A picture is as good a place to begin as any. A black and white photo. Grainy and at this point of unknown origins. My uncle took it most likely. My grandfather in the upper left corner, microphone in his hand, standing up in front of a crowd of people, at the auction house. My grandmother is there, sitting at his right hand, her clerk's books open in front of her. She looks in the direction of the photographer, as do many folks in the crowd. The boy in the letter jacket. Family friend Irma. The man at her side. The man in the fedora. The mother in the fur hat. And the daughter, carrying a matching purse and sucking her thumb. The rest of the folks, the slower to turn perhaps, remain facing my grandfather, who is in the midst of pointing his finger right at you, the viewer behind the lens, the one they turn to see. The one who perhaps just bid on some item. Blessed with his attention for the moment. Then he is singing again. He searches the faces of the others out there. What are you going to do? Do you want this? What is it that you want?
I pull my attention from my grandfather and wonder how my grandmother got up there to her perch, I seem to remember her crawling around the edge of the stage and climbing. She too will watch the crowd. Take down the number of the bidder. Making note of the sold price. But she does it quietly. They are a pair. They needed each other. I notice the broom behind her. The stuff hanging around on the walls. Things I never noticed as a child. Knowing her now, how she is lean and uncluttered in her current life, I wonder what her struggles were then, despite the romantic lens through which I see that stage in her life. What is reality and what is illusion? Does it matter now?
In this photo, circa 1975, my grandmother is nearly the same age as I am as I write this in 2015. She has approximately five more years with grandpa. Sometime in that period of time, the auction house will burn down and be rebuilt into something no longer cluttered and to my mind, never the same. It has also been about the same amount of years since my aunt Susie died at the age of nine, their youngest daughter, a loss too hard for me to imagine. This camera, our lens, held in some unknown hands, captured a moment by pure chance, a moment where my grandfather held the rapture of a group of people, enough so that with a point and a stutter of numbers, they all turn to see. And that was the moment that the shutter was triggered. By whom? Who knew I would need that photo? Could it really have been by chance?
I might have been there that Thursday night at the auction house. I often went to stay with my grandparents, "helping" get ready for the auction, traying up stuff and putting it along the loading docks for display. At least until I got bored with that and began chasing my sister through the items, climbing up and down the dirty palates and making coffee and fake creamer concoctions and then stirring them with a straw. It would have been a little cold in the room. I would have had a grape soda to drink and maybe a bag of Fritos. Irma would have hugged me when she arrived and given me an Eskimo kiss and I would have hugged her back and been enveloped in her unwashed polyester scent. And when the socializing stopped and the show began, Grampa's voice was so fast, singing numbers, in front of everyone, laughing and teasing the crowd. How could they keep from bidding, from becoming regulars?
Even though this moment was just an explosion of the flash cube long, it was known to me. Familiar in that I had an unquestioned role and a place. I knew that Grandma was looking out for me. I knew to be quiet. I knew to keep an eye out for Becka, my little sister. I knew Irma was as kind as anyone on the earth, smell or no smell. I knew there was a Salted Nut Roll waiting for me and that Grandma would pull me to her lap before bed, just to "love me up" and Grandpa would tuck the blankets all the way around me until I was like a mummy in the roll away. And the Grandfather clocks would be ticking away in my ears. Gathered from household auctions all over the Minnesota River Valley, they would pull on the tempo of my heart, all entraining, just a bit painfully, a bit comfortingly together. It is something I still have and yet I don't have, it has changed a million times over, over the 40 years or so since it was 'reality'. I could sit in my grandmother's lap today, or she could sit in mine. I just have to take the time to make it happen and hope there is some unknown shutter on some unknown lens ready to release and capture the moment forever. Or at least for long enough.
This is a link to a YouTube that is not my grandfather, but every auctioneer story deserves an audio!