By Wendy Hodge
For a while now, Saturday has been the day my best friend and I get to spend a few hours together. Sometimes we go to the firing range to sharpen our skills; often we try a new restaurant, sampling each other’s meals; always we laugh and talk, and the hours slip by like moments. My favorite times are when the sky is clear, the windows are down and the music is loud, and we are right where we are supposed to be.
Recently, we discovered how much we both like yard sales and estate sales. We’ll climb in his truck, I’ll check the online ads to find the local sales, and we’ll GPS from one stop to the next. Sometimes there is already a crowd ahead of us, and sometimes we are the only ones to show up. We’ve found some real treasures on our trips! For him, there has been a gold mine of fishing lures and hand tools. For me, there has been an old Underwood typewriter and a leather pocket dictionary from the late 1800s labeled ‘For Today’s Gentleman.’ The pages are worn smooth, and someone’s fingers left barely visible indentions in its cover. Whose vest pocket did that small reside in?
There is a mixed emotion involved in going into someone else’s house, seeing all their possessions on display. There’s a voyeuristic element to browsing through personal items like a prom dress or well-worn bath towels or high school yearbooks or monogrammed coffee mugs.
There’s also a bit of sadness, particularly at estate sales, with the realization that someone’s life has ended and the rest of us are here to pick through the remains of their life’s labor. And, too, there’s that gnawing reminder that we, just like this person, will someday be gone. Will there be a Saturday morning that finds strangers walking through a place I’ve lived and paying a dollar for the last book I ever read?
On this particular Saturday, my best friend and I are in a house in an old, but well-kept, neighborhood in Opelika. The family who lived here for 40 years has packed up and moved north, hiring a representative to sell off their belongings. A garage full of tools has caught my best friend’s attention, so I am left to wander in search of… books, maybe?… ‘cause a girl can never have too many books.
Passing tables of Christmas wreaths and wrapping paper, I spot a box in the corner marked “Photos $1 each.” The photo on top is a studio picture, sepia toned, about a century old, of a young man in a suit and bow tie with slicked-back hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. He has the grim expression that seemed to be the standard pose when “sitting for a likeness” in the days before Kodak.
As I flip through the pile, I find more formal pictures – a baby with a stern-looking woman (the nanny, possibly?), a father in a three-piece suit and top hat with children at his feet (the babies are even wearing formal clothes!), a bridal party standing stiffly shoulder to shoulder (waiting for the bride and groom?) – all with that same expression, as if they have forgotten how to smile.
Halfway through the box, however, is a photograph that makes me pause. It is a portrait of a young girl, maybe in her early teens, with brunette waves and a bow in her hair. Her head is tilted down, and she is looking up at the camera. Smiling. No somber expression, but a genuine smile. It’s her eyes, though, that make me draw my hand back and gasp. Her eyes look so familiar. I’ve seen that face before. In the corner of the photo, someone has written simply “Vivian.”
Beneath it is another photo of the same girl, Vivian, with a younger girl, both wearing white dresses and holding a bouquet of flowers. The back reads, “Vivian and Susie.” And yet another photo of the same two girls, this time several years older, and both wearing long black clothes and no hint of a smile. The caption on the back reads, “Vivian and Susie, in memory of Sissy, November 1921.”
I leaf through the rest of the stack, hoping for more. And there, at the bottom of the box, is one more portrait of Vivian. This time she is sitting with a book in her hands, seemingly unaware of the photographer, completely lost in what she is reading. I turn the picture over and read, “Vivian, our little reader and writer, September 24, 1917, 14th birthday.”
We share the same birthday, more than half a century apart.
My best friend walks up behind me and leans over to see what has my attention. “Hey,” he says, “That looks like you.”
And it does. The eyes, the shape of the chin, the hair… it’s like looking at a slightly different version of myself, in Victorian clothes and so many decades away.
“She was a reader and a writer, just like you,” he says quietly. And then he picks up the box of photos and approaches the older lady behind a card table who is handling all the transactions. “We’ll take the whole box,” he says.
As we drive away, he with his screwdrivers and flashlights, and me with my box of photos, I hold the birthday photo of Vivian in my hand and wonder. What was her favorite book? Did she write about her life or did she make up fantasy stories to entertain her younger sister? Was she happy? Did she grow up and become everything she wanted to be?
“You want to know her whole story, don’t you?” my best friend asks.
“Yes,” I answer with a sigh. “But I never will.”
“That’s okay. It’s enough that you see her now.” My best friend is a very wise person.
So as this Saturday ends, Vivian’s photo is framed and sitting next to my vintage typewriter and my gentleman’s pocket dictionary. And she will watch as I write my stories. And, yes, that is enough.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.