Will She Let the Cow Head Stay?

by G.R. Davis in 1998 or 1999


There's a Tupperware Party going on back at my house right now. The kids and I are avoiding going home until the noise clears out, but I'm anxious to peek in the living room to see if it's still there.

Tia likes to sleep late on Saturday mornings, if you consider 8:30 late. Until recently, the kids and I preferred to get up early (about 6 am) and go “Yard Sale-ing.” Friday nights we'd scan the classifieds, looking for yard sales on streets with names we recognize. For a while there, we'd schedule our run so that we'd move efficiently from one location to the next with little wasted time. There's something almost frantic about the serious “yard salers,” zipping about as the sun rises, scrambling to find treasures before other pirates arrive. Sometimes we don't even stop. You can tell from the street the caliber of the goodies. We'll cruise by slowly, scanning the rickety tables, blankets, and tarps spread on the ground piled high with clothes and tattered shoes. This stuff is unappealing. We're looking for something else. Anything else. But most times we pull in, scamper up the driveway and make a quick surveillance run just to see what's there before slowing down to seriously examine the more interesting loot. It's always a mystery; sometimes those yard sales you'd think are nothing more than trash will have something really good. And the great ones have tools, stereos, hardware, lawn equipment, utility trailers, sturdy solid wood furniture, and such. All the good stuff gets sold early so we've usually completed the voyage, stopped for a sausage and egg biscuit, and are back at home before 8:30 am.

At one yard sale, I bought a set of Club Aluminum kitchen pots complete with lids and a roasting pan for $8. So what if the particular color of green that adorns each of these pots has never been replicated in the history of mankind. We still use these pots every day. And the $15 solid cherry stereo cabinet in the den has been home to our VCR and cable box for the last six years. It came from a yard sale high atop a hill late in the morning when nearly all of the “good stuff” had been bought away. But there it was, tilted on the driveway, sad from watching all its brothers and sisters being selected and carted away. Lonesome, like the last member of a family sold from a slave ship. But it's mine now and it serves me every day.

Once I discovered a sturdy tripod with a strange head at a yard sale. Two of the rubber boots were missing from the feet, but it was an irresistible bargain. Snapped it up for $3. Turns out to be the perfect tripod for a spotting scope and it's been all over Florida with me, getting its feet wet and sandy while I quickly tilt and swivel it to follow the roseate spoonbills swishing their beaks over a mud flat. New it would easily be $200 and I'd never dream of slogging through mud and grit with something so expensive. But for $3 I get to see things I'd never see otherwise.

My brother-in-law was starting to moonlight in the heating and air conditioning business. He coveted my two utility trailers as do most men who have an appreciation for the functional. Unwilling to part with either of them, I promised to be on the lookout for a trailer for him. Sure enough, early one summer Saturday morning at a yard sale in one of the oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods in the city, I found it. An old man had been using it to transport his tiny jon boat to the lake. In failing health, he was finally ready to sell this little trailer with rusty metal frame, springs, and a good wooden floor and sides with a swinging tailgate. Thinking of my brother-in-law's request, I convinced the owner to take my personal check for $120. Minutes later the trailer was bobbing along behind my van on the way to its temporary home in my back yard. On the phone, I described its dimensions to my sister-in-law 250 miles away, waiting to be thanked for my swift acquisition. A few days later word came from my brother-in-law that this trailer was too small to haul the big condenser units he intends to install, and in the meantime he had secured a much larger trailer on permanent loan from a friend. The message: “Thanks anyway.” So for a while, we were a “three trailer” family. Smaller and lighter than my other two trailers, and with a functional tailgate, this newest arrival served as a huge wheel barrow for carting autumn's fallen leaves to the street. The kids entertained themselves by bouncing in it like a trampoline. But it's gone now, traded even for an odd piano that was banished to a friend's garage. The piano, its cabinet bruised and scratched, sits in our den now, across from the cherry stereo cabinet. These two refuges have found a home with us. Her keys are yellowed and some are cracked. Like a woman with bad teeth who is embarrassed to smile, her mouth stays shut until she sings for us in her twangy voice.

Some Saturdays I get desperate. Six or seven yard sales and still no acquisitions. I resort to rummaging through textiles and kitchenware. Once I found a complete set of woven green placemats that I thought would coordinate well with our kitchen table and the unbreakable green and white Corel plates we use every day. But this Saturday as we unloaded the van, Tia inspected our loot. The kids gained entry with their little plastic necklaces and waterlogged baseballs and nearly new stuffed animals. But the judgment was firm and clear: these placemats were not permitted in our house. How could I have imagined these hideous creations would be acceptable? They never once passed the portals and to this day they lie in a heap somewhere in the garage amongst all the other mistakes I've made.

Several times at yard sales I've found nearly new shoes that fit the kids. A pair of perfectly good, well-fitting shoes for $2 is hard for me to resist. So hard, in fact, that I can't resist. But there's something absolutely abhorrent about used shoes in Tia's mind. So if I inspect the garbage can on Thursdays as I cart it to the street, deep in its bowels will be a nice pair of shoes, almost virgin, to my eyes perfectly functional, but nevertheless being sacrificed.

One late Saturday morning I escorted Tia down to Alayna's room where her bed was embellished by what I thought was a beautiful floral green comforter complete with matching shams and pillowcases. Only hours earlier, I spied this set languishing in a heap in someone's carport and had quickly bargained to possess it for a mere $5. Always suspicious of my yard sale acquisitions, Tia examined the set and gave tentative approval pending a thorough washing. Amazingly, this set still keeps Alayna warm every night. There's a paradox here: How is sleeping in used bedding all night so different from wearing used shoes all day? However, I've elected not to pursue this line of reasoning with Tia.

