I was 12 years old when my grandfather passed away in the summer of ‘96. Grandpa Jack was not my real grandfather, rather, he was the man my grandmother married after my real grandfather spiraled down a path of cash and drug fueled self-destruction culminating in his untimely, unnatural death. Grandpa Jack, however, might as well have been our real grandfather as far as anyone was concerned. A gentleman, patient, well-spoken and dedicated to family life, it was a second marriage for him as well, and a marriage that lasted to the end.
When a person dies, certain realities and unpleasant matters of practicality begin to set in. All of the banks and credit card companies have to be notified. Pension managers and lawyers require phone calls. And then there is all of the stuff. Stuff that a person accumulates over the years. Objects and items that are important to them, but trivial to other people. My grandfather didn’t have lots of stuff, but the stuff he had, he held on to for long periods of time and took good care of. Like most men in his generation, the maintenance of machines, the polishing of shoes, the oiling of baseball gloves, and the neat and orderly arrangement of one’s personal effects were practically second nature. People thought before buying, took good care of what they purchased, and used things for as long as they could be used before discarding or repairing them. Then there are the items of sentimental value. There were Zippo lighters from his military service, awards and plaques from his years as a company man at a big oil firm. There were objects of curiosity that he picked up from all around the world, a sword cane from Singapore, a gold watch with the face of a Saudi King on the dial from one of his trips to the middle east. There were several model sail boats, the old kind that used wooden pieces.
And then there was all of the furniture that my grandmother no longer needed as she transitioned into a small apartment. Desks, work benches, cabinets, bar stools etc. With nobody in the family needing new furniture, we did what most Americans do and loaded all of the furniture into our garage to be sold at a garage sale at some later date. The garage sale; as stereotypically American as lawn art, apple pies, and baseball. Every weekend in our suburban middle class neighborhood, signs would be taped up, garage doors would open, goods would be pushed out for display, and this great American tradition would commence. Signs were cut from poster board and out came the giant Sharpie markers and rolls of tape to produce sign after sign. We’d ride our bikes around the neighborhood plastering up these signs on every lamp post. “GARAGE SALE: tools, furniture, golf clubs, etc. Saturday 8AM to 1pm.”
Early Saturday morning before 8AM, I walk out to the garage and turn on all of the lights. Stuff. Lots of stuff. So much stuff. My grandfather had seen fit to hold on to all of this stuff, and yet here we were, about to sell nearly object he ever cherished for pennies on the dollar, to total strangers. Very American indeed. Objects with value. Objects that stored fond memories of the past. The value of the handmade cane umbrella was not in its fine quality, but in its back story. That rainy day in Singapore when my grandfather and grandmother ran from their taxi to the side of the street and the entrance of a local market. He, holding his coat over my grandmothers head so she wouldn’t get wet. She, completely delighted to be accompanying him on yet another business trip to what seemed like the far reaches of the world. The child-like laughter coming from these two people who were just about to enter their twilight years together, seemingly without a care in the world. Cancer is a bitch. It grows slowly and without any initial symptoms. Most people with cancer wakeup with a smile and go about their daily lives without a care in the world. They do this because they do not know that they have cancer.
A vendor with a big smile, welcoming the two Americans into his small shop and offering them some towels to dry off and a place to sit down. Umbrellas of all sorts. This man must have been a third or fourth generation craftsman. He must have had hundreds of umbrellas in all colors lining the walls of his small shop. Bamboo umbrellas with floral prints and real ivory handles. Subtle colored canvas umbrellas with polished light and dark grained wooden handles, some wrapped in leather or crocodile skin. What a wonderful shop, what perfect timing. My grandfather picks a large blue umbrella with curved bamboo handle. He’s not the type to seriously negotiate the price and the shopkeeper isn’t the type to take advantage of an old couple on vacation. Money changes hands and back out into the rain they go, putting the umbrella to immediate use.
My grandfather held onto that umbrella for what must have been 35 years, and there it sat, upright in a canister next to some golf clubs and old furniture, ready to be snapped up by some early morning bargain hunter completely oblivious to its history. Countless items that meant so much to one person, have now seemingly lost all of their value upon that person’s passing. The value of an object dies with the owner and it becomes worth only what a stranger is willing to pay for it. The items that don’t sell will end up in a landfill buried under layers of dirt. The owner and at least some of his objects, ironically, end up sharing a similar fate.
Fuck it. I take the umbrella out of the canister. Everything else can go, but I figure I’ll keep the umbrella. It’s 8AM and the cars filled with early morning bargain hunters are beginning to pull up. The door bell rings before I have a chance to open the garage door and officially begin the garage sale. I open the door and standing before me is an Asian man in shorts and a polo shirt. He has an easy smile and a relaxed demeanor. I vaguely recognize him as one of our neighbors. As it would turn out, Mr. Hwang was the first Korean person I’d ever meet…