White elephants are among the odd, old, and generally discarded items that end up at yard sales and flea markets, and Katie Haegele loves them all—or at least an awful lot of them. Rekindled friendship and renewed family bonds are the cornerstones of this quirky and touching memoir inspired by odds and ends, but Haegele demonstrates that knick knacks and old lamps aren’t the only things to be found at a yard sale. Her relationship with her mother is unexpectedly transformed through flea markets and garage sales, as is the deepening connection with her deceased father. Even a bit of romance finds its way into this charming story of personal empowerment and strength in overcoming hardship.
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About the Author
Katie Haegele is a writer and zine publisher. She is the author of the memoir White Elephants and has been published in Adbusters, Bitch Magazine, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer , and the Utne Reader. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.
Read an Excerpt
Yard Sale Season No. 1
The first find of the season was one of the best. The minute I saw it I loved this wicker handbag, with its metal clasp closure and yarn flowers sewn to the front. It's large, with stiff handles and a flip-top lid on hinges, just the thing for the newly warm weather. One dollar for that little prize. I also found a crazy record album by a seventies band called The Incredible String Band. I wish you could see the cover of this album. It's so insane. There are 11 people — six adults and five kids — dressed like circus clowns/vagabonds. There's a dog too. I guess it's a hippie "family" kind of situation. I got to chatting with the lady whose house it was and told her what a kick I got out of the picture, and she showed me some of the other things she'd set out on the tables in her driveway, including a huge floppy sun hat I admired but knew I shouldn't attempt to pull off. She was a woman in her late fifties, younger than my mom by just a little. She had the look of someone who has lived it up and been sad in equal measure, and she seemed to approve of my interest in her junk. "I'm glad you care about ... what went before," she said.
The other house we went to was a few blocks away from home — my apartment building and my mom's house being around the corner. These folks lived in a sweet row house on one of the small blocks near the center of town. I love row houses. They look so cozy and safe tucked in next to each other. They feel cozy inside, too.
This event appeared to be an estate sale, which is touchy. They often have interesting things rather than junk, but depending on who's hosting them they can be weird and sad. The family of a freshly dead person feels bad, usually, but somehow it feels worse when an estate professional handles things, since they hawk the stuff in an impersonal way. It reminds me of funerals I've been to where the priest says nice things about the person who's died but clearly never knew them. Mom and I walked timidly up the stairs and right inside the front door saw a beautiful old bird cage, which encouraged me to go all the way in. A woman was standing near the doorway, though she was trying to act like she hadn't noticed we were coming in. The room was dark even though it was the middle of the day. I admired a pretty old sewing box and the notions inside it, which the woman told me had been her mother's, but I didn't buy anything. The air in that room was heavy and I felt awkward and sorry and wanted to leave. A middle-aged man — maybe the lady's brother — was out front furiously yanking around a garden hose. When Mom and I walked past we said hello but he didn't respond. My guess is his sister wanted to sell some of their mother's stuff and he didn't want her to, but it's impossible to say what was really happening. You never know what goes on with families.
Back at home I was excited to have new music to play on my record player, but I remembered that I'd been having all this trouble getting both speakers to play at once. I called Mom and between her and my mechanically-minded sister they were able to fiddle with the wires until the sound was even. Liz even fixed the mechanism on the player's arm, which had come loose and made the needle skitter across a record when I tried to lift it up. I was delighted to have the afternoon to play records, but this new one was terrible, I have to say. Endless hippie jammy jams. Bleh. I've held onto the album though. It's awesome to look at, a good artifact to add to my museum.
Rummage sales are better than yard sales, mom and I have decided. I had dinner at her house on Wednesday, the day the paper is delivered, and I waited until after we ate to sit in "my" armchair and go through the classifieds. Score. There were two church rummage sales that weekend and two the following, all of them at Protestant churches within a mile or two of home I've passed a million times on foot or in the car or on the bus but, until we started making a project out of rummage sales, never had occasion to go inside. That's part of the pleasure of all this — the snooping. Accidentally walking down wrong hallways into a preschool classroom, quiet and still as a summer day. Church halls and basements feel a lot like people's homes, I find. They're full of personal artifacts, like drawings by the Sunday school kids and bulletin boards covered in snapshots.
"Mom, where's Mount Holly Methodist?" I asked her. She was tucked into her usual spot on the couch, poking away at a large cross-stitch picture of an amaryllis flower in a vase.
"On Mount Holly Avenue," she said in her deadpan way, which could have a question buried at the center of it — why don't you ever remember where anything is? — but then again it might not have.
The sale started Thursday evening and continued the following morning, and since my mom never wants to go anywhere once it's dark out we planned to go on Friday. I work from home so I can do things like this, especially when I don't have much writing work coming in, which happens often enough.
Mom picked me up in her car and we drove to the imposing old stone church. The sale held in this seemingly sleepy place turned out to be the site of two acrimonious disputes. Although, on the sleepy tip, there was actually an old man asleep by the door in a folding chair.
I don't know what was going on with me, but I wasn't in top form that day. I walked in and right away started looking through a pile of purses when this woman I recognized from other rummage sales — there's a crew of us — picked up an adorable pink-and-purple-plaid Bermuda bag right from under my nose that I hadn't even noticed there. She's a woman not much older than me, which makes her younger than the average person on the sale circuit.
"That's really cute," I said, my heart turning black.
"I know! It reminds me of my preppy days!" She pretended to sound lighthearted about it but she clutched that clutch with a death grip. She didn't want me getting it and I don't blame her.
Do you know what a Bermuda bag is, by the way? I had not heard that term before but that's what my mom called it when I told her my sad story. It's a kind of oval-shaped fabric bag with a wooden or plastic handle where the fabric part is detachable. The idea is that you can change your bag to match your outfit, which is ridiculous and outdated but sweet and pretty clever, too.
The other bad moment I had at this sale took place between me and Mom, when she found this set of small decorative plates with birds on them that I would have loved to have had in my apartment. When I said so, she offered me one. I just shook my head in dismay. Mom, don't you know the fun of rummage sales is in the finding? I did not find these, therefore I remain disappointed. All I ended up getting that day was a wind-up E.T. that walks toward you on its plastic feet like a robot, and a big button that says "I've got it!" So-so finds, but you can't hit the jackpot every time.
The next morning we drove over to mom's old neighborhood to go to a sale at an Episcopal church called St. Barnabas. This is an original suburb. It was a development plotted out before the suburbs existed as such — during the 1940s. It was built on the vast flat moonlike emptiness of leveled ground because they tore all the trees out. It doesn't look like a moonscape now because the trees and shrubs planted by new homeowners 60 years ago have reached their full height and they fill the empty spaces, decorating the neighborhood like flowering furniture. The identical houses aren't identical anymore either. Now they have different shapes with additions and decks and new roofs. It's still very quiet over here, though, and a bit of a time warp. There are no sidewalks and the streets are wide and paved with blacktop that seems perfectly smooth, so your car rolls quietly along. Nothing else around here is like that, not in Philadelphia, city of potholes and everything busted.
There's something touching about St. Barnabas, the way it's right in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, on a plot between two houses and not much bigger than either of them. It reminds me of how our family dog, who had no dog friends, used to mince around with the two cats, trying to look dainty like them.
This sale turned out to be interesting. It was a classic "jumble," with a number of wooden tables all heaped with clothing and other junk. But the building is newer than the others we've gone to, maybe it was built in the fifties, and it had the fresh feeling of a place that's used regularly, like I was in someone's living room. It made me want to be less disheveled and more polite than usual.
I scored a few excellent items, including an unopened counted cross-stitch kit that said "Beware of attack cat." It came with a flat wooden black cat figure to glue onto the finished piece. I pictured Trixie, my companion cat who is herself black, doing her tap dance of excited play-fighting back at home, as she could surely vibe the awesomeness of this find. I know Mom was in the market for baskets and vases that she could use to make flower arrangements for the garden club we both belong to (but for which I'm too lazy to ever contribute arrangements), but I don't know if she found any. I wasn't paying attention, and I got unnerved by an encounter with St. Barnabas' lady pastor. I was carrying around the cat cross-stitch and probably smiling about it because a plain-dressed woman with a large cross around her neck came up to me with the intention of starting a conversation. She wasn't your usual rummage sale kook, she was greeting me from a position of authority, and she seemed to be around my age, no older than her mid-30s. This freaked me out for some reason.
"Looks like you found something good there," she said in a fond, teasing way.
"Oh! Yeah, totally. I enjoy these kinds of embroidery projects. It's soothing." There, I said too much, soothing means I have problems and now she knows it. We stood facing each other with awkward smiles and then I ducked my head and turned away to examine a colander on the table next to me.
"I think that lady is the pastor!" I hissed to Mom when I found her a few minutes later.
"Well yes, I think she might be, Katie," said my mom in her voice that means What is the big deal?
Whatever, I also found a neat magnetic memo board thing that seems to have been intended for use in a kindergarten classroom or something because it has the alphabet printed in bright red along the top. What's weird about it — and there is usually something weird — is that some letters are repeated, some three times, some only two, so as I read it I felt vaguely dizzy and worried that I was about to get one my headaches. It looks like this:
And so on. It's trippy but useful and I will happily buy it for ten cents and hang it in my kitchen, thank you, where I can tack up shopping lists and cleaning schedules. I found a fake gold chain and a fake gold pendant with a cluster of flowers painted white over the metal, which I feel looks downtown in a rich, Lucky magazine kind of way. I made the best find on the way out, where they had books and cards on a bookcase in the hallway — an unused box of stationery from the seventies, green paper with a photo image of daisies and grass running up one side, with matching green envelopes. I love writing letters and at this point I have probably 12 or so regular pen-pals — people I met through zines. Whenever I find it I snap up writing paper, ugly or pretty or both.
