Sharon's Essays

Lost & Found (née 52 Pick-Up)

Old Books
Runaway Home

Why a new label on the card catalogue? Because in this feature, I want to reclaim “some thing” and “something” that has been lost. I want to know more about an object, be it a book or a piece of paper, a string holder or an advertising comb — and I want to express something about the history of all of us through the objects we keep and the ones we discard. Or lose. Or find.

So Lost And Found is a better description than 52 Pick-Up — one that goes to the heart of what I hope you find when you open the drawer. That’s the writerly — and absolutely true — answer. And here’s another true answer — although I pick up something every week, I now know that I won’t be able to keep up with a weekly essay, so the “52 pick-up” title was misleading.

And although mystery writers dabble in misdirection, misleading isn’t fair. So Lost and Found it is. Remember what your elementary school teachers told you about the lost and found drawer in the main office? Check it regularly!

Old Books

Who can resist an old textbook, an old math workbook, or an old atlas? A lot of folks, I guess, because even if I show up in the last hour, on the last day of an estate sale, I can always find the old reference books piled in a corner waiting for me.

I begin to page through them, thinking that the wonderful graphics would be great in a collage. The thing is, I don’t really collage. Nor do I scrapbook or decoupage. I just like old books, old paper, old pamphlets–all of the old ephemera for which one might find an artistic purpose. I don’t engage in the re-purposing, though, I just like the books–without irony.

This particular book — please forgive my photo-booth macbook image, but my digital camera is an unreliable little beast right now — is a Rand McNally Ready-Reference Atlas of the world from the early thirties. It’s a handy size for paging through, for learning the names of countries…wait a minute. That’s the problem with the old reference books–what they refer to is often outdated and incorrect.

That’s why the dusty books are waiting for me.

But I don’t mind that they are not up to date–as long as I have no student in my house trying to do a report on Thailand who has never heard of Siam. I checked–there is no Thailand in the index of my Atlas–only Siam. I’m also not qualified to explain French Indo-China to any Social Studies scholar who wanders into my library.

I do have a question about the graphs and charts, though. Were they correct then? In 1931, did the United States really produce the most petroleum in the world? That map with the big black dots? The biggest dot is right in the heart of the U.S. signifying the largest amount of petroleum production. Who knew? And the chief manufacturing area? Europe of course, closely followed by the northeastern section of the United States. Not even a tiny dot of manufacturing in Asia.

So this is no surprise, of course. A 1931 Atlas would have 1931 information which renders it useless as a geography resource. But it does seem to me that time has turned it into a history book–one that simply presents facts with no editorializing. This is the way the world was.

And so a geography reference turns into a history book. The evolution of information–which is why I like these old texts. Sometimes it is just as fascinating to know what was as it is to know what is. Isn’t it?


I may have discovered the perfect collectible — an artifact with a mysterious and dramatic presence. It has the potential for historical significance — no matter how you define history— either as the study of important people and major world events or as the story of everyday lives studied through time.

Adding to its value as a collectible — in my estimation — my find is ultra lightweight. It folds down flat, it fits in my pocket. And — icing on the cake — this particular example was free, since the salesperson to whom I presented my pile of random stuff after spending an hour sifting through boxes in the basement of a Chicago bungalow, shrugged and shook her head. She threw it into my bag with a few recipe pamphlets, church holy cards and a raggedy street map, all of which she had already priced at a dollar. I hugged my small packet of ephemera, as vintage paper is known in the biz. Junk as it’s known everywhere else. Or, to put it more politely, the odds and ends one might find as the contents of one’s junk drawer. The clippings, recipes, advertising calendars and odd dog-eared pages that someone thought she was going to read again. Need again.

So what is my particular piece of paper and why do I find it valuable?

      This is a telegram — not one from Western Union — the most famous name linked to the telegram, but one sent in 1959 via Postal Telegraph, an international system. Those of a certain age might remember telegrams as fear- inspiring. The delivery of a telegram was as likely to contain bad news as good. “The War Department regrets to inform you …” might be the most memorable line of a telegram.

However, telegrams contained good news, too. Arrivals, departures, births, celebratory messages — anything that could not wait until the sender was able to appear in person with the news.

I have no idea of the significance of this particular message, but rubbing my finger over the taped down message gives me chills just the same. I imagine the excitement when the doorbell rang and the missive was handed over. The anticipation felt as the recipient’s thumb slid carefully under the envelope’s flap. Pure pleasure.

I received only three telegrams in my life. Two wished me good luck when I was appearing in plays. Each of them told me to BREAK A LEG. I taped them on the dressing room mirror (only college productions, but the telegrams made me feel like a bona fide star), and one I received from a dear friend about my hometown of Kankakee, where he had just performed as a singer. Since the performance was somewhat of a disaster, I still remember the message — CHANGE WHERE YOU’RE FROM IMMEDIATELY. I remember those messages — more than phone calls or regular letters — certainly more than any of the thousands of emails that have passed before my eyes. Why? Because they were telegrams — solid, important, three-dimensional notes that signified by their very name that I was supposed to pay attention.

