’s junk is truly another man’s treasure.
Yard sales are my kryptonite. And, I’d just gone to an ATM so my cash was burning a hole in my pocket like a chunk of lava freshly spewed from a volcano.
I turned into a residential neighborhood. A few blocks further I spied a similar colored box with an arrow pointing up that street. It occurred to me this is how mice must feel chasing the scent of cheese in a maze – elated at what they might discover at their destination. After passing the elementary school, I turned left and several blocks in the distance I could see a third box. As I approached, all it had written on the bright green paper was a large arrow pointing left and the box was held down by a rock.
I turned the direction the sign indicated and could see several cars parked in front of a house with tables in the driveway and many large items sitting in the morning sun. Bingo.
Now, not all yard sales are the same. There are the ones that are packed with people and cars that you just know you’re going to stop and at least look. To quote the song “Black Gold” by the band Soul Asylum, “Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd”.
Then there were the ones that appear to have pretty slim pickings or mainly clothes where the cars pass by slowly but don’t stop. When it’s my turn to do the funeral procession crawl in front of the house I try to see if there’s anything of interest. Having had many yard sales myself, I know how depressing it is to have no one – not a single person – stop and even look at what your wares.
As I parked and got out of my car, I could see tools of all different shapes and sizes strewn about. I thought to myself that this was going to be magical! There had to be five different hammers, sledge hammers, shovels, post-hole diggers, wrenches, a bench grinder, sockets and so much more. My money seemed to want to crawl out of my wallet all on its own.
I said hello to the older gentleman in a white muscle shirt and jeans who was running the yard sale and he greeted me with a wan smile and a “good morning” nod. Sitting on the floor of the garage cross-legged was a young girl of perhaps 10 years roughly plunking out notes on a small electronic keyboard. The speaker sounded like an old transistor radio – cutting in and out – and some of the keys didn’t work at all. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to play an actual song. Another young girl, perhaps one or two years older was helping the man.
On the table in front of me, was a large shop dust pan for $5.00 which I knew I needed. I picked up the dust pan so no one else would take it. Yard sales can be cutthroat. The rules are clear: pick something up and then put it down, fair game for the next person. If you plan on buying it, you better hold onto it. This thing was going to be mine.
“There’s more things on the side of the house,” said the man, his back to me as he moved things around in his garage.
I thanked him and followed the sidewalk around the side of the house where it looked like a lawn mower graveyard, with rusted mowers laying one on top of each other like dead prehistoric animals. An old Ford truck with the front wheels on blocks had a sign tucked under the windshield wiper reading “Not for sale”. There were old gas-powered blowers, windshields, car engines and a myriad of larger tools leaning against the block fence.
I found another dustpan similar to the one I had in my clutches but was covered with a thick layer of rust. The handle appeared to be ready to fall off if not treated with care. I decided against that one.
Satisfied with my find, I returned to the front of the house. The older girl had come out from the garage and was standing next to a long table. She wore a white t-shirt with a glittery rainbow unicorn imprint. It was then that the older girl said to me, “Sir, would you like to buy one of my paintings?”
I hate to admit it, but in that moment I had so many things on my to-do list and was preoccupied with looking at the wares, I felt a tiny bit annoyed. I replied, “Not right now sweetheart. Thank you.” Her gaze dropped, saddened. Then, looking her in the eyes I got the distinct feeling there was something not quite right with her. There was nothing physical, but more of a notion that perhaps she had some type of learning disability, or that maybe emotionally she wasn’t on par with her physical self. I’m not a child psychologist by any means nor am I attempting to diagnose. It was just one of those gut feelings that takes ahold of us inside that we decide to pay heed.
“They’re only a dollar.” she said, her voice dropping to almost a mumble.
“Maybe, we’ll see.” I muttered, quietly hoping she’d go back to helping her dad. It wasn’t the money, of course. I just didn’t want to have to deal with a child trying to sell me something. I suddenly felt uncomfortable and had the impulse to set the dustpan back down, get in my car and leave.
“What if I give you one for free, sir? See, I drew these myself.”
The older man spoke up, his Spanish accent much clearer, “Mija, leave the man alone.”
