The opening bid on the painting was twenty-six dollars. It was a painting of a nun walking through a village in the moonlight. Her eyes were full of the bright light. My great aunt painted it in the twenties. They were all up for bid online, her paintings, her porcelain dolls, her postcards, her rings, her hair clips. All the things she left behind. They were up for grabs on the cold abyss of the internet. Each item was placed on a white surface, photographed from all angles, and evaluated for much less than they were worth. Appraised, arranged, and displaced from their former home. She didn’t need a clip to hold back her hair or a war photograph of her late husband to look at each night before she fell asleep. She was with him now. All the objects she once treasured were no longer hers.
So I looked through the items and pieced together an idea, a faded shadow, of who my great aunt was. She loved horses. There were trays and paintings and figurines and photographs of equestrian life. She was a woman of faith. Her paintings of nuns, stained glass religious art, and a marble carving of Jesus were also there as I scrolled through her lifetime of possessions. She loved her friends. She had saved hundreds of postcards from sixty years of correspondence. Trips to Ireland, Christmas wishes, and inside jokes were all penned in a careful script. My heart stopped when I saw a red-glass bell with her name etched onto it: “Pauline.” Maybe it was a gift from her husband, who knew she loved the unique colour of cranberry glass. The thought of someone having that bell in their home and looking at those seven letters without knowing who she was made me sad.
I bid on the bell. I bid on the painting of the nun. I bid on quite a few things. Even though they are just things, I needed to see them and have them, just so they would be with someone who knew her. However, as I went to pick up the lots I’d “won”, I realized quite suddenly and painfully that I didn’t ever get to know her, and now I never would. The people working at the auction house had been friends of hers. They recalled a time when she drove there in a blizzard in her late eighties. When they told her she was crazy she chided them with, “I drove cab in England in the winter. This is nothing!” Her best friend, Saundra and her worked at the weekend market, selling and collecting antiques. Porcelain, China, lace, and cameo jewelry were their favourites.
Her friend has since passed away, so Pauline made the trips into the market alone in her later years. She never tired, and she never stopped moving for long. She wore her best friends cameo ring and drove through blizzards to get to the market they both loved. Her friend at the auction house now wears the ring, and says it’s bittersweet looking at it now on her own finger instead of on the delicate hands of the older ladies she knew so well.
It’s strange that the treasures we love so much will one day be what they always were, meaningless things. Yet, these things continue to mean something now, as I hold them and think of you. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you while you were here. I hope you’re with your husband again, and that everything else has ceased to matter. As long as I’m here I’ll look at your things and think of you. I’ll notice your careful brushstrokes on canvas, the bright sparkle in the ring you wore, and the seven letters of your name etched forever onto a cranberry-glass bell. I think about how breakable that bell is, and wonder how a strong woman like you is gone, but the bell is as perfect as it ever was.
Maybe one day I’ll see you again. I hope I do. As a believer, you probably believed that, or maybe you know that now. When my own time comes I hope my great niece, or my granddaughter, or my friend, will hold that fragile glass bell in their hands and wonder who we both were by piecing together their own idea of us. Or maybe they’ll just place it on a shelf and forget all about it. That would be alright too. After all, the only real things we ever have is our memories and our family. Those are the most important things we leave behind.
Dedicated to my great aunt Pauline. I hope you’re happy, wherever you are now.
By Ashley Foy | Feature image by Janelle Rainer