An Original American Picker

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My grandma was a picker before picking was cool.

Grandpa was stationed at Grissom Air Force Base in Kokomo, Indiana. My grandmother, who liked to say she majored in bridge and AOPi in college, was tired of filling her days with coffees at the Officers’ Club and endless games of mahjong. Her friend, Idalene, suggested an adventure; “Let’s become antique dealers.” Grandma was game, and my family’s love affair with antiques was born.

Their idea was to go to the older, more well-heeled neighborhoods in town and see what they could find. They’d pool their mad money and park on a street with nicer homes. Dressed in club attire, Idalene and Grandma would knock on doors and ask, “Would you be willing to sell us anything? We have cash.” Many people invited them in and began opening up their cabinets.

My grandma told stories of kicking off her heels to climb on strangers’ kitchen counters to reach their upper cabinets full of cut glass and never used china. Attic scouring was Idalene’s duty because Grandma was terrified of climbing ladders.

Cajun-born Idalene did the haggling at first. Grandma, born to a French Canadian mother and an engineer father in suburban Detroit, grew into that role. Ladies at the club bought their china and crystal treasures, happy to round out their china cabinets on the cheap. Any profits were spent on the next week’s treasure hunt. Local antique dealers got wind of them, and soon they were bona fide pickers who supplied all the stores in town.

Idalene’s husband was reassigned elsewhere and Grandpa was sent to Japan, then Nebraska. Grandma kept picking antiques and developed a knack for making smart buys. My grandpa retired and her picking habit became their main source of income. Grandma opened a store when they moved to Florida, but soon found she preferred doing shows and buying specifically for a handful of clients.

She had cabinets in her house for each of them; Leslie’s cabinet, Lucy’s cabinet and so on. Their husbands would visit around Christmas and birthdays. Leslie and Lucy were cocktail hour fixtures at Grandma’s; after a few old fashioneds and some of my grandfather’s smoked mullet dip, they often left with a piece of Heisey or a serving piece in Old Master.

All of my earliest memories of my grandmother center on antiques. We helped at her shows, went to auctions and always made the estate sale rounds. I have a picture of myself at a Renniger’s Extravaganza when I was two. I’m eating a hot dog while sitting beside a case of sterling flatware and jewelry. She told me that I would clap whenever something sold.

Grandma helped me develop a taste for coin silver and Blue Willow; but only English marks with two birds and three people on the bridge. She filled a hope chest for me with a set of Kirk Repousse for twenty and dinner napkins with my monogram. She loved my children and started each of them on a silver pattern before their first birthdays.

Grandma died this year at the age of 91. She picked until the end. Her weekly phone calls often highlighted what treasures she had found that week. She always asked, “What are you looking for?” I can’t walk through a room of my house without thinking of her and the uncanny way she knew my taste. She taught me to cherish my home and how to intimately know the likes and dislikes of those who share it with me.

I miss her every day.

Cecelia is a military brat turned Southerner. She is an avid reader and lover of camellias, blue and white china, gin and tonics and tomato pie.

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