The Yellow Umbrella From Auction #93
An accidental purchase became my favorite reminder to look deeper at what is before me.
The auction advertised a vintage wrought iron outdoor dining set. We’d purchased a similar small set years before and I’d been looking for a larger version ever since. We had a big birthday party coming up and the new set would provide ample seating number for a fall barbecue. I marked my calendar, entered my max bid, and went on about my life.
The night of the auction, I broke all my rules and checked in, overbidding my max by $25. But it worked and I won. Two days later, we loaded up the flatbed trailer and headed to pick up our haul.
Logistics were a nightmare — that was obvious from a block away. We parked three houses down on a tiny one-lane residential street, along with several other long trailers, boxy cargo jobs, and housewives with their big Suburbans. We checked in and were shown through a filthy house to the tiny backyard. There sat my treasure: a set comprised of four rusted chairs, one lilting table, and a bright yellow mildewed umbrella. I was crestfallen.
My husband, ever the optimist, looked over our purchases carefully. A wasp nest, complete with wasps, some kind of fungal cancer, and a cascade of moldy leaves were dislodged in short order. He turned the chairs over, thumped an arm here, a leg there, and declared them sound enough for transport.
With much effort and some trespassing on our part, we carried the seven hefty pieces through a small gate, across the lawns of three strangers, and loaded them onto our trailer. I was disgusted but tried to see the promise beneath the rust and neglect. But that umbrella… I saw no hope for it. I begged the auctioneers and my husband just to keep the monstrosity and dispose of it with the leftover garbage. Yet, there it sat, flapping in the wind on the trip home like a jaundiced sail.
As is the way, life intervened and the wrought iron dining set sat in the yard ignored for a week or two. There was talk of powder-coating and replacing parts, but in the end, a few cans of spray paint and new feet brought the wrought iron set new life. I actually found it larger and more comfortable than our previous set, and moved it to the primary position on the upper terrace, quite pleased with the hidden gem. Still, each time I sat in it with my cup of coffee to watch the fall winds take the leaves of crimson and gold from their lofty boughs, the ugly yellow umbrella distracted me. My husband repeatedly convinced me not to put it out with the trash.
One afternoon, I cranked it open knowing we were expecting rain for the next three days. I brushed the faded sunny fabric hard with a broom and left it open like a giant kite, daring nature to either take it away for good or try to undo the damage it had done over the years. After a couple of days, it looked no better for wear but at least a modicum cleaner. My next move was to mix vinegar and a dash of dish soap to treat the heavy mildew that left ugly speckles on every edge and crease. Again, the improvement was minor so I repeated the process right before the next rain and left it in the sun to dry for several weeks.
Surveying my work, I realized it was as good as it was going to get and I had no more tricks up my sleeve. Sadly, that just wasn’t good enough for me. What good was all the new paint and hard work to restore the dining set if I left the ugly yellow duckling there to spoil it? I relocated the disappointment to the garage to deal with later and replaced it with a shiny, new model from the local home improvement store.
Much to my surprise, I found I hated the new model umbrella. It was a nice dark blue and treated with stain guard so it wouldn’t mildew or fade with years of sun. And yet, in the months since I’d brought it home, I’d somehow grown accustomed to the yellow monster. I loved the yellow glow it spread over my hands and lap when I went outside to work at the terrace table. I liked the sunny haze it spread over the kitchen sink and counters through the window in the late afternoon. I liked the thought that it had led a whole life before it came to us, with another family — a life of picnics and Sunday afternoon meals in simpler times. I liked that it, like me, had scars and stories, but still had life to give to someone who could look beyond the obvious flaws.
And I was ashamed, not just of the umbrella, but of all the other judgments I’d made based on surface observations. How many times had I complained about others making snap decisions about me because of the way I looked or based on some small piece of information they gleaned without having all the facts? Yet, there in the corner of the garage was proof I had done the same. I knew the umbrella wasn’t an isolated incident or confined to inanimate objects. Something was telling me to do better.
Today, as I type this, I sit beneath the yellow umbrella, spread wide and proud across the terrace. It casts its golden glow across my laptop and keeps the fall leaves from landing in my lap. In truth, the umbrella has become my favorite part of that estate sale purchase, maybe of any estate sale. It still has a few spots of speckled mildew and appears striped from years of fading while folded up in disuse. But I love it anyway. It serves as a reminder of the many lessons I’ve learned in life: that sometimes the best things in life come in unexpected packages, that attitude and perspective change everything, and that beauty is not just skin deep. Most of all, it reminds me that just because we are broken, we are not beyond repair. Maybe we all have a little extra life left in us that we didn’t see at first.