Yesterday was one of those delicious days spent in the company of a good friend, eating good food, telling stories, and antiquing. I am older than her; much older. What might someone like her see as good company in someone like me? Perhaps she sees her future because she is becoming a consummate needlewoman. She’s interested in the needlearts in all its many forms, and I have a wonderful time introducing her to some of those forms she is not yet aware. We found some candlewicking on a coverlet, and it was fun detailing the differences between that and Chenille.
So I was not surprised that while picking at my salad my mind wandered to a story I’d written about 35 years ago, a time when I was close to her age. I recalled as much of it as I could and promised to send her a copy if I could find it in my stash. I have so many short stories in my files, and hundreds of columns from my local newspaper when I was once paid to write such things.
It’s not long, and there is not a lot of action to hold your interest, but if you have an emotional attachment to the idea, and the history, of how profoundly important needlework once was to women, then I think you might enjoy this. Here it is in its entirety with poor grammar and a fledgling writer’s style.
An Act of Kindness
There are many reasons to love the fall; the undecided weather, the colors of mums and pumpkins, and the sounds of dried leaves swirling through the yard. The anticipation of holiday meals; the football games with friends; and the joy of guessing who’s behind Halloween masks all add to the excitement of this most glorious season.
But beyond the gathering of friends and festivities, my fondest memories are of being alone, driving the back roads of Virginia looking for a solitary antique shop, far from the beaten path. I’ll pack my thermos and gather my out-of-date collection of county maps, and I’ll head west toward the Shenandoah Valley.
To me antiquing is not merely a pastime. Neither is it an obsession. It is simply time alone to reflect upon what once was and is no longer; a time to dream and hope that the future will be as pure, endurable, and beautiful as the treasures I find.
Thursdays are best, with minimal traffic and a rare “closed” sign. I pick up last year’s search with a renewed zest and an energized anticipation of what lies ahead.
But the fact is that I haven’t a clue just what I’m looking for. Indeed, my interests change from shop to shop. If a store is awash with paintings, it’s a wall I wish to adorn. If its specialty is pot-bellied stoves, I am mentally laying tile in a basement corner to accommodate an old cooker. Everything old has worth to me. I want to clean it, fix it, and use it, no matter what it is.
On this particular day I was driving near the Blue Ridge, just far enough away to keep their majestic beauty in view.
The shop was in an old gas station, and had a single rusted-out pump standing like a sentinel in the tiny parking lot. There were no cars around and no sign. I wasn’t sure it was open. The flicker of a ceiling fan inside convinced me to try the door, and as it opened, the tinkle of a bell rang in harmony with the greeting from behind a desk.
“I’m so glad you found us.” chimed a woman.
She looked vaguely familiar, like an old movie star, but she wore no makeup and her hair was white and soft and piled in a huge bun at the nape of her neck. I felt the most peculiar inclination to hug her, but she turned to push a chair into position so we could sit and talk. I was drinking her tea and deep in conversation before it occurred to me she was a stranger.
Where was I from? Did I have children? Was there traffic on Skyline Drive? Did I think it would rain? The words flowed between us with an ease usually reserved for a mother and daughter.
At some point she asked me what I was looking for. I couldn’t tell her.
“You like linens,” she said with an authoritative tone. How did she know? “I have a trunk my husband brought down yesterday, and I haven’t even looked through it. It’s over here.”
She led me to the front window and pointed to a trunk that without question had not been moved for years. I pretended not to notice. We wedged ourselves between it and the storefront window. The lock was missing, but we had to push and pull to get it open.
An aroma of mothballs and soap swirled around my head. It brought back a memory unclear.
She was right about one thing. I did like linens, and what lay before me made me dizzy. This was not a trunk filled with old sheets. This was surely someone’s collection of heirloom linens, baby clothes, handkerchiefs, and gloves; a veritable museum of vintage textiles.
We made three piles. The “must have,” “already have,” and “needs work, but would like to have.”
We agreed upon a price for the “must have” pile, and she took all three piles to the counter.
After putting my purchases into an old box, she picked up the other two piles and placed them into the box as well. I was speechless.
“You’ll fix these and take care of them,” she said. “I know you will. They’re my gift to you, for your kindness.”
“My” kindness! I didn’t understand, but thanked her several times as I lumbered my way to the door, box in tow.
That night, opening the box was like opening a book, each piece a page of a story. I was up for hours, examining the articles, smelling them, and running my fingers along the seams and edgings, looking for places to repair. There were eighty-nine pieces in all.
Twenty-seven lace edged pillowcases, six of which were child-sized, I laid upon my bed so I could match the lace to make pairs. One in particular had what first appeared to be a repair, but a closer look revealed a French seam on the diagonal near the hemmed lace. Clearly this dainty piece was fashioned from a previous article.
The cotton fabric was as fine as silk, and translucent toward the center where a baby might have rested its head. It was completely hand-sewn, and I wondered aloud if it was fashioned from the wedding dress of a proud but poor immigrant who came to America with her family’s legacy of sewing and lacemaking skills. It was the most romantic thought I’ve ever had. Could it have been her’s. And if so, why hadn’t she kept this piece in the family?
It took me two winters to clean and repair the contents of the trunk. I returned once to the store to share my restoration efforts and show off the more prized pieces, but the shop was vacant. A new store had opened about a mile down the road, and the proprietor told the sad story of how the woman and her husband died within a week of each other the previous winter. She said they opened the shop in 1958, shortly after the death of their only child. I left in tears, and to this day regret not having made the effort to return sooner.
People repeatedly ask what I plan to do with my linen collection which has exponentially grown since that fateful day, and for once I can answer without hesitation.
There will be a moment in my life when I will meet someone- perhaps in my own antique shop – or simply a new friend who is younger and more vibrant than myself. She will be indulgent enough to answer my frivolous questions. She will sit patiently with me and drink tea. Most importantly, her eyes will light up at the mention of a trunk full of linens.
I will tell her this story, and give her the linens, as they were given to me; a gift for one’s kindness.
So that’s the story, verbatim. I’m not nearly ready to part with my collection, and who knows when and where the giving and taking of such kindness will occur. But when I do decide there would be a better caretaker for these priceless pieces, I will be sure to tell this story before I let them go.