For someone who rarely attended auctions, my father somehow managed to host or co-host four different auctions in the last 20 or so years of his long life. Is that a record of some kind?
The first, in the mid-1990s, was a dispersal sale for the 100 or so Holstein cows, heifers and calves that had remained on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth after Dad had downsized 10 years earlier.
The sale was a winner because local milk prices had spiked to more than $15 per hundredweight earlier that year and dairy farmers near-and-far came to buy, literally, his cash cows.
If memory serves, the average price for old or young, milking or dry was a pleasantly surprising $800. By the time of his farm equipment sale the following spring, however, milk prices had curdled and dairy farmers were in no mood to buy anything.
Most stayed away and a soggy, pre-sale snow added to their inertia. That meant his high-mileage silage wagons, tractors, and 1,000-gallon stainless steel bulk tank were carted off for dimes on the dollar.
If the poor prices stung, my father never let on. He thanked everyone for coming and shook every buyer’s calloused hand.
A couple of years afterward, the widow of a neighboring farmer was planning a farm and household auction before moving to new home in a nearby town.
My father and mother joined her to do the same: sell everything they could not take with them in their planned move to town.
The lovely Catherine and I drove the three hours south to witness the event and, we promised each other, not buy a thing. We, after all, didn’t need a butchering kettle, Lincoln arc welder, or a too-heavy-to-lift anvil attached to an even heavier pecan stump.
As it turned out, we weren’t alone. The locals came to buy cheap or not buy at all. It was hard to see items so valued by my parents bought by others who valued them so little.
For example, a hand-cranked sausage stuffer, worth its weight in gold the one day a year we needed it, sold for under $10.
Bedroom sets, tired, sure, went for less than the price of firewood. A set of jumper cables had to be “thrown in” to a box of cookware to bring, finally, an embarrassing $1.
My father saw it all and never once commented, grimaced or looked away.
My parents’ fourth and final auction sold the remainder of their modest household after they moved, years later, to a nearby assisted living center.
This auction was smaller, quicker and grimmer. I didn’t attend because, by all estimates, it would be over in less time than it would take me to drive there.
So it was. The sale of two items, my father’s 12-gauge Marlin shotgun and his .22 caliber Winchester pump rifle, did silence the small, milling crowd for a few moments.
Bidding for both was rapid-fire and, together, the cash they brought equaled nearly one-half of the sale’s total receipts.
Again, if disappointed by the thin take, my father, now frail and seated on an about-to-be-sold chair, never let on.
He visited with friends, family, and neighbors until the front yard — his front yard — was as empty of the last items of his and Mom’s lives as the long-sold farm was empty of old cows and young children.
“It was,” he explained afterward when I telephoned, “just stuff and mostly used-up stuff at that.”
Indeed, I said, invoking his favorite word of agreement; it was just stuff.
Maybe that’s why the auctioneer’s song never sounded bitter or sad to him: In the end, no amount of “stuff” — valuable or valueless — could ever equal his good health, abiding friends, deep faith and 89 years to enjoy all.