My Mother’s Garage Sale

Every spring my mother decides to organize a garage sale. But every spring she wonders whether she should do it.

"I really don't know if I should, Christophe. It's so much work."

"You're right, Maman! Just skip it this time."

"Each and every year I'm the one who does it all."

"Yes, and then you get yourself worked up for nothing. Just skip it this time."

"Plus I'm no good at setting prices. I never ask for enough."

"That's true: you waste time and money. Just skip it."

"Okay, it's settled! I'm going to do it this year."

There she goes again! Every spring she winds up holding her garage sale.

It isn't that she has loads of knickknacks and gadgets to sell. It isn't that she wants to cut back on her stock of worthless curios, not to mention all the stuff she'll never use. No, the main reason is that she loves this sort of thing.

She'll spend a whole weekend doing it, at some event where parents and neighbors gather to gab, tell stories, joke, and, of course, sell old junk.

After all these years, my mother has sold practically all her trinkets. But this time she thinks she has a super idea (in her opinion): she's going to prepare some cuttings. In other words, she's going to put some stems from her plants into soil in order to grow new ones and sell them.

My mother wastes no time. She calls her friend Capucine to come help her.

"Grab your shears, Capucine. We must be generous in our cultivation."

"Which plants have you picked?"

"All of them!"

"That's just like you. If it were December, you would try to plant cuttings from your plastic Christmas tree!"

The two friends burst into giggles.

They have snipped everything that could be snipped: geraniums, begonias, impatiens, coleus, cactus, ivy, even those plain old spider plants that nearly everyone owns. The house is chockful of planted cuttings. If they could, they would've snipped the flowers on my father's tie.

*

You might say my mother loves simple things. But the real point is that she's certain she isn't wrong.

She phones the regulars to make sure they'll be present at the event. She's very careful to stress that this year the accent falls on plants. Not only planted cuttings, but all sorts of plants, perennials, shrubs, and-why not?-trees, although obviously small trees.

With the team of sellers now formed, everyone organizes their stuff: tiny stickers-preferably red-to indicate the price, black felt-tip markers, scissors, Scotch tape, and so forth.

My mother reckons on making a table from an old door placed on two stools. That's where she'll put the smallest pots. But her table will never be big enough for all the tiny cups she's used to plant her cuttings. When I look at them, I imagine these unhappy plants asking themselves what they could've possibly done to deserve this punishment.

"What is it you have there?" my mother asks a member of the team.

"Well, it's a dieffenbachia."

"I can see very well that it's a dieffenbachia! But have you noticed the look of your dieffenbachia? It measures at least seventy-five centimeters, it has only two leaves, and on top of that they're both small."

"Yes, I know. But it's my only plant; I have nothing else."

My mother dashes into the shed, rummages around, and returns with seven plastic pots, a sack of soil, and her shears. In less than two minutes she snips the dieffenbachia into bits which she plants in pots filled with soil. Then she quickly waters them all.

"You now have six dieffenbachias to sell. Take the seventh home with you, my dear friend, for a home without a plant is like a chocolate chip cookie without a glass of milk."

*

The team of sellers includes different groups of individuals, namely:

(1) the whiners: they're always down in the dumps and full of complaints that everything is taking too long, there's never enough profit, and it's either too cloudy or too sunny;

(2) the comedians (there's always just one person in this group): they tell one joke after another, whether or not it's funny. They don't mind their own business and usually get on the whiners' nerves;

(3) the chatterboxes: they're constantly telling stories about everything under the sun, going so far as to confuse the buyers who wind up skedaddling;

(4) the tycoons: they are there for no other reason but to make money;

(5) the shrinking violets (they're at every garage sale, not just this year's!): they usually come because someone has forced them;

(6) the kids: in other words, Patricia and me. We're there to have fun and, if we can, to make a little money.

Finally, the last group:

(7) my mother: who wants every member of the team to be happy, and does all she can to make sure they are, so they'll come back next year.

*

Everything is ready. My mother has assigned a space to each seller. The tables are now stocked, the prices have been written on the stickers, and nearly everyone has a chair.

I too have my little spot. After dividing up some perennials that were taking up too much space in the garden, here I am with a beautiful collection of daylilies, irises, majestic plantain lilies, thyme, some ferns, and plenty of lovely primroses. I've added rhubarb, even if my mother thinks this plant isn't very "pleasing to the eye."

My good friend Patricia also plays a part in the activities. She has brought some boxes full of books on plants, various kinds of scissors, shears, gardening gloves, containers of manure, and even some watering cans. Her mother is always discovering some new passion, and last year it was gardening. But since her passions rarely last more than six months, she has to find a way to get rid of all the gear.

My mother is delighted: the social event of the year has begun. She serves coffee from her biggest pot and passes around ginger cookies. Even the sun joins in.

