A lifetime’s worth of stuff, scattered and gone

The crowd of buyers, potential buyers, and curious onlookers gathered at the Melbourne place on Hart’s Road on a bright but chilly day last Saturday.

A week ago today, Raymond and I were at an auction at the property of the Melbourne family, near Hazzards Corners. There was a lot of stuff to sell off, and last week’s event, selling household goods, was only the first of two sale days. Since we were in Montreal today we missed Round 2, selling the equipment, the property and the house itself.

A few days ago I wrote about one thing we bought at the auction, a 1979 painting of a section of the Melbourne property by my long-ago Sunday School teacher Vera Burnside. As I said in that post, the painting means a lot to me both because I knew Vera and because I knew the Melbournes. (And also, of course, because it’s a really nice painting.)

I think John and Evelyn Melbourne moved to the Victorian house on Hart’s Road in the middle to late 1960s. At any rate, it seems to me that when my dad made Mr. Melbourne’s acquaintance, they were recently arrived from “away,” i.e. somewhere other than the Queensborough-Hazzard’s area. I never knew where that “away” was, but I think, based on the material that I saw at the auction, it must have been Quebec, and I think perhaps Mr. Melbourne – who I gather had served in the Second World War, and was a captain in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps – had thereafter stayed on in the military, perhaps until his retirement and perhaps stationed until then in Quebec.

I believe my father, the local United Church of Canada minister, got to know Mr. Melbourne not through church channels – I don’t recall the Melbournes as churchgoers – but through a shared love of working outdoors and the machinery that helped one to do that. Mr. Melbourne had quite the assortment of large and small machinery, and Dad ended up buying a (very old) front-end loader from him that was parked in the back yard of the Manse for most of the years we lived there in the 1960s and 1970s. The two hit it off, and I remember our family having dinner at the Melbournes’ home and them dining with us at the Manse. (The main thing that sticks in my memory, and that of my next-oldest sibling, Melanie, about their home is the exotic cats that they had; I think they were Siamese, doubtless the first we kids had ever encountered.) Despite Mr. Melbourne’s willingness to, like Dad, get dirty working outdoors, they always struck me as a couple of some elegance.

A small part of the material set out for auction on the lawn of the Melbourne home.

And that impression was borne out in seeing the furniture and other household goods that were amassed on the home’s front porch and lawns at last Saturday’s action. There were great old pieces of furniture: lovely wooden glassed-in bookcases (sold at too high a price for our budget, unfortunately) and elaborate antique sideboards. There was a full set of bedroom furniture from the historic (and sadly no-longer-extant) Gibbard Furniture factory in Napanee, Ont. (It billed itself as “Canada’s oldest, est. 1835” and you can read its history here; and here, on the amazing blog My Abandonment Issues, which has utterly stunning photos of abandoned buildings, you can see a lot of great photos of the interior of the old factory.) There were odd and interesting things apparently collected in distant corners of the globe, probably during Mr. Melbourne’s postings with the military.

There were dozens and dozens of trucks like this at the auction.

The most recent occupant of the house had been the Melbournes’ son, and he, or someone in his household, had been an avid collector of model vehicles, mostly trucks with a Canadian Tire logo on them, but there were others as well. There were dozens and dozens and dozens of these model cars and trucks, to the point where the auctioneer was selling them three and four at a time to try to get rid of them faster. While I couldn’t care much less about model Canadian Tire trucks, it made me sad to think that they had meant a lot to someone. That person had evidently put great care into putting together, and every now and then lovingly adding to, an extensive collection. I’m sure he (or, less probably, she) had thought the collection was very valuable indeed because of how personally invested he was in it – not to mention how much money had been spent on buying these pieces in the first place. And now these little trucks and cars that had never been out of their boxes were being quickly sold at three for $7. Not a lot of money to buy something that had been another person’s pride and joy.

