It is satisfying when things are orderly and right with the world. It is also a rare event, at least in our experience. Things can be right with the world but orderly, well, not so much.
One thing that was orderly, and a great source of satisfaction to me, was my antique dish collection. They were at the same time things of beauty and things of family. In a brief period of time I inherited 5 sets of antique dishes. Of course, I already had some dishes. None so fine, but nice enough. We had dishes I bought at the grocery store, at yard sales and in box lots at Bill Smith’s antiques auction.
My mom loved antiques. One summer when we lived in New Hampshire, she came to stay with us. On Tuesdays, she and my spouse would pack a picnic supper, come and pick me up from my job at the White River Junction VA in Vermont and if we skedaddled, we could make it in time to take a turn around the auction hall finding things we liked before the first hammer fall. Tuesday night at William A Smith Auctions, aka “Bill Smith’s” in New Hampshire, at least 15 years ago, was a fine affair filled with casual buyers and the serious buyers all looking for treasure. We belonged to the cadre of the serious buyers and believe me, we took our treasure seriously.
The Tuesday night auctions were scheduled to start at 5 pm and end at 11 pm. Back then, they went until the stuff went. It was not uncommon for it to end on the half-midnight (after 11:30) side of 11 pm. I remember a few occasions when it went even later. Of course, the later the hour, the less desirable—or obviously desirable—the items were. The casual buyers came and were gone by 8 or 9 pm taking with the specific treasure they came to procure. The serious ones stayed carefully spinning out their pennies until the last hammer fall hoping to win the single treasure that would make your auction story top all other auction stories.
One night the auction ran long. As it was closing in on 1 AM Mr. Smith move the the microphone from his mouth, and with a slump in his stance that came from auctioning items for the past 8 hours, said, “Folks, we are not going to make it through all this stuff tonight. Go and look around and if there is anything you want to bid on and bring it up here.” We got up and wandered around digging through the treasure and the leftovers of other people’s lives. Each of us found a thing or two. I found something I liked and dragged it up. When the bidding started, I bid $2.00, a common opening bid at the later hours of the night. Someone else bid $4 dollars. That was ok. I bid $6 expecting it to end there. Suddenly, a fellow serious buyer bid $10. I turned and looked at her with daggers and surprise both. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I figured if you wanted it, it must be worth something,” to which I replied, “do you know what it is?” She responded she had no idea. We both burst out laughing, as did all 10 other people who were left in the hall. She stopped bidding and I got it for $12.
It was common practice for us to bid a bit, but not seriously, against each other. We each had our specialties and our likes. No colluding went on but respect for each other’s likes and knowledge was part of the camaraderie of that group that existed only on Tuesday nights at Bill Smith’s. It was a fine group. When the casual bidders were there we usually just bided our time until something we really wanted came up. Then, heaven help the tourist bidder. An expert was loose with a paddle. At the end of the auction when the staff brought our treasures to load into our cars, sometimes things that went out the door for one car went out the parking lot in another. Trading went on from the start to the finish. I remember those days as dust and deviled eggs, the cadence of an auctioneer’s voice, metal folding chairs scraped on an old wood floor and above all, good will toward each other.
As I wrote about in “Wedding Rings and Dining Things” (intermountainwest.tumblr.com/post/28077144836/july-24-wedding-rings-and-dining-things) we had no “good” dishes when we were married. The best we had were “fine china” ones that I had collected with my purchase at the grocery store each week. I had gotten our every-day-dishes a plate at a time the same way and those were ok but I yearned for some good dishes. I grew up with good dishes and somehow felt like I was missing something. Even when there was very little money for the food for the meal, every holiday brought out the good dishes. We were taught from an early age how to take care of good dishes. They never went into the dish washer, you only dried them with a soft cloth and when you set them down after drying them, you never stacked one on the other. After dinner they would be spread all over the counter, dish by dish. Of course, all of the women across and up and down generations were in the kitchen giggling and drying dishes. My lonely grocery store dishes fell short.
One of those Tuesday evenings at Bill Smith’s I found a box in a dark corner that had two sets of dishes piled carelessly in it. Plate upon plate, cups a kilter and bowls wobbling around. It was a mercy that they made it to the auction house at all. I carefully dug under the first set to peer at the bottom one. It was dark and I could not see all that well but they looked like good dishes to me. The ones on the top were a blue version of my pink grocery store dishes. I left the box in the corner hoping that no one would notice it. No one did. When it finally came up for bid, I bid right off and even my family thought I was crazy. I don’t remember how much I paid for the box lot, it could not have been because we allowed ourselves a budget about the same as a movie ticket. I do remember that I sold my pink dishes and the blue ones on top for more money than the box lot cost. What I salvaged from the box was 7 dinner plates and 8 bread and butter plates of Royal Doulton, Carolyn pattern 1984-1992. I had good dishes.
In the ensuing years, because we were the place where things landed to be held for the next generation, we inherited many sets of “good dishes.” We never actually counted but we joked we could serve a couple of hundred people without washing a plate. I had service for 8 in Rosenthal Queens Bouquet (circa 1920). I had service for 8 along with a full set of serving platters in Royal Doulton, Tintern (circa 1935). From my grandmother who loved gaudy things, I inherited service for 16 in Havilland’s Berkeley pattern. It was ivory with a gold rim. She even had gold flatware to go with it. After my mom died, I inherited her very large collection of Grindley, Grace pattern (1890s) that had been her grandmothers and was to be her granddaughters. On ebay I have been able to replace a few of those antique dishes that linked us to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
My mother-in-law, who is one of my most treasured friends, always says with a twinkle in her eye, “a woman can never have too many dishes.” That is probably true. I have learned that they need not be “good” dishes; just like the cheap paper plates we ate from at Bill Smith’s auctions on Tuesday nights, all dishes are good dishes when the food they contain is given in love. Fancy or humble, they are some of the bits and pieces and treasures that make up a home.
Many of the wonderful bits and pieces and treasures came to our house from Bill Smith’s. When we have built us a new house, we shall travel to New England to stay with friends and go to Bill Smith’s auctions on Tuesday night. We must arrive on a Monday and leave on Wednesday a week so that we can attend two Tuesday nights. I have no idea if it is still like it was. Probably not. Mr. Smith Sr. has passed on and the old wood floors have given way to a beautiful new facility. Still, it will be fun to see what new treasures we can find.