I remember with pride so many of my early customers after I initially opened the antique shop and, of course, my first ever sale. Who wouldn’t? There is one customer, however, who will always remain quite significant to me because my experience with her really married the whole romantic notion of having an antique shop business alongside my venerable New England home. As time goes by, I have grown quite smitten with both.
Most customers who visit my shop seem to follow the same funny protocol when arriving, I have observed. They hesitantly drive in, almost nervous that they might be intruding on someone else’s private property, park their cars, slowly step out and look around as if to expect an uncertain doom for being in a place they maybe shouldn’t….even though there are two very welcoming signs at the bottom of the driveway and two more at the entrance to the shop. I get a kick out of this, mainly because I’ve sometimes done the same thing myself when I have stopped at roadside antique shops in my travels. When customers arrive, my practice is to greet folks immediately with much friendliness and enthusiasm. Their uneasiness quickly melts away as a discussion of a.) the beautiful weather we are having today, or b.) oh, my….how charming your shop is (my personal favorite) quickly ensues. On one particular day though, a car approached me as I came out of the shop and it was anything but this goofy, unspoken rule of ambivalence antiquers seem to abide by on occasion. Instead, this car came confidently up the driveway at a decent pace and whipped into a parking spot with an air of dexterity. As soon as the car had stopped, a woman popped out almost instantly and exclaimed to me, “My mother couldn’t wait to come here!!” She then zipped over to the passenger side to let out an elderly woman who I could only assume was her mom.
I watched as the much older of the two women came out of the car and stood on the driveway, patiently waiting for her daughter to retrieve a purse. Her hair was a snowy white, the beautiful kind I hope to have some day when I’m brave enough to stop coloring mine. Pale skin and soft, sweet features accentuated her dark eyes which I couldn’t help but to notice seemed intently focused on something that, for some reason, I could not also see. Clearly she was standing there on my driveway, but her eyes told me she was somewhere else. I smiled warmly and said, “Welcome!” and her eyes refocused on the here and now, just as her daughter bustled over to us, talkative and bubbly, chirping, “Oh it’s such a big deal to finally be here! My mother has wanted me to bring her to your shop ever since you put the sign up that said your opening date. I just couldn’t do it right away even though she kept asking. What an ordeal!” she laughed. I assured them both I was very glad they were here now and invited them to come inside.
For someone who had so desperately wanted to come to my shop, the elderly woman, whose name I learned from polite introductions was Flora, seemed to lack any interest or excitement once she stepped inside. On the other hand, her daughter was delighted with everything and continued her idle banter with me as she walked all around the shop picking up items with child-like squeals, showing her mother and me her finds, and sharing the memories they brought back to her. All the while her mother quietly followed behind, not looking at or saying much, just a small nod in her daughter’s direction from time to time. To say the least, I was perplexed. Why had she wanted to come here so badly when she clearly appeared more melancholy rather than enchanted? It just seemed rather peculiar given everything her daughter had been telling me. Then I saw her stop in front of a jelly cupboard, staring with same intensity as she did earlier when she first stepped out of the car on the driveway. Flora stood in front of that cupboard for the longest time, now oblivious to her daughter’s chatter and to another customer who had just arrived, but this time I could see the object of her attention – an old string of sleigh bells I had hung on its open, front door. I watched and wondered what it was about them that had captivated her. (continued after photo)
Many minutes had passed with Flora still in front of that cupboard door, and thankfully I could busy myself with a purchase at the counter and the ongoing conversation from her daughter so that she wouldn’t notice me watching her! Eventually Flora made her way over to me in a determined manner, but when she reached the counter she turned back to face the old cupboard again with some degree of pensiveness. “Did you find something you liked?” I asked but Flora did not respond. I was starting to think something was truly wrong with this poor woman when finally she spoke.