And really I felt much the same about the auction as a whole. The Melbourne family had collected a lot of stuff – too much stuff, probably. Some was very good-quality and some not so much, but it was their stuff, and collectively it told stories about them and their lives. Now the collection was being broken up, scattered among many dozens of different buyers. Evidence of a family’s life together, disassembled, piece by piece.

My “box of rocks,” a treasure purchased for only $1 at the auction.

We bought a few of those pieces ourselves, in addition to the painting. We were very happy to acquire a 1970s reprinting of The Historical Atlas of Hastings and Prince Edward Counties. Raymond was taken with a bound-with-a clasp 19th-century photo album (in which, unhelpfully, no one is identified). We bought a cedar chest in which to store blankets at the Manse. And for $1 (there were no other takers) I bought something that gave the friendly and funny auctioneer, Boyd Sullivan, much merriment: as he put it, a box of rocks.

One of the envelopes containing a tiny sample from my newly acquired box of rocks.

It was a cardboard box containing several dozen small brown envelopes issued by the “Ontario Department of Mines,” each one containing a small sample of one of the many rocks and minerals to be found in the province, many with names that most of us have never heard of. (Sphalerite, anyone?) I bought it because, as I’ve noted before, central and northern Hastings County’s place on the Canadian Shield means it is a gold mine (sorry) for interesting and obscure minerals; and also because Mr. Melbourne doubtless knew and was interested in this, and that’s why he would have ordered this sampler box from the Department of Mines (now the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines). Whether the little envelopes came empty and you were challenged to find samples of as many of the rocks and minerals as you could, or whether the small samples were already in the envelopes to help you identify pieces you might find yourself, I don’t know; I suspect the latter, though I like to think of Mr. Melbourne meticulously seeking out and collecting samples to fill out the collection.

The newly acquired oak chest of drawers.

We paid the most for a small oak chest of drawers, an interesting piece because it looks as if it would have been placed alongside a partners desk – one of those huge old desks built for two people to sit and work facing each other. It is longish and narrow, and there is a set of shallow drawers on each end. It’s quite a lovely piece of furniture, but I was also attracted to it for sentimental and nostalgic reasons, having to do with having known the Melbournes so long ago.

Before it went up for sale I had (like many others at the auction) had a quick look through its drawers. Along with some vintage 1960s and 1970s stationery and greeting cards and – this was very cool – a brown envelope mailed to Mrs. Melbourne at a Quebec address, containing typewritten and Gestetnered French lessons tied in to a CBC Radio educational program, I found two little boxes that utterly charmed me.

Right away you know that these boxes are from Birks, but what’s inside is not jewelry.

The boxes were the instantly recognizable shade of blue and had the instantly recognizable logo of the Birks jewelry company. Inside were not jewels, however; the boxes contained beautifully engraved calling cards. Calling cards! Not mundane business cards like we use today, and most certainly not the pieces of plastic one uses to make cheap international cellphone calls. No, these are the cards that one left, back in the day, in a pretty porcelain dish or other receptacle set out for the purpose inside the front door of a gracious home when one came to pay a call on its inhabitants.

There was a smaller box for the cards of “Captain John Sidney Melbourne” and a slightly larger one for “Mrs. John Sidney Melbourne.” Something that I found poignant was that the boxes were still full and, in the case of Mrs. Melbourne’s cards, still bound with the little ribbon that had been around them when they were delivered to her. I could imagine the couple ordering the cards before leaving Quebec – perhaps from the flagship Birks store in downtown Montreal just a few blocks from where Raymond and I work – thinking that they would need them when they called on their new neighbours in the area where they had bought their fine Victorian home in Hastings County. And then finding out that rural Hastings County in the later 1960s maybe wasn’t so much a calling-card sort of place. But then again, was anywhere in the later 1960s a calling-card sort of place?

Those cards speak of another time, another life. A life whose accoutrements have now all been scattered.

But you can’t auction off memories, can you?