Mrs. Paproth was a high end junk dealer or a low end antiques dealer depending on your perspective and the size of your wallet. She liked going to antique auctions and she’d found a way to support the hobby. She lived just outside of town in a country setting surrounded by woods and an old dilapidated barn. She was a grandmotherly type who was always glad to hear a car in the driveway and met everyone with a smile and a story. She was invariably cheerful, and she had an unmistakable air of contentment that made you want to be with her. Down a little hillside walkway behind her house were the sheds….those wonderful sheds
There were four of them lined up in a row, each with a specialty all its own. There was one with furniture, mainly chairs. (I always wondered who bought all those chairs as they changed regulalry) Another held ancient costume jewelry and old clothes. There was one that had political buttons and toys in glass fronted cases next to a housewares aisle that included old tablecloths and carnival glass. My favorite shed had boxes. There were shelves full of of beautiful wooden boxes that seemed ready to hold some treasure. I didn’t have much treasure, but the boxes seemed to imply that it was only a matter of time. There were stacks of old advertising tins and this is where my first collection began. There were the cigar tins I remembered my Uncle Winston giving me to put my crayons in. I had to have some of those. Tobacco tins ruled the shelves, but there were also pretty powder boxes, and rarer peanut butter tins with funny advertising and glorious pictures of happy families painted on the side. They spoke to a sweeter gentler way of life. I lined them up on a shelf in my first apartment.
I was 18 years old. I furnished my whole house from those sheds. There was an old quilt made out of ties, that hung in my loft. And since my couches were battered hand me downs, I covered them with quilt tops. And I got the best cookie jar, an old big red metal thing, that I carted from house to house for years. I still have the tins and all of my kids have some of her boxes. They have held love letters, marbles, buttons, baseball cards, and Barbie clothes. Now they hold jewelry, and foreign coins.
Mrs Paproth’s barns smelled of old things. There was a woodsy musty smell, and hidden under a canopy of trees at the edge of the woods, they were always cool even in summer. I brought my kids as they came along over the years. Benjamin would always come away with a jar of marbles, and army guys. Hannah usually added to her doll collection with old Barbies, and bunches of doll clothes. And Eli liked the old metal cars and was captivated by the buttons. He liked to count them and pass them out to visitors he liked. We all wore button necklaces and made button collages.
Next to the driveway where you honked to let her know you were there, ( only she always came out before you’d even finished parking, let alone managed to honk), was the real furniture shed. This was the place with the good Hoosier cabinets, and the beautiful baby carriage. If you needed a table, or a pink Regency chaise, this was the shed. Everything here cost more. Three or four hundred dollars was the starting price. This was where you came if you needed real furniture and had a little money set aside.
But if she didn’t have what you wanted, you could tell her what you were looking for and how much you had to spend. Likely as not she’d call you in a week or two and tell you she had something you might want to see. It was always exactly what you had been imagining. And because you were a good customer she’d take off 10%. If you were a good customer and broke, she might take off a little more. Then too there was always layaway.
Mre Paproth herself was always on hand to talk about the doings in town. Somebody was getting married and somebody else ought to be. Her gossip was never mean, just newsy and fun. When I got divorced she knew about it almost as soon as I did. Steve had moved out and I’d gone there with my little baby looking for something to do that didn’t cost much and would while away a sad afternoon. She said she’d heard we’d gotten separated and told me that I wouldn’t be miserable for long. Time heals everything, she said. She suggested that she might start giving out pop-sickles for wedding presents, but that sometimes a divorce fixed a broken home, rather than made one. I started to cry and she gave me a lace edged handkerchief that was way too pretty to cry on. So instead I cheered up. Benjamin got a new ball, and I got a beautiful little cedar box. There was something cozy about all this old stuff. It said sit down and have a cup of tea.
Here’s what I learned from those barns and her….
The country smells better than the city.
Newer isn’t always better.
Toys needn’t be shiny or new to be fun.
Old things are unique and help you find a look of your own as opposed to one out of a catalog.
$25 can make a room look completely different. And looking at your old life in this new way, well, that can change your day, your week, practically your whole life.
Old things have stood the test of time. Like me now. I prefer objects with a story. A few scratches or saggy bits add character. And faded colors are prettier than shiny ones. Always actually…(okay except maybe for patent leather shoes)
Making people feel welcome is a gift. And it is one anybody can give.
Crying and being miserable is a choice. You can be unhappy if you want to be. Or not. Bad things will happen. So will good ones. You get to decide which ones you are going to dwell on…(I learned this on the day that she had to keep running back into the house where her husband of about fifty years was dying. She was sniffling over it, but she said, we have had a good life. In the face of a very hard thing she was dwelling on the sweeter ones)
I moved to Vermont where life seems older. The mountains lend a sense of permanence to the landscape and the houses are as old as the country itself. There is a sense up here of choice. People live here on purpose. It is no accident that you move here or stay here. Making a living up here is hard, so it is a choice to live where the beauty is more important than the money. This is a place where the new movies are few, and the stores all close by 7. You have to like yourself and the people you live with because the winters are long, and there aren’t even street lights. But there are stars. And the NYT doesn’t get to Vermont until about 8 in the morning, so you have time to walk up to the waterfall and have coffee with a heron. There aren’t many restaurants so you don’t need as many credit cards. Socks and gloves are cheap and these you buy in bulk. You can’t wear most of the shoes you once coveted so you get mud boots, and your dog can go with you inside the bank.
I learned how to choose what pleased me on two or three hundred afternoons at Mrs Paproth’s Barn. Moreover she showed me how to live on purpose, maybe frugally but with beauty and grace. I don’t even have to miss her because all I need to do is pick up one of these old boxes and her stories come right back to me across the years and over the miles. Old stuff and old mountains make me happy. And so I choose…..just like Mrs Paproth…I choose.