Later, at home, I put on a record and sat down to write a couple of letters I'd owed for a while. I used some notecards though, not the new stationery set; it's too new. It needs to do its time in the drawer first.
Some days I just feel like hearing a record, which is a different experience than listening to the radio or my iPod, in part because the music I have on vinyl is old stuff that I don't listen to any other way. I bought the record player one day several years ago in a kind of panic. In the months after my father died my mom gave and threw away his things with abandon. She couldn't get rid of them fast enough. I was living back at home with her at the time, and one morning on my way out the door to my stupid job at a low-rent business magazine I saw all my dad's records stacked up on either side of the front door.
"What are you doing? You can't get rid of these!" I told her, freaking out, but she could, and she intended to. As a kid I'd started to develop my own taste in music by finding these records, fondling the brittle paper inside and studying the liner notes and pictures, then listening to them on my parents' nice stereo without their permission, wearing huge headphones so they wouldn't hear and know what I was doing. The Stones, the Beatles, the Band, Joe Cocker, some jazz, lots of soul music, and several operas: Music was important to my dad and there are some songs that still make me think of him and nothing else, like the costumey sadness of Kurt Weill. God he would have loved Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in The Threepenny Opera. At least I think he would have approved. I wish I could ask him.
Anyway, the thought of losing these records made me go cold with something like real fear, but the hoarding of objects is one area where my mother is perfectly unsympathetic to my feelings. She told me if I wanted to keep any of them I'd better take care of it now because thisafternoon the "guys" were coming, some men she'd hired to haul away the old things that I guess they will either use themselves or sell, so in several awkward trips up the stairs I carried heavy armloads of them to my childhood bedroom, cursing that I was already late for work and trying not to cry. I'm glad to have something to listen to them on but honestly, I only bought the player because she made me feel that keeping records I couldn't listen to was something only a crazy person would do.
So, before I sat down to write my letters I put on some Otis Redding. One of Dad's all-time favorites and now one of mine. Did you know he was only 26 years old when he died, Otis Redding? His voice and his lyrics were so husky and worldly, it's hard to remember he was so young. But back then people were grown up by that age. I think in the old days everybody actually wanted to be an adult, whereas now everybody wants to stay a kid.
I like to write letters at my desk, which is an ugly one with a fake wood top and metal filing drawers, just like you'd have in a real office. I bought it new from an office supplier to make a kind of joke to myself, a comment on the idea of "real" jobs versus "real" work, since I use the desk to do my writing. It sits beside a window in my living room that overlooks a huge horse chestnut tree. The tree is magnificent this time of year, all its tiny new leaves glowing a pastel green when the sun catches them right. I did some writing but mostly I just sat there at the desk, quiet for a while, the Otis Redding making it feel like church.
* * *
Mom and I went to so many other sales this month it made our heads spin. I'm just gonna bang them out for you, one after the other.
St. Martin's Lutheran
This church hall had a stage, like the one from the hall in the parish I grew up in, and the stage was where they had arranged cafeteria tables full of books. I got Best American Poetry, 1997, which seemed important because 1997 was a year I was completely uninterested in poetry so I had some catching up to do. Many of these poems turned out to be dated in style and not, in my estimation, very memorable or exciting, sort of dead on the page. But a few had arresting images, which is usually all I ask of a poem. There's a good one by Charles Simic where he talks about seeing something moving in the street late at night while he's standing on his porch. I also snagged an awesome wide yellow plastic wicker-looking belt, and had a nice conversation with an eccentric old woman, so tiny next to me, in the check-out line that ended at a stainless steel table in the church kitchen where two women sat at cash registers. The woman had found a mug with a kitten on it to give to her friend, who loves all animals.
Swedenborg Library Sale
Oh, the New Church Swedenborg. This place is a church and college that are legendary around here, though no one seems to know exactly what it is. They have green grounds like a golf course, magnificent gardens, and a massive white cathedral with spires and everything, sitting there like it was dropped down from the sky. I've been looking at it my whole life and mystified by it, like, suddenly we're in the South of France? What happened? Mom and I knew nothing about this place, so we were excited to find their library sale listed in the paper this week. That allowed for a little snooping.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "White Elephants"
Copyright © 2018 Katie Haegele.
Excerpted by permission of Microcosm Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Guideposts Yard Sale Season No. 1,
The Off Season,
I Love You, Secondhand Junk Yard Sale Season No. 2,
Later That Year,
Indecent, Dowdy, Hideous, Quaint: Yard Sale Season No. 3,
Another Off Season,
The Physics of See-Saws Yard Sale Season No. 4,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Such a cute book - easy reading. Enjoyed reading it on a plane... Katie, helps you understand the meaning of garage sales. Never thought of it the way she did until now. Buying a piece of someone's memories through an item at a garage sale. Seems like it gave her a special bond with her mother as well. I very much enjoyed reading it... Katie, good job, looking forward to your next book :)
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a delight to read. You share an intimate friendship with Katie immediately. She has a talent that will entertain you throughout, and you won't want it to end. Share this wih all your friends. I highly recommend it.