For a dollar I got a huge golden-framed wall hanging with the Lord's Prayer hand lettered with a calligraphy pen. From the erratic strokes, one may see evidence of the onset of Parkinson's disease in the “artist,” but for me this work was irresistible. Besides, it was only a dollar! We already had it hung in the den by the time Tia came downstairs. I shouldn't have been surprised that it never achieved residency status. After months of entombment in the laundry room, I spotted it in the van along with other items Tia had gathered to “donate” to Goodwill. Unbeknownst to Tia, I rescued it and tucked it away in the garage. Maybe one day the time will be right for a resurrection, but three days in this case is not nearly long enough.

One Saturday morning we finished our yard sale-ing and returned home with sufficient time to display our treasures on the kitchen table before Tia came downstairs. During the ensuing inspection, the rationale behind each purchase was first questioned and subsequently defended, often with the explanation sounding inadequate or apologetic. On this day I had secured a large, pale green ceramic cookie jar, the lid of which was crowned with multicolored fruits. The pronouncement was sure and swift: this abomination would not be allowed in her kitchen. Do with it what you will, but it is not to remain in this house! Defeated, I headed for the bulging garage once again to add this to the growing collection there. But my garage is not conducive to long life for ceramic objects, what with the kids clamoring around in there occasionally. So I took this cookie jar to the college where I teach and put it to good use. On the day of the first major test, I bring in the cookie jar and explain to the bewildered students the circumstances surrounding the banishment of this creation from my home. Then each student reaches into the cookie jar and pulls a slip of paper with a code name on it. They use that code name on their test. They sign their real name to the slip which they secure in an envelope. While grading, I don't know which paper belongs to which student. After the grading is finished, I match up real names with code names and discover who earned each grade. In this way, I am immune to accusations of bias or favoritism. I post the grades on my office door by code name. This has become a ritual for my students. On test days students anticipate the cookie jar, always curious as to what category I'll choose as code names. At various times they've been types of worms, flounders, cartoon characters, famous scientists, name brands of cameras, salamanders, soft drinks, cell types, flavors of ice creams, birds, and hairs. Did you know that there are at least seven different types of hairs on the human body? Neither did they until they got their code names that day. So this cookie jar, once shunned, a victim of bias and discrimination, now opposes those evils from a position of prominence and is likely to be remembered through the ages by my students.

One rare Saturday, Tia dared to accompany us, perhaps with dreams of limiting our purchases. We'd already scoured a few yard sales with no result when we encountered one shady dank yard with flimsy mildewed boxes sagging with glasses and dishes. Fearful of having to return home in defeat (translation: empty-handed) I rummaged through the boxes, hoping to find some tools or photography gear or perhaps an interesting picture frame. Instead, I found a quaint set of semi-dainty dishes with pine branches, pine needles, and pine cones as the decorative motif. Five plates, six cups and saucers, six little dessert bowls, six bread plates, two serving bowls, a moderately large serving tray, and even a sugar bowl. Complete with gold trim around most of the edges (and most of the edges were actually intact.) On the bottom of the plates was printed “W.S. George, half century of fine dinnerware.” The whole set for $15! Who could doubt the worth of this? It was a sign!

I seized the moment and showcased these jewels to Tia, hoping for immediate and enthusiastic approval. Such was not forthcoming. In fact, the rejection was outright and adamant. So adamant that I took offense, and irrationally bought the whole set for the asking price against Tia's vehement protest. At home, still sore that our tastes were so opposed, I tenderly bathed each piece of the china-like set, overlooking the numerous chinks and cracks and faded trim. Once dried, I cleared a space on the upper shelf in the pantry, out of Tia's reach, knowing that she'd never use these plates, and hoping that she'd never climb up there to toss them out.

It wasn't long after that I began using the pine cone plates for Sunday breakfast. I'd scramble eggs and make a pot of grits, and serve them up steaming hot on the pine cone plates. I'd have a cup of coffee ready for Tia in the tea cup and saucer. Early on, in defiance, I even retrieved the exiled green placemats from the garage to complete the effect. The kids were greatly amused by all this, fully aware of their mother's attitude toward these treasures. They tittered in delight whenever Tia would reluctantly eat from these wretched vessels. The pine cone plates have been in the family for several years now and I use them on special occasions, namely when the kids and I prepare meals for Mom on Mother's Day or her birthday. And recently, I recall being summoned to our formal dining room for Father's Day where I was served on this very fine china. The use of the pine cone plates has become both a joke and a ritual. Anyone outside our immediate family is unlikely to appreciate their significance. Initially a source of contention, they have become a symbol of tolerance.

The list of my purchases would ramble on for pages and include rickety lamps, dusty suitcases with faulty zippers, framed photographs, a $2 slide projector caked with dust that fails to advance, a wicker bookshelf and fanback chair, unidentifiable accessories for my table saw, tripod screws and darkroom safelights, forceps and hospital scissors, several yellowed slide projector screens with excessive recoil, shop brooms that shed bristles, a garden sprayer, a seed spreader, and so on. But the one of greatest importance has no function at all and cost only one dollar.

One bright Saturday morning the kids and I ventured to a distant side of town to a neighborhood yard sale. Historically, yard sales in the newer subdivisions haven't been very productