[Let’s start the long weekend with something very special from resident Cathy Bennett. It’s a little late to go up (the Peddler’s Fair was in early August) but the ‘epiphany of gratitude’ Cathy extends to the ‘kaleidoscope of humanity’ that attended the fair tells a story of warmth and welcome that is timeless and very, very Benician. Cathy shows us Benicia at its best in this lovely story. Please take the time to read this all the way through.]
By Cathy Bennett, Benicia resident
Folks come by the throngs happy to spend the day strolling First Street and looking for bargains at our annual Peddlers Fair. Many in town take advantage of the chance to attract the spillover crowd by holding their own garage sales. Even though I live a fair distance away from downtown, I held my own garage sale across the street from a waterfront park that attracts a lot of folks from out of town. I say “garage” sale, but my garage was too full of “stuff” to bring anyone inside, so the sale ventured out into my driveway and front yard. The last time I had a ‘garage sale’ was nearly 20 years ago after clearing out my mother’s home as a result of her unexpected passing. Like yesterday, at that time I took it on all by myself, and soldiered through the sorting & arranging as best I could, set up in the driveway, and positioned a chair that I rarely occupied because I was mostly on my feet talking with folks and moving stuff around as items got sold.
The amount of energy this requires reminds me of getting ready to take a long vacation. All the necessary planning and preparation consumes you for days in advance, and sometimes the stress is enough to make you want to throw up your hands and say, “Oh forget it, I’ll just stay home!” In this case, it was more like, “Who cares if I have too much stuff? I’ll just shove it back into the closets, storage shed & various hiding spots, and avoid all this hassle!” But I was determined, so again I soldiered on.
Just so you know, this isn’t going to be a rant about folks promising to come help out, (but don’t show up), or patrons that try to nickel and dime you to death. (If you price things low enough, you get very little of that, & most quickly snatch things up & happily pay you.) Besides the physical exhaustion, I learn a great deal about myself and about others from the experience.
First to note, I am again reminded of my status as a white person that benefitted from privilege. I initially realized this decades ago, but as I get older time and wisdom peel back & expose layers of awareness and I am continually being re-educated. I’m no spring chicken. As a woman of a “certain age” I occasionally see my former self in others, and am amused by the trips down memory lane to youthful naivety and innocent self-indulgences. Sometimes I long for those youthful indulgences, but mostly I just smile and nod to myself, remembering my own personal version of it.
But yesterday as I watched the ebb and flow of folks coming & going in and out of my yard sale I was struck by the difference of those who “have” and those who “need”. I’m not just referencing material “stuff”, but in every sense of “need”.
Before me was a kaleidoscope of humanity, and I took the opportunity to slow down and take it in without concern for time, status or judgement. I was after all, a captive of my own advertised availability as defined by the posters I had put up all over the neighborhood. So, I just surrendered to the experience, and in short time, I really enjoyed it.
What I was reminded of was just how many folks out there are struggling with loneliness, insecurity, grief and loss, unemployment, under &/or miserable employment, financial hardship, and lives that seem to be drifting in and out of uncertainty. Yes, they were there to look at my “stuff” but they were also there to have someone to talk to, to feel some sort of connection, and to share their story with another person that might simply bear witness to their struggles and actually care about it.
It started with the elderly gentleman who moved about with obvious pain in slow deliberate steps. He loved my collection of handmade “redneck champagne glasses”- (a mason jar glued to a glass candlestick holder), and swept them up with a chuckle. He hung around, & when no one else was there he told stories as different items I had on display reminded him of various times in his life. He spoke of his wife’s extended illness and passing, and his years of dedicated caregiving to her. As the stories flowed it seemed to open a hidden passageway & soon he was telling me about his 9 years as a CIA prisoner of war in a Viet Cong prison. He told me about living in a cage, and being beaten & tortured on a daily basis, and what they did to other prisoners in front of him to further their attempts to extract information. As my body involuntarily retracted & my jaw clinched, he repeated, “That is what war is like.” I eventually had to interrupt because I was beginning to experience secondary trauma. We both moved our heads slightly & closed our eyes as if to shake off the images that now haunted both of us. After standing in silence for a moment we somehow managed to turn the conversation away from his very painful traumatic past. I could see the courageous & loyal person he was, and I held a great deal of respect for what he had been through. He eventually left with a few of my items, which I refused payment for and thanked him for his service to our country. The Vietnam war was a particularly ugly & unpopular war, but he clearly had performed an unimaginable duty out of loyalty to our country & to the authorities that commanded his actions. This was not the place or time, nor did I feel the need for any discussion about whether it was a worthy or unworthy war.