“You know,” she began, “the gentleman who lived here used to court me,” she said. “Yes, he courted me back when we were all in school together,” she added with a poignant smile. My eyes lit up instantly with this glimmer of history about my house I had sentimentally longed to discover for some time yet never had. I was thrilled and riveted at the same time. I wanted to yell, “You had me at ‘you know!’ ” but I couldn’t say a word, so I encouraged Flora on with an approving expression and she did not disappoint.
“He would drive his sled and horses over ten miles to my house just to take me sleigh riding in the winter,” she told me, “and he always made sure the horses wore plenty of bells. He knew how much I enjoyed that,” she almost giggled and I nearly fainted dead away. Perhaps because there’s an old horse shoe that’s been hanging on an original log stud for luck in my dirt cellar since the late 1800’s. My heart leapt – was it from one of his horses? Or perhaps because her little story transported me back in time to DeSmet, South Dakota and I was suddenly being whisked up and down Main Street with my good friend, Mary Power, in a red sleigh with horse bells driven by Almanzo Wilder and his pal, Cap Garland. I mean, really, what girl has not dreamed of being Laura Ingalls Wilder in THESE HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS at some point in her young life? Or middle-something life? Er….anyway, I’m an absolute sucker for a romantic story and this one just blew me away because it was about someone who lived in MY house – MY “little house on the prairie,” so to speak. And at that moment I was falling in love….falling in love with Flora and her gentleman courter, falling in love with long-awaited history about the place I had worked so hard to call home, and falling in love all over again with my dream of owning a little antique shop beside the infamous house that made this wonderful story of Flora’s possible. I couldn’t have been more starry-eyed!
Then it was Flora who became the chatty one and I could see quickly how daughter was actually like mother. There were so many details for Flora to reveal to me, and so many questions I wanted to ask! Well aware of my home’s previous ownership, I learned her gentleman friend with the sleigh had been the son of the second owner, Mr. Cartwright. How exciting! Flora and he, along with ten others, had all gone to school together in the nearby town of Pratt. Flora had been to my house many times when it was a prosperous farm, and is the only living person I know to have seen the house in its entirety, including the huge, attached barn with the stream running through it. Triple exciting! I hung on her every word, repeatedly infatuated with every specific she could happily recall for me. Her comments, her recollections, her gestures about this old place painted a clearer picture than any photograph could for which I had been searching. Now I understood why Flora had wanted to come here, and while her visit had turned out to be an unexpected gift for me, the fact that she had kept me spellbound in her stroll down memory lane had obviously been a gift for her, too.
I could have talked with Flora for hours but eventually her daughter decided on an item to buy and so I needed to ring her up. I had to laugh to myself when she reached for the wrapped parcel she had just bought and said with a casual after thought, “Oh, did my mom tell you she’s been here before?” Of all the things she had chit-chatted about earlier, that might have been something to mention right off. I just chuckled softly and said, “Why yes, she certainly did!”
With purchase in tow, I walked them both to their car in the pleasant, afternoon sunshine. Before getting in, Flora paused to view the shop once more as well as the field behind it with that familiar, distant look in her eyes. Without averting her gaze she said matter of factly, “I’m the only one left now from my class. They’re all gone.” I was so sad for her! I took her hand and she looked into my eyes. I thanked her sincerely for coming and sharing her special memories with me….and I promised her two things – 1.) that I would make sure to tell her story to others so it would never be forgotten, and 2.) that I would always sell sleigh bells in my antique shop in honor of her. Ever so slightly her eyes brightened and she nodded to me her appreciation as she got into the car. The car engine turned over and her daughter called out the open window, “My mother really had a great time coming here!” and with a wave of her hand, off they went. (continued after photo)
As I watched them drive away, I walked slowly into my house with a smile on my face and nothing but romance in my heart. Like Flora I glanced back toward my shop and the field behind it. In my mind’s eye I could almost see the massive barn that had once stood there, and I swear to this day, I was quite certain I heard the faint sound of jingle bells….