The Old Lady’s House
Deborah A. Symonds
White and foursquare, it stood at the edge of a cornfield
In a row of simple straight houses
On a state road running right out to the setting sun.
Car after car pulled up in the frozen mud and parked;
People in heavy coats and lined overalls collected in the yard
And began wiping snow off glasses, crocks, eggbeaters, and two papier-mache Easter rabbits.
The thin dark blue bunny had unreasonably tall ears and one fierce eye painted on in black.
The other eye was winking.
The ring man1 held the rabbits up
Until they sold for seventeen-fifty, in weather so cold no one believed it was spring.
Inside, the flowered carpets were muddied and tracked by bidders, curious people,
Neighbors, buying coffee from a woman in one corner, looking,
And leaving styrofoam cups everywhere.
The house was one room, and people were not used to that,
And it was painted pink at one end and green at the other, and the paint was thirty‑eight years old,
And everything else was ten years older, with three exceptions: the television, stove, and refrigerator.
No one talked much in the house.
The paint was glazed yellow with years, and cooking, making the pink kitchen
Look salmony brown, and the green look dark, military, aged.
There was a determined bare bulb in the kitchen ceiling,
Lighting a hoosier cabinet, the kind with lots of doors and drawers and a towel rack,
An old sink, a ringer washer, a small wooden cupboard, and the shiny new stove and refrigerator.
All the dishes, the pots, the double-boiler, the set of glasses in a wire rack, the green depression glass
Had been set outside on tables, along with the rabbits,
And all the shelves, covered here and there with a bit of curtain, were bare.
At the other end of the room, the green end, a small open-flame gas furnace poured out heat.
Three feet from it stood an old double bed, its mattress already hauled away,
Its matching chest of drawers emptied and waiting to be sold.
Kitchen chairs, a homemade bench, a plant stand, and a smoking cabinet were huddled around the fire,
Along with people who had come to buy, but whose feet had frozen
While the bowls and irons, the pressed glass and canning jars, the Christmas decorations sold, outside, for a bit more than these things are usually worth.
More people with cold and muddy feet shuffled through the other side of the green room,
Wanting to buy coffee from the woman who had set up her urns and cakes in the kitchen,
And then sitting in the corner that must have been the parlor.
Wherever they had been, a big square burgundy sofa and its matching chair, covered in a thick plush,
Were shoved together under a window, their carved wood feet touching.
Beside them was a lady’s writing desk with a fine, delicate Windsor chair.
These had once kept company with an old floor lamp with a green marble base
And three pretend candlesticks to hold bulbs,
And a table lamp from the fifties with a wild, aggressive ceramic base, and a shade two feet wide.
The old woman had clearly not bought anything
Since she had moved in, in 1960.
The shiny new appliances would have been gifts from her children,
Just like the bathroom built into one corner,
With its tub, toilet, freezer, water heater,
And clothesline strung from a piece of handrail propped against the ceiling.
She had what she needed, had had it for a long time, and knew it.
She had her house, with two fir trees guarding the front door,
Carefully trimmed to let one thin person near the door.
Last year’s tomato plants were staked in the backyard,
And there was one dead chicken in the coop, frozen,
And two outhouses, filled with tools.
The outhouses must have been used, since they
Had been built in the back of the yard in a straight line from the back door,
Perfect for dark nights.
Even the outhouses were sold that afternoon for fifteen dollars, and hauled off.
The car, a big old two-tone from the seventies,
Was probably towed away as scrap.
The house was sold, too,
But I never knew what happened to the two pictures on the walls, the only two,
Both so small and dirty that the auctioneers didn’t touch them.
One hung over the bed, and began “To Mother,” but had faded past reading;
The other, in the kitchen, was a black plastic outline of an old car,
Holding a small calendar for 1973.
When the auctioneer finally moved inside and began selling the furniture,
A very old woman, who had watched everything
Moved to the front.
Nodding carefully, looking up at the young couple with her,
She bid her way up to ninety dollars
And bought what she wanted.
With just the slightest smile on her face,
She reached out to touch the old wooden cupboard once,
And shuffled out the door in her old carpet slippers.
1 The ringmen carry forward, hold up to view, and deliver goods at an auction.