Then there was the young woman who was relocating with her elderly mother from La Vegas to Vallejo. She pulled up in her old beat up car that looked crowded and hot. She asked if I could help her figure out what was wrong with her CD player. We spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out why it suddenly wouldn’t operate. I loaned her my disc cleaner & then a pair of tweezers, looking for the bobby pin she suspected her mother had inserted into it. We eventually gave up on the CD player, and she took a much-needed break wandering through my rows of items, telling me the story of her life circumstances, while Mom sat in the car. I gave this woman my full attention, and eventually some advice on how to follow up on job leads, as well as community supports she could check into. Then I sent her off with a Barbie doll for her niece, a retractable pull-down window shade for her car, and a box of craft supplies- beads, ribbons, colored pens, stationary & dried flowers. She left with a smile & I waved them on.
A young man wandered in looking quietly around. After a few minutes I engaged him in conversation. He was thoughtful and polite and careful with each item he handled. He eventually told me about his young high school aged brother who had been left paralyzed from the neck down after a horrible auto accident. It had been 5 years since the accident and he was rejoicing the fact that his brother had fought hard to find meaning in his post-accident life, and had recently broken through the barriers with a newfound passion and purpose to his life. This young man’s admiration and respect for his brother was so evident that I couldn’t help but smile even though the story was a harsh one.
Then came the Grandmother with her granddaughter on a scooter, who had wandered all the way from visiting the Peddlers Fair. With bright blue eyes & a youthful smile, she spotted a lamp & a set of brass candle stick holders that she said would go lovely with her homemade beeswax candles. She also admired a large framed watercolor painting of a dancing horse, and told me stories of her childhood & the horses she grew up loving. After a bit, she shared that she managed to get by on just welfare to make ends meet, and she clearly was one who took an active role in supporting her children and grandchildren. I sent them off with the items she fancied, and in turn the next day she left me a jar of some home spun honey.
I had started the day at about 7:00am, and the sun was beginning to lower in the sky. I was exhausted, but folks kept stopping by. I had ‘sold’ a lot of stuff- most of which were high quality items that I once thought entirely necessary, but now realized I had no need for. It was a pleasure to witness the delight of others who excitedly told me what they would do with each item I sold (or gave away). I was down to some small wood furnishings, some garden equipment, a few boxes of clothes and shoes, some framed paintings, pet carriers, dog car seats and a few specialty items.
I did not want to haul any of it back into my garage, so as the sun started to set, I encouraged everyone to pick things out, and take them for free. A couple of young women that work in town at my favorite bakery delighted themselves with some cool shoes and clothes I had long ago stopped wearing. If I must say so myself, I have very good taste & have acquired a nice collection high quality fashion ware. It was fun to hear their giggles of delight as they tried on shoes, and held things up to check for size.
A Spanish speaking family with young children looked longingly at some of my items, but didn’t understand that I was now giving everything away. With some help from an interpreter I was able to send them off with a box load of things. Their young son picked out a framed painting and smiled widely with his new acquisition. I wish I could have heard his story about where he planned to hang it, as I could see the light in his eyes as he held onto it proudly.
And so, the day came and went. Yes, I was exhausted, but my heart swelled with gratitude. With all of my life’s imperfections and periodic struggles, I felt so much appreciation for the luxuries I enjoy (& often take for granted.) Yes, I have a huge mortgage, but that means I have a home. I have a big yard that requires constant weeding, raking, trimming of bushes & trees- but that is because I have the pleasure of pride in ownership & the physical ability to take care of my home & yard. I get frustrated & impatient trying to figure out what to cook for myself each day, sometimes eating the same boring meals because I get too tired to be more imaginative. But I never go hungry, nor do I worry about where my children’s next meal will come from. I bare the high cost of high Veterinary bills & have at times resented the expense of having pets & being anchored to my home because some of my animals have special needs. But having pets is a privilege that not everyone is able to embrace. I am so fortunate to enjoy the love, companionship & loyalty of my animals. Do you see where I am going with this?
Unless your work or personal life involves close contact with the full spectrum of the public, and even then, one rarely hears their stories, and gets to know of their personal struggles, you might miss out on this epiphany of gratitude.
Some may think, what a softy giving away so much of her “stuff”. To that I respond that I recognize my privilege, and the opportunities that I have been blessed with. Often for no other reason other than the color of my skin, and the luck of the draw I was born under, as well as the chances that came my way to nudge my life in a certain direction. I appreciate what I have, and know that my life could easily have turned a different direction, as my roots are from a family of working class “white” immigrants. I hope to carry this appreciation in my heart for as long as possible. It makes me a better person- more kind, compassionate & content. But like everyone, I am prone to the occasional pity party. My hope is to recognize it quickly and snap myself out of it. Rather than risk losing this gift of gratitude, I might very well need to periodically hold a garage sale. If so, please stop by and say hello. I need to hear your stories as much as you might need to tell them.