Monday, February 6, 2012

The REAL story of how I missed the O'Neil Ford estate sale

I am a big fan of children's nonfiction books that purport to be REAL or TRUE or ALL ABOUT—to be the last word on the subject at hand. The REAL book about easy music-making! The REAL book about farms! As opposed to all those unreal farm books, stuffed with their falsehoods and fictions. Like Charlotte's Web—E.B. White clearly had no idea what he was talking about. "Some pig"? Get real, ’50s kids!

I got The Real Book about Easy Music-Making, The Real Book about Journalism and The Real Book about Farms at a library sale that I wasn't optimistic about because it was at a new library, way out in the exurban sprawl. I was misguided. Even out in cookie-cutter subdivisions only just sprung from the scraped earth, there are old people donating their old books to new libraries. But the biggest surprise about these "real" books was the inscription on the inside cover: "The O'Neil Ford Family, Willow Way."

I don't know if people outside South Texas know from O'Neil Ford, but he was a renowned midcentury modernist architect who spent most of his professional life in San Antonio, where he designed or redesigned various public buildings and spaces, as well as a number of private homes (to live in an O'Neil Ford is definitely something to brag about). I was familiar with Ford's work, but I didn't know anything about Willow Way, so of course, I googled it and discovered that was the name of his homestead—a ramshackle ten-acre former farm on the South Side, which had been in his wife's family since the 1920s. Ford died in 1982, his wife in 2002. And the estate sale—which sounds like it must have been the mother of all estate sales—took place in late 2005, a year after I moved to San Antonio. How do I know this? Because my google search also turned up a link to a story about the sale in the San Antonio Current, written by my pal Elaine.

If you are a habituĂ© of estate sales, you're familiar with the One that Got Away, the One You Missed, or most dreadful—the One You Arrived at Only In Time to See Someone Else Leaving With All the Stuff You Totally Would Have Bought If Only You Had Known That This Sale Should Have Been Your Top Priority. You can really get bogged down in the what-ifs and what-might-have-beens, so it's best not to dwell. You have to accept your limitations; it's simply not possible to hit every estate sale on a weekend, or to know which ones are really worth the bother. Classified ads must be parsed closely. Location must be considered. The pricing practices of the estate-sale companies must also be factored in. Based on that rough calculus, choices must be made. Don't get me started on what I could be missing at all the run-of-the-mill yard sales that make up the bulk of the classified section of the newspaper. The vast majority surely suck, but amid that sea of smeary black ink there are probably a couple of doozies every week. I'll never know.

Unfortunately, thanks to Elaine's article—in which she dodges wild poultry while previewing the eclectic offerings for the paper—I have a pretty good sense of what I missed at the O'Neil Ford sale, and seven years later I'm grinding my teeth just thinking about it. She interviews David Dillon, an architecture critic and old friend of Ford's, who describes him as an omnivorous collector:

I think what's visible at Willow Way is, on the one hand, the incredible range of interets, the kind of magpie quality of the collecting that [Ford] did, and to some extent the messiness of his life—it was not exactly clean in the traditonal sense—there were all kinds of ghosts, all kinds of loose ends, and they're all out there at Willow Way, too.

Arrgh! She should have told me! Why didn't she tell me? Sigh. Back then, I wasn't pursuing this interest with quite the same intensity. I certainly wasn't blogging about it; I was too busy on my other blog devoted to new motherhood and the culture shock of moving to Texas and blah blah blah. One detail in the article does more or less confirm that my books somehow wended their way from this fabulous estate sale to this pretty decent library sale to my overstuffed bookcases and this blog: "A small woodframe house with a hearth that could hold a Mini Cooper," she writes, "is given over entirely to silver-fish infested books inscribed 'Willow Way Library' in graceful penmanship."

Well, there you go. I didn't find any silverfish but a torn note, written in graceful penmanship, did fall out of the journalism book:

Dita-get book at library (if you want it) Cell & Psyche—Business & Science. Muir Library. Hairdo & manicure 10:00 Isabella. Take Neil's desk top to Mr. Schulz. Buy dish-washing soap and hairspray (ask Dita).

Who wrote the note? Who was out of hairspray? Who is this Dita and did she really want to check out Edmund Sinott's meditation on the mind-body question when she clearly had so many errands to run? (My best guess is that the book in the note is actually titled Cell and Psyche: The Biology of Purpose.) Will we ever know the REAL story of O'Neil Ford and his messy life? Who knows—who cares—I'll take the enigmatic detail, the tantalizing slice of life over the potted history anytime.

But I still wish I'd made it to that sale. Somehow I think I would have left with more than just a few books.

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