Revised August 7, 2019
Requests for house calls come by phone or email. We get a LOT of requests. Sometimes the doorjamb to my office is plastered with post-its.
The email for Bonnie Vee’s books came from a law office in Frederick, Maryland—Wonder Book’s hometown and Maryland’s second largest city.
“We are currently representing…The deceased was a school teacher…over 1000 books…Would a representative be interested in purchasing…”
I exchanged a few emails and decided to do the call myself. It is rare I do these myself anymore. There is so much coming in daily. If I go out for a day, I lose ground. It was close and something about it piqued my interest.
A week later, I pulled up to the curb of the old row house across from the city’s central, big, open space—Baker Park—and headed to the door.
You never know what will be on the other side of doors. That’s a big part of the appeal of doing house calls. The surprise and discovery upon entering a stranger’s home…and their lives.
I’ve had great house calls in humble, mobile homes rusting into remote hillsides. I’ve found dreadful books in Georgetown mansions.
This did not look auspicious. The bricks on the steps were mostly loose. The handrail’s base had rusted and the faded, black rail swung freely in the air.
(Hmm…that’ll make moving the books out precarious)
The door opened and in I went. I chatted with the estate attorney’s representative a bit to get an idea of the situation.
It was so sad. Bonnie Vee had become ill and passed away pretty quickly—so quickly the law firm had barely gotten to know her. She had left everything to a friend. But the friend had predeceased Bonnie. The estate would go to descendants of the friend. Distant strangers to Bonnie. The law firm had called auctioneers in who turned down the home’s contents. She’d been gone several months when I was called in.
It was a pretty and comfortable, little, old home. Bonnie could have just left the day before from all I could tell. A crossword puzzle was partly completed on a lap desk. Bills and correspondence lay on the dining room table. Clean dishes sat next to the sink in a drying rack.
I walked through the house looking at the books. There were built-in shelves on either side of the fireplace. A low bookcase was overflowing at the far end of the small dining room. Each of the several bedrooms had small bookcases in them. They were mostly modern common titles. Books so popular at one time tens or hundreds of thousands had been printed. Now there were just too many copies in the secondary market. Our supply far outstripped the little demand for such things.
“Most are in the attic,” the rep told me.
It was a rickety, old attic. Dusty and dark. It would be brutally hot in the summer. But this was spring 2017 and it was pleasantly cool if a bit creepy as ancient attics often are. There were boxes EVERYWHERE. 200? 300? And there were piles of bulging, yard-size trash bags. It would be brutal bringing these down the narrow steps and then two more flights and then down the two sets of loose brick steps to the van out on the street.
I started going through the boxes. There was nothing exciting. Bonnie had been a mystery buff and many of the boxes were full of like new, mail order, book club whodunits.
But many of the boxes contained her school materials. She had been an elementary school teacher for decades. She saved lots and lots of school crafts and projects and supplies. Box after box—many were decades old. The bulging trash bags were mostly school materials.
I walked through the house again. The closets were full of her clothes. The bathroom had all the usual supplies and stuff lining the sink and tub. I went down into the basement. There were three cat food dishes and a water bowl in the center of the floor. Someone was tending to her cats.
I heaved a deep sigh. The books wouldn’t be worth the labor.
I met with the rep again and explained the situation. I asked, “What are your plans for the everything else in here?”
“We found someone who will charge us to haul it away.”
…so whatever we didn’t buy would just be hauled away…
“Would you like us to buy any of it?”
“Sure. Anything you want.”
I went through again with a different perspective. Bonnie liked cat stuff. All kinds of ceramic and cloth and printed images of cats decorated the shelves and walls. She had some good, framed posters and lots of nice crafty stuff.
Then I saw Bonnie. Albeit a caricature from 1969.
It brought Bonnie Vee to life. She had been young and vivacious long ago.
Seeing her “alive” got me invested. It became a mission rather than just a “buy.” I decided I’d do something to keep as much of this stuff from being junked as possible. We do sell oddball stuff in the stores when we come across it.
She had some nice framed posters. There was a collection of twenty or so Franklin Mint, miniature cats. The house was full of pretty nice crafts as well as the feline objects.
The rep said, “What about these?” She held out a big wooden box with its lid open. It was full of photos.
“Awww…these must have been her parents when they were kids,” I said.
There were great pictures from the 1920s and 1930s of young people camping and swimming and cavorting. The young men posed with the Model Ts. There were World War II photos.
Her dad had been a Marine. There were old, black-and-white, Frederick photos as well. Had her dad owned this liquor store in town after the War? Old photos make me sad sometimes. Shadows of youth so long gone captured on paper.
There were photos of Bonnie as a baby, a child, a teen, and then a grownup. There were pictures of her smiling here and there around the world.
In each room, I started making piles of things I felt I could market somehow. I instructed Steve, my helper, to start bringing down the boxes of books from the attic.
“Be careful on the steps. ALL the steps.”
I went back to the attic and opened more boxes. Many were full of mementos of children. Photos and crude handicrafts. “Thank you, Miss ♥ so.” For that had been her last name, “Hartsough.” Decades of “children” filled the boxes. Bonnie had clearly been a devoted and passionate teacher. And she cared so much she saved hundreds and hundreds of classroom crafts and activities and photos of the kids she’d taught.
I returned twice more and tried to find and salvage as much as I could. I called the vintage clothing storeowner and said, “You should come look. I think some of the stuff could be good for you. There are embroidered jeans and leather hats that look like they’re from the 60s…”
We found some pretty good books. Nothing great. Oddly there was a signed photo of Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher. And lots of other neat “stuff” that had been part of her life.
Now and then, I wonder about Bonnie and her last times. Was this a Cautionary Tale? It could be. Bonnie Vee lived alone and died alone and left everything as it was and where it was. For some people that might not be how you’d want it to end. Maybe she didn’t care about her estate. Except for the cats. I’d been assured the cats would be well taken care of and homes found for them.
Or this could be a Joyous Tale. Bonnie lived until she died and chose not to spend any of her life on laws and estate stuff and probate and…cleaning out her attic of memories.
I feel like I did a good deed for this stranger. I also had a lot of fun exploring and sharing her life. I saved some of her relics and passed them on to the next owners.
She is not forgotten. Hundreds of children—now adult—must remember her. She worked hard to teach and captivate their attention. Photos showed her with classroom pets and little, long ago kids gathered around them. She seemed to always have a classroom pet.
And I remember her.
Every day I pass by some of the nearly dead, potted plants I rescued which are reviving quite well.
08/2019 Update: They are all thriving in 2019. The jade plant is now huge. I’ve given away many rooted cuttings of all of them.
Every day I pass by her caricature now hung in our offices.
I smile and think of Bonnie Vee in 1969—a cigarette in one hand and a Martini in the other.
08/2019 Update: I hung her caricature in the long hallway to the men’s room. I see her every day!
A Cautionary Tale in one certain way: do what you can while you can. Someday we will all be photos and shadows and the memories and tangible stuff we’ve left behind.
Cheers! Bonnie. I’ll toast you many times in years to come!