Before long a car slows down, turns the corner, and parks. Two elderly couples get out. They draw near a table. One of the ladies lingers ever so long over some puzzles picturing gardens with a zillion tiny flowers.

The team is on the alert: we think there's going to be a sale. Patricia and I go back and forth on the question as if, in the end, we really didn't care whether or not something is sold. But as soon as someone approaches our own display, we joke a little and act nice.

The four people finally leave empty-handed, discussing whether they should go to Mass at nine o'clock or eleven.

The team silently watches them leave. We're disappointed. Some of the sellers are worried that the whole weekend will go like this.

"What's wrong with our plants? Aren't they beautiful enough? Besides, at these prices they're a steal!"

It helps to have good morale when you launch into such an adventurous undertaking.

*

As usual my mother's table attracts the most attention. First of all, there's this bearded guy who is interested only in cuttings. He examines them carefully and then chooses the smallest begonia.

"I would have taken some of the others, but they're difficult to transport on a motor bike."

Next arrives a swarm of tiny ladies who buy a good ten pots. A little later, a neighbor from two streets away, who came to satisfy her curiosity, leaves with five cuttings. And after that my mother sells eight more to a couple of nuns.

My plantain lilies and irises are selling well. My daylilies, however, have met with no success.

The good weather creates a desire for gardening: everyone is enthusiastic, the sellers as well as their customers. The whole thing moves like clockwork, just as my mother wished.

All of a sudden, a false note: a muffled cry.

"MEALYBUGS!!!"

Our neighbor, Monsieur Verte-Feuille, has mealybugs on his umbrella plant. These are sticky little insects that cling to the stalks and leaves of plants. Mealybugs are gross, and they're so stubborn! If you don't do anything about them, the plant ends up dying.

"Mealybugs in my garage sale!" my mother shouts. "What were you thinking of, Monsieur Verte-Feuille? Your vermin are going to infest everything!"

"Pardon me, but since I don't know much about gardening, I didn't notice anything." (So much for someone whose name in English is "Mr. Green-Leaf.")

All eyes look daggers at the unfortunate man. He catches on quickly and disappears before being tossed out. Ten minutes later, my mother shows up at Monsieur Verte-Feuille's with a sprayer filled with soapy water, and she explains to him how to take care of his infested plant.

*

At 8:15, completely worn out, my mother gets ready for bed. She won't have much of the night to recharge her batteries.

Two blocks away, at the municipal fair grounds, the annual "western bean" festival is taking place. This year's slogan is: Cooking with Gas at the Western Bean! Neighboring streets are packed with cars parked just anywhere and any old way.

The festivities began a few hours ago with a supper of pork and beans seasoned with molasses and fresh mushrooms. The guests of honor, seated at a huge table in the front, even had the privilege of drinking the dandelion beer made by the mayor's wife.

Right now, a wild tune enthralls the crowd, who are dancing jigs and shimmying nonstop. The competitions are still to come: the tall tale contest, the jig marathon, the fence jump, and, finally, the greased pig race.

At ten o'clock, a long, noisy fireworks display shakes the windows of my mother's bedroom. Immediately after, the party resumes as loud as ever. My poor mother can't close her eyes. At three in the morning, she's so tense that she's on the verge of eating her pillow with the wildflower design.

Some merrymakers, rowdy and a bit too merry, are searching for their car. They arrive nearly beneath my mother's window.

"Don't make so much noise, Berny! You don't have to wake the whole neighborhood."

"Who do you expect me to wake? The whole town is having a blast, eating, drinking, dancing, and . . . farting."

The two rowdies roar with laughter. The word "fart" always brings a laugh.

My mother, however, is fed up: she explodes. With her face shielded by a mosquito net, she shouts at the top of her voice:

"I'VE HAD ENOUGH! THIS ISN'T A ZOO! WE'RE CIVILIZED PEOPLE HERE! WE HAVE GARAGE SALES! GET OUT OF HERE, YOU . . . YOU WINDBAGS!"

Sobered up in a flash, the two friends suddenly remember that they came by bus.

*

My mother is the first to arrive in the morning, ready as ever to serve her coffee and cookies. She waters her cuttings plentifully and sits down in her plastic patio chair. I join her, munching my banana bread with honey.

"I have a strong hunch," she announces. "This isn't going to be an ordinary day!"

"That means we're going to have some fun, if I'm not mistaken."

"Probably."

That's her way of telling me she's in great shape, despite the circles under her eyes. One by one the other members of the team join us. Before long we're all ready to greet our customers, who will be decked out in their Sunday best. Suddenly, Madame Desruisseaux utters a cry: "Oh nooo!!!"

"What happened?" I ask, a nervous wreck.

"My yuccas! Look at my yuccas! THEY'RE PURPLE!"

My mother can't get over it.

"That's bizarre. I've never seen anything like it in my entire life, and I've seen some strange things. What do you water them with?"

"Usually I give them fertilizer for green plants, but-"

"But what?"