The first telegram was sent on May 24, 1844 by inventor Samuel Morse. The message was transmitted from Washington to Baltimore and it read, “What hath God wrought.”

On January 27, 2006, Western Union discontinued sending all telegrams. In the 1980’s, when long distance phone service became cheap enough to offer an alternative, the telegram began its decline. Faxes and email sealed its fate.

Thus, what was once an exciting, scary, potentially life altering piece of paper is no more — and when you find a tissue-thin envelope with its contents intact in a box of ephemera — it is a real collectible.

The telegram is now replaced by the thirty-eight or so messages waiting for you right now in your email inbox. I know that most of those waiting for me are offering stock tips, mortgages, value-priced Viagra, and promises I really cannot repeat.

What Hath God Wrought, indeed!

Runaway Home 

My first “pick-up” is an eBay purchase. Okay, not my favorite place to shop, but as an antique dealer once told me — “the thing about eBay — it’s always open — and when you need a flea market or a sale, you know when you need one at three o’clock in the morning? You got eBay.”

Runaway Home, a sixth grade reader by Elizabeth Coatsworth, was part of Row, Peterson Company’s Alice and Jerry Series and was originally published in 1942 with illustrations by Gustaf Tenggren. This title was reprinted in 1947 and 1949.

That’s the information you’ll find if you Google the title of this book. But I can tell you more.

Several years ago, I was on a road trip, meandering toward the Atlantic, with the thought of traveling down the east coast to Florida, sticking as close to the ocean as possible, making interesting stops along the way. Sitting in the passenger seat with the road atlas on my lap, I insisted we visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina and began reciting the names of places we had to see: Nag’s Head, Kitty Hawk, Roanoke Island. My traveling companion, a fellow landlocked midwesterner, asked when I had last visited this part of the country.

“Never,” I answered, “but I read Runaway Home.”

Many of us have childhood books that still speak to us. Some of us have modeled our lives on the dramatic Jo March from Little Women or decided to solve mysteries like the clever and independent Nancy Drew. I confess that I owe something of my adulthood sensibilities to both Jo and Nancy, but no one book had more influence on me than Runaway Home.

This reader, in my opinion, was an elegantly written forerunner to all the great road epics and featured the Harding family — Mother, Father, Mark, Lucy and Jim. Father was an artist who painted portraits and landscapes in Maine, but who was finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

When a letter arrives from Father’s Uncle John in Tacoma, Washington, offering the family half of the orchard they would someday inherit and asking them to come and live with him, the Hardings accept, selling their house to buy a camper. Father and Mother decide as long as they are making the journey, the family ought to see as much of the country as they can.

Naturally, adventures ensue. The book was written, after all, to engage young readers, expand their vocabulary and increase their reading comprehension. This text, however, did so much more. Elizabeth Coatsworth, a Newberry Award-winning author, wrote expansively of the natural beauty of the United States and captured the post-WW II idealism of making a new start, the optimism and hope of mid-century America.

The Hardings visit cities, small towns, and camp in the great outdoors. They are befriended by an old fisherman in the east and an owner of a dude ranch in the west. They help an old woman who has lost everything to a storm. They are robbed of their savings. They work hard to replace it. They find work at a carnival, they thwart kidnappers. One of the children becomes a stunt double in a Hollywood movie and another finds a valuable treasure. Unbelievable? Not when you’re ten years old. And not, apparently, when you’re considerably older, since just last night, I finished rereading a worn, dog-eared copy, purchased with three other Alice and Jerry readers on eBay.

When I saw it for sale a few weeks ago, I had to have it. When it arrived, thinking I’d just page through it and enjoy the Gustaf Tenngren illustrations, I sat down with it in my study. A few hours later, tears in my eyes, I finished reading the entire book. Once again, I am filled with the hope and idealism I remember from my first reading.

I know how different times are today — how my own children would be humoring me by reading this saga of a family road trip, one written without irony or cynicism. They would shake their heads at the nostalgia for a time and country they would not recognize. Pre-television, pre-rock and roll, pre-Vietnam, pre-9/11.

What the heck — I’m going to ask them to humor me. Maybe this is exactly the right time to let the Hardings of the 1940s teach us about our not so distant past. Sixty years only seems like forever.

Father, stopping to sketch the farm workers harvesting grain in Kansas, put it very well: “It all fits into a picture I’m getting of the country,” he said to Mother.

“I knew about the facts, of course, but I don’t think I understood them before: the great cities, the great fields that feed them, and the forgotten small places where the old life still continues and men read fewer newspapers, but have more ideas of their own.”



Books by Sharon Fiffer

Essays: What I Learned at the EZ Way Inn

Jane Wheel Series:
Lucky Stuff – 2012
Backstage Stuff – 2011
Scary Stuff – 2009
Hollywood Stuff – 2006
Buried Stuff – 2004
The Wrong Stuff – 2003
Dead Guy's Stuff – 2002
Killer Stuff – 2001

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