The Dead Lady’s Stuff
By Eileen P. Duggan
Originally published in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, December 2010, Volume 10.4
“That’s a damn fine tool,” Pat said, as I lowered her late brother’s long-handled spade into the trunk of my car. Its blade was about a foot long and 6 1/2 inches wide with a very slight scoop and flat edge, and we had just used it to dig up one of a dozen rosebushes Pat’s older brother had tended in the yard of his two-family flat. Pat, my mentor and friend, wanted someone to appreciate the fruits of his tender labor, someone other than the stranger who would buy the building. I was looking to spruce up the small yard of my rented duplex, and I love roses — bingo, a match. It was October, so the variety and color of my rosebush were unknown, a mystery to be solved in spring. Its roses turned out to be orange and gave me great pleasure for the next six springs and summers. When I finally moved, I decided not to transplant the bush again, leaving it for the next tenant.
Along with the Damn Fine Tool and the rosebush, I loaded up a sturdy pitchfork, a deeper- and wider-blade shovel, cleaning supplies, two card tables and enough window cleaner to last at least a couple of decades, especially at the rate I clean windows.
Every time I use the Damn Fine Tool, I think of Pat’s brother, whom I had never met. To me, he’s just The Dead Guy, distant cousin to The Dead Lady.
These seemingly crass and impersonal designations have come to apply to any one of several deceased people whose treasures — juicy finds of furniture, decorations, clothing or even foodstuffs — have come to rest with my siblings and me, giving us pleasure that sometimes escaped even close relatives of the dearly departed.
A family of five children raised under the mantra “you’d better eat your dinner because we don’t know where our next meal is coming from,” we have never felt any shame in taking hand-me-downs. We welcome hand-me-downs. We let it be widely known that we accept hand-me-downs. Being of small stature, I’ve happily become the wearer of some fabulous outfits, coats and other apparel that I couldn’t have otherwise afforded, all because friends or relatives gained weight, got pregnant or grew bored with their clothes. But those are mostly living people.
The whole Dead Lady thing started with Myrna, a very nice (or so I’m told) terminally ill woman whose son Bob operated the administrative functions of the family business out of her home, so he could take care of her. My sister did some part-time secretarial work for Bob, who was apparently the only one of Myrna’s three children who showed her any affection. The other son and daughter spent most of their visiting time fighting among themselves over who would get Myrna’s jewelry. This was while she was alive in the next room. When Myrna did pass on, the daughter came in from out of town.
After picking through the goods, she took the diamond and gold jewelry, then stuffed a multitude of “lesser” pieces into an electric blanket bag and prepared to throw them — not just give them away to charity — in the trash. My sister the actress could not allow that, so she rescued the undesirables, which included 15 to 20 strings of pearls and some very nice costume jewelry by Monet and Trifari. In show biz, any jewels that may be a little over the top for everyday wear can always be used for a costume.
It wasn’t just jewelry. Bob let my sister take what she wanted from the house. She now has a steamer trunk, a complete set of dishes, some hand-painted blue china coffee cups from Portugal and several 78 and 33 1/3 rpm records. Myrna was a very good cook, so there were cooking supplies to disburse. Like a good sister, Cindy shared the bounty with those of us who lived here in town. My share included vinegar and spices (some of which still lurk in my kitchen cabinets), plastic wrap, aluminum foil, that sort of thing. At the time, I was a recent college graduate struggling to get my piano teaching studio off the ground. For someone living on a shoestring, it was a great relief not to have to shell out cash for those essentials. Even now, whenever I wrap leftovers or use the coriander, I think fondly of Myrna, even though I never knew her personally.
Then my brother Dennis was enlisted by a friend to help clean out his late aunt’s house. The widow had lived as a recluse for several years. Like many Depression-era survivors, Joe’s aunt, a.k.a. Miss Havisham, hoarded things. Lo, many things. When first entering the house, Joe and Dennis were waist-deep in bags of new clothing still bearing price tags, bags of unused new cleaning supplies, stacks of newspapers, you name it. There was even cash, about $7,000 hidden away in various spots under the piles. When the months-long project was over, my brother had enough Ajax, toilet bowl cleaner and Pine-Sol to last a lifetime. Joe appreciated his help so much that later he rented the house to my brother at a very attractive rate. So Dennis had not only The Dead Lady’s stuff, but The Dead Lady’s House, lawn mower included.
When Evelyn, the mother of a family friend, died, we inherited some of her stuff, including the Hoover vacuum my Mom now uses. These were not family heirlooms or anything of great monetary value, but small things from her daily life — things that make us remember Evelyn and smile, even though I only met her once.
Another Dead Lady lived in an apartment below my sister for years. Lucille’s daughter, who had lived there as a child, could not get up the strength to go through her mother’s things. Because Cindy had been friendly with Lucille, she offered to help. She got out of it an easy chair and matching ottoman, a magazine rack, a wooden straight-backed chair, a sewing machine in accompanying cabinet and some old 45 rpm records. She also acquired Lucille’s old washing machine, from which she cannibalized parts to transplant into another washer left in the building by a former tenant.
Thanks to Lucille, Dennis now has some nice lamps and end tables, a lovely maple telephone table and some decorative china tea cups to furnish his Dead Lady’s house. The garden tools he inherited from Lucille come in handy in his landscaping work.
Cindy sees collecting these treasures as a way of carrying on history and traditions. “Somebody else is enjoying the little tchotkas or tea cups that someone may have enjoyed back in 1920,” said Miss Havisham-in-training. “They’re unique, you can’t buy this kind of stuff.”
When I climb up to the top shelves of my closets, I think of Florence, who started studying piano with me at age 69. After her second breast cancer surgery a few years later, she quit to take up guitar. After she died, I bought her two-step wooden folding ladder from her husband for two dollars. The ladder is purple now and holds a prominent place in my hallway, where I can have easy access to it and memories of Florence.
I got the ultimate Dead Lady inheritance when I bought my house. Rose had lived there some 30 years, the last 10 as a widow. She had no children and her relatives handling the estate had no interest in most of her things, especially her house. After the relatives and realtor had hauled off most of the unwanteds, I took title and acquired for no extra charge a freezer full of food, a bottle of Heaven Sent perfume, a small electric child’s organ, a cabinet on wheels and a large cutting table for my sewing projects. Each spring, I’ve been treated to new surprises Rose left in the flower beds.
Just last fall, when the workers replacing my storm-damaged gutters removed the rotted fascia board on the garage, they found a surprise. On top of the garage wall, just under the roof, were two very old pint liquor bottles — empty, of course. They looked like they had held some heavy-duty spirits, vodka or gin, maybe. It seems Rose’s late husband was hiding a secret when he said, “Honey, I’m going out to the garage to work on the car.” Now, I’m checking all the rafters in hopes that he hid some cash.
I never knew Rose, but I try to keep some of her essence alive. The orange shag carpet and pink drapes are gone from the living room — but they’re in the basement. The blue-and-green plastic shower curtain had to go, but it’s now a cover-up for my washer and dryer. The yard is completely re-landscaped, but Rose’s honeysuckle vines, lilies of the valley and her glorious red climbing rosebush remain. When her two rose bushes in the front died one by one, I planted new ones there immediately. I eventually replaced the old rotting picnic table with a new one in the same location. I’m still looking for a replacement for one of the two old-fashioned metal laundry poles in the back yard. It met an untimely end during the felling of a dead elm tree when an errant limb crashed onto it. The tree guys knocked some money off the bill to cover the cost of a replacement pole, but it has so far remained surprisingly elusive. If and when I ever find one, I’ll use the Damn Fine Tool to dig the hole for it.