"I wanted to give them a splash of color for the garage sale. I put some food coloring in my water."

"My poor Madame Desruisseaux, I don't think you've picked the best moment to experiment."

After giving some thought to the unfortunate result, Madame Desruisseaux decides to return home with her purple plants. En route she tells herself that she should've chosen the green coloring.

For my mother, the garage sale is also an occasion to bring together the loners in the neighborhood. Everyone is welcome.

Here comes Léon, right on cue. He's an old man who looks as if he's always been old. Short and thin with a bald, shiny head, he's always flapping his wings and loves to tell stories. No matter how serious the subject, his stories always end with a joke, so you often wonder if what he says is true.

"Take a seat, Léon. You've arrived right in the middle of my garage sale."

"So I see. You've gone for plants this year! Lucky I don't have hay fever."

"Oh nooo!!!"

This time it's my neighbor at the next table who has a problem.

"This is shocking, Christophe! Look in my pot."

"That one? It's a beautiful hibiscus."

"Look more closely. There, in the soil."

"Ah, that!"

"Yes, that! Cat droppings! Somebody has put cat droppings in my hibiscus!"

"I think the cat put them there."

My response doesn't please Madame Dulisier at all. The insane laughter coming from the other sellers encourages me to keep pouring it on.

"They're good for your hibiscus, Madame Dulisier: it's manure!"

From the sour look she gives me, I immediately understand that I have to pick up the gift my cat left her as fast as possible.

*

A blazing sun is terrific for a garage sale, but it's hard on plants. You have to water them constantly. The runoff happily collects in the middle of the driveway.

My mother feels it's her duty to warn anyone who heads for the puddle, another addition to her already numerous responsibilities.

Léon, who usually chatters away, has been quiet since he sat down. He doesn't seem to be comfortable.

"Okay," he finally says, "I think I'll be going now."

"Not yet, Léon!"

"Yeah, I forgot I have to buy some goodies for my parakeet."

Léon waddles off. Everyone notices his strange walk.

My mother bursts out laughing, then tries to restrain herself. She feels ashamed for making fun of poor Léon. She now understands why he wasn't talking: Léon sat down on a cactus and left with quite a few prickles stuck in his bottom.

All of a sudden, my mother regains her seriousness. Madame Dureinfret has just arrived. She's the mayor's wife, a woman who thinks she can do whatever she likes-and who gets on my mother's nerves.

"Bonjour, Madame. Is this the garage sale?"

"It looks that way to me."

"But there are so many plants!"

"This garage sale is *Šñdedicated to plants,' as the ad in the newspaper mentioned."

The lady bends over an assortment of plants.

"I detest plants; they smell bad. They're also full of germs. I'm not going to waste my time here!"

We're really taken aback by Madame Dureinfret's comments. But then she starts howling. A carnivorous plant is hungrily pinching her nose. She manages to break loose and flees toward her car. She plunges both feet into the famous puddle of water, slips, and falls. The splash waters our plants again.

We all shriek with laughter, except for my mother, who runs to help the lady back to her feet. The mayor's wife glowers at us. Then she turns toward my mother and calms down.

"Thank you, Madame, thank you so much! You have such pretty flowers."

*

It's late in the afternoon, and people are no longer showing up. All the same, this year's garage sale has been another success. Everyone is pleased because practically everything has been sold. But not quite everything: my mother prepared such a huge number of cuttings that many are still left.

"Do me a favor," she tells the team. "Take some cuttings: they're free!"

They all take advantage of her offer and set off, their arms loaded with a generous sampling of my mother's plants.

Despite everything, a good thirty or so haven't found any takers.

"What are you going to do with all these plants? The house already has so many that we'll have to start putting them under the beds. If we sent them to the Sahara Desert, we'd risk upsetting the ecosystem on the planet."

"Well now, you've given me an idea, Christophe."

"You're going to send them to the desert?"

"No, I prefer a more appropriate place."

The next day all my mother's cuttings can be found at the old people's center. Each pensioner now owns a plant which is to be pampered according to my mother's instructions. She's quite contented with her gesture.

"These people are often on their own and have lots of free time. It will do them good to help a plant grow."

On the way back home, I wonder about my mother's future plans.

"Next year, Maman, are you going to organize another garage sale?"

"Are you crazy, Christophe? I'm exhausted, drained, worn out. I haven't the slightest desire to experience all these feelings again."

My mother stretches out on the couch to take a well-deserved nap. Just before closing her eyes, she casts a glance at the fern in front of the window.

"Look at that fern. It's really too big. Its roots are overflowing the pot. You could make at least ten shoots out of it. If they're separated now, they'll have a year to grow. They'll be superb by the next garage sale."

There she goes again!

Originally published as Vente de garage chez ma mère (Waterloo, Québec: Éditions Michel Quintin, 2002). Copyright 2002 by Éditions Michel Quintin. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2004 by Lawrence Venuti.