I knew better, but the weekly 50-percent-off sale was underway at the local thrift store last Saturday, and I had time to kill. Before I knew it, I had an armload of unnecessary acquisitions and was making my way toward the cash register. I took my place in a long line of fellow shoppers pushing carts packed with the makings of Halloween costumes, bric-a-brac and the cast-off clothes of strangers.
The store was crowded and noisy, and it smelled bad in that stale thrift-shop way. But I was happy with my purchases. The last — for 99 cents — was a rubberized pair of 4-inch-tall praying hands illuminated from within by a small bulb; at the other end of the 3-foot electrical cord was a non-polarized plug. Old kitsch is the best kitsch.
“You don’t see one of those every day,” I said to the cashier, who didn’t hear my delight nor see the humor.
“Especially one that’s lighted,” she said, serious as a heart attack. And, then, looking somberly at the prayerful hands: “People need to do more of that.”
I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the disembodied hands; flickering in pitch dark, they appear skeletal — an effect that was surely unintentional — so they may be pressed into service for Halloween. They don’t fit well with the rest of my religious memorabilia, also acquired Saturday: a pope and Kennedys collectible.
The handsome gold-leafed plate caught my eye when I first walked into the store, and not just because I’ve been thinking about popes lately. I was captivated by the juxtaposition of Pope Giovanni XXIII (John Paul) — who died in June 1963 — with the famously Catholic Kennedy brothers, who followed him in relatively short order. A Latin phrase hovers over their heads: Pregate per la pace nel mondo. Pray for peace in the world.
That took the German-made plate out of the category of faintly funny oddities into the realm of something finer, and more serious: a sentiment for the ages; a prayer perpetually unrealized. I placed it among my purchases.
That’s how it is with thrift-store objects: Sometimes you find things that make you laugh; sometimes, things that make you a little sad. Always, you find artifacts of another time and place: occasionally a piece of history, more often a piece of some stranger’s life.
In 1992, I found a small, straw-colored suitcase at a Goodwill store, the tiny keys still in the latch locks. At home, I discovered within one silky inner pocket a bobby pin, and a long, beveled toothpick, the old-fashioned kind, on which was written in precise letters: Cliff House at Seal Rocks.
That was all I ever knew about the suitcase’s previous owner: a woman who, at some point — maybe in the ‘1940s or ’50s — visited the iconic San Francisco restaurant. But I thought of her every time I used that suitcase during the next 15 years, and though I travel rarely now and never take more than a carry-on, I’ve not been able to part with it.
One object; two lives. And the vast and forever unknowable in-between. It’s that sense of mystery — of time running like an eternally steady river beneath the ever-shifting ground of our seemingly separate lives — that draws me especially to old things.
My thrift-store finds last Saturday included a vintage Mirro Cooky-Pastry Press, Model 358-AM. Like me, it was made in the 1950s and is in less than mint condition. That said, the press looks carefully used, with a smooth aluminum body and copper-colored end pieces. Two of the three pastry tips have gone missing, but all 12 of the original cookie discs are present. Even the time-yellowed paper box is in good shape, and the instruction booklet –bearing the Good Housekeeping seal of approval — is little the worse for wear.
Like me, the Mirro 358-AM still has some life in it. So when the holiday baking season rolls around, I’ll pull it down from the kitchen cabinet where it’s now displayed. As I did with the suitcase, I’ll consider the person who bought it new so many years ago — back then, almost certainly a woman. Perhaps a young housewife, maybe with small children: She might have been my mother. I’ll consider how that modest little kitchen invention — a cooky press manufactured more than 50 years ago — joins my life to that of a stranger whose days unfolded, and perhaps ended, in another era.
And then I’ll mix up the dough — maybe Snow Flakes, on page 11 of the instructions, or Orange Crisps, on page 14 — and select a disc, probably the Christmas tree.
And start making cookies.