The Codman Place
The first time that I know I found a rare book, it took several years before I knew that I’d found a RARE book. Even then it had to be a considerable distance from me AND a decade later before I understood the true rarity and monetary value of this book. Within (for I still do this) the long haul of the decades of entering old homes, finding rare books and absconding with these treasures, this first “I remember” rare book is not the most valuable rare book I have ever found. In fact, it is barely a “book”. None the less, it remains the first rare book I can remember finding in a old house. By “finding” I mean that not only did I find the book but that WHEN I found it I KNEW it was a “rare book” right then. Before this detection (and after this episode for that matter) I found and continued to find rare books that are only rare to me in grievous hindsight or were separated from me (bought from me for nothing) before I could cognate what I’d found. This singular discovery is, to my recollection, my first discovery of printed Americana that is “very rare”.
My grandmother “looked in” on an elderly woman. She died. She had a “step-down, comb-back Windsor arm (“rocking”) chair (“in the old paint decoration”) that my grandmother fancied and spoke for. When she died, the daughter of the woman told my grandmother to come and “have”(for some amount of “I paid her” money) the “rocking chair Mother always said was for you”. As my grandmother would not move the chair herself, she asked me to accompany her to the dead woman’s home on “the pick-up”. I did these “the pick-up” all the time for her.
We stood in the house and my grandmother chatted with the woman about nothing that I listened to. I stood with my weight on one foot and then the other foot and gaped around a neat and tidy front room of a medium size Victorian home that looked on to a modest side street of the small Maine village. There was, to the antiquarian eye, “nothing” in the house. Or in the barn. I didn’t even care about that too much for the acquisitive skill and intrigue with old things was still a developing concept in my twelve year old vision of the world. I had already been in the barn several times with my grandmother and this particular barn was pin neat, light, airy and even “swept out” with… just the woman’s car parked… just inside it. Additionally, it was not a very big barn as Maine barns go; a “big enough” to have held the buggies, horses and hay of an “in town” 19th century household who “ran” a “millinery store” that “burned down, you remember”.
I didn’t. Where that had been was on a corner of the side street with Main street and now there was a building there that sold things like lawn mowers, chainsaws and… eventually as they appeared in civilization, snowmobiles (“SNOWMACHINES”). These last were very novel to a teenage boy in rural Maine in the 1960’s so… this I remember.
In any case and after too long a while…we left with the old rocking chair. Later that day, at “supper”, my grandmother told my mother how the woman had inherited the house and was “moving her man” into it. “They are going to sell the Codman place” she said. This form of Maine proclamation is distinctively informative in that it qualifies the site of the (in this case) house to be sold very broadly for such scant words. It defines it as being NOT a place of the seller’s own but being a place related to a name, usually prominent, of a family in the distant past that either actually built the home or lived in it for so long that it became their “place”. It defines it as a singular, stand alone property, distinctly understood to be such by all and to be a prominent stand alone PROPERTY therefore, as differentiated from “house”. This includes even… as in this case… if that house (“home”) has, in due passage of time, “declined” and be somewhat lost in the …usually declined… neighborhood that it’s current point on the timeline finds it. The property remains “the (blank) place” regardless of it’s fall from grace to ALL who “would know”. These “would know” people, to people such as my grandmother, are the only people on earth anyway. The rest of civilization just goes by a … “place”… like this without ever even noticing it is “there”.
The final and unstated block of data that is appended to my grandmother’s scanty eight word utterance is best understood as an antiquarian directive. Roughly expanded into a paragraph it means: “This is an old house. I have known about this old house for years. I want to get inside this old house. The people who own the old house are idiots and would not know an antique if they smashed it up for firewood. This house is one of the oldest houses in the village. God knows what could be in there. These people have lived in there for years ever since they (usually) inherited the place from old (fill in blank with a name such as, in this case Henry) Codman. He died before you were born. He was a queer old fellow who kept up with old Mrs. (fill in equally prominent local family name) after her husband died. She moved a lot of her family’s things into the house at that time. I have wanted to get in there and buy all the good stuff in that house for a very long time and now is the chance for me to do this so everybody get ready because these people are selling this house and they are idiots so we have to do something about this right now before someone else (AND THERE ALWAYS IS SOMEONE ELSE AND NEVER EVER DOUBT OR FORGET THIS) gets in there”.
The initial reported short sentence was followed by my grandmother immediately adding that she had “been invited” to “go down” to the “Codman Place” the “next morning” and… that I “had to come too”. Such a two sentence declaration of antiquarian action was already, to the dawn of my teenage years… ears, a “taken for granted” “I have to help” “give it no further thought” …end of subject for the rest of supper. I said nothing while my mother IMMEDIATELY dropped all other plans to she “will come too”.
“You’d better,” said my grandmother.
By dawn the next morning our home was preparing for the “trip”. This consisted of my mother having packed her car with an inordinate amount of old boxes and newspapers. She did the same with my Grandmother’s car but to a lesser extent so that we three could fit in the car and …the car did not appear to be “full” of “anything”. My grandmother had acted in a more primary capacity. She, as both my mother and I had watched, had brought in the small steel box from the …secret hiding hole in the bottom wall boards at floor level of the old summer kitchen in the shed…, opened it on the kitchen table, selected and counted out from the packages of money in the box several thousand dollars in cash and… carefully re-counted this money and made it into smaller bundles that she wrapped with rubber bands and positioned in different sections of her very average sized pocket book. Then she had replaced the steel box in it’s hiding hole and left the home to “go get” her “man ready” with “his truck”. My grandmother was, along with my mother and I, “loaded for bear” by eight o’clock. Our appointment was at 8:30. “We’ll leave now” was her directive ordered without elucidation. My mother followed my grandmother’s car and she… parked her car “up” (and out of sight) on Main street as instructed by my grandmother. I rode in the backseat with my grandmother and, once my mother parked, she rode “up front”. We arrived ten minutes early. That was OK for the home was the residence of the daughter and she and “her man” were, well, readier than they realized.
There is a nuance here that I have come to take for granted but at the time was of no notice to me. In essence the scene that unfolds is that a party of three are arriving at the home of a party of two intending to buy everything in these two people’s home and… they have no idea this is going to happen. The “loaded for bear” preparation is a formality on one side only and is fully, constantly, and forever concealed from the other side throughout the entire transaction. One, should one not be an antiquarian, would suspect nothing beyond a rural Maine neighborly visit to get a… cup of sugar… between two local families. Therefore the first half an hour of the visit is totally useless to report for it involves a complete glazing over of intent (inclusive of glazing over why I was “with them”) and is truly a stupid pantomime of localized banter scripted by my grandmother to… gather the strengths and weaknesses of all present into an oral fish pond upon which she… suddenly casts her line.
Her line left her rod so fleetingly and silently that it had landed before anyone, especially me… noticed. She was quickly rewarded for her silent singing wrist wand action for …the fish that were… now… in the pond… were hungry. I have learned nowadays (as an older gentleman dealer [am I not…?]) that, ah… two parties may load for bear before they meet. Simply, it is not unusual for the party of the home to be vacated to have discussed by themselves a “what are we going to do” “about all our stuff” laid the facts bare behind the closed door of their kitchen table the night before type of “estate planning” themselves. Here we found a particularly splendid situation for prompt action, an… IN FACT… splendid situation of action that my grandmother had NOT overlooked as being “the” logical circumstances… of her ambush.