I looked up at her, with the same nervous butterflies in my stomach, but then saw the two drawings, done in colored pencil on white printer paper. They were not traced but drawn by her own hand. The colors were interesting choices – greys, pinks, yellows, greens, blues, purples and reds. There was no training, no sense of hue or form, just simple drawings done by a young girl who wanted someone to appreciate what she’d done. I realized she probably wanted to feel a sense of contributing to the garage sale. Or perhaps she just wanted to make someone smile.
My heart sank. I felt so selfish that I’d ignored her and the pride she’d taken in her drawings. I looked in her eyes and saw just a pure longing to want me to have one of them. I had no idea how many people had come before me that sunny Phoenix morning and not taken her up on her offer. I had no idea how many people had said no to her or all but ignored her as I had done.
“If you don’t like these, I can draw one for you really quick.” she said. A half smile crooked the corner of her mouth.
The man looked at me and I handed him a $5 bill. He nodded to me, and that concluded our transaction.
“Which one do you like the most?” In one hand she held a picture of a rabbit with one ear straight up and the other floppy. The nose was all wrong and the eyes weren’t level or even very eye-looking. In her other hand she’d sketched a grey cat with pink ears. The ears weren’t the same shape and one tilted awkwardly to the left. The right eye winked and had only two eyelashes drawn with an exaggerated curve. The nose she’d drawn was pink triangle and the mouth looked more like a Victor Borge mustache than a mouth.
I glanced at each picture and looked her in the eyes. In them was a pure sweetness, a child-like innocence in them that made my heart melt. There was absolutely no way I could leave this yard sale without one of her drawings. Any my dust pan, of course
I took a breath. “I’d love one of your drawings, sweetheart.” Her face lit up.
“Which one do you want?”
I glanced back and forth at them.
“Tell you what, why don’t you pick for me.”
She looked at each one carefully; studying them like a curator would compare paintings in a museum. “Do you like cats?” she asked.
“Why yes, I have two cats at my house.”
“Then you should take this one.” She handed me the picture of the grey cat. “You can just have it.”
I took the drawing from her, careful not to wrinkle or fold it. “Thank you, very much. I really appreciate it. It’s very beautiful. I tell you what, I’ll put it on my refrigerator, so everyone can see it, ok?”
Her eyes grew wide as she flashed a toothy smile. “Okay!”
Then I handed her a one-dollar bill. “An artist should get paid for their work”, I said to her. She nodded ever so slightly, and I got the impression that she didn’t entirely understand the concept, but I was sure someday it would become clearer.
The girl’s smile grew ear to ear. She took the dollar, showed it to her dad and gripped it in her hand. The dad and I exchanged a quick glance. Then with a grin, he nodded and winked.
I left with my cat picture and dustpan, a little humbled and a little ashamed. I done the one thing that so many years ago I didn’t want to do or be; I was that adult that dismissed a child who was trying to share something they’d created. I remember being the youngest in my family and being told I was to be seen and not heard. I was reminded often that when the adults were talking, I was to be quiet or to be outside playing or in my room. Every time I was at a family function, rarely did anyone want to hear what I had to say as undoubtedly it was considered the ramblings of an over-imaginative child. It wasn’t until my late 20’s and early 30’s that one of my cousins said to me that I’d finally become interesting. It wasn’t too long after my cousin passed away. All the amazing conversations we could have had, all the discussions about music, art, politics, movies and everything else under the sun were gone forever.
I suppose that’s one of the curses of being a youngest (at least for me it was), and one of the shortcomings of it. I grew up with the illusion that as I got older, no one else grew older. Not until much later in life did I notice all my aunts, uncles, cousins and even my parents getting a little grayer and the crow’s feet round the eyes getting a little more defined, or another illness setting in, or attending another funeral.
The cat picture is still on my refrigerator. My wife asked me if I wanted to throw it away, and I just do not have the heart to do that. I like seeing it every day. It makes me smile. It reminds me to be a better person. It gives me hope. It reminds me that even in the current state of turmoil our world seems to be in, a little girl still like to draw cats. I wish I’d had her sign it.
I’m going to save it.
Because one sunny Saturday morning, on the hunt for treasure at a yard sale, I came away with the best and most unexpected treasure of all – I made a little girl happy and in return she left a lasting imprint on my soul and reminded me not to be judgmental and to always look for the wisdom and the beauty in the words and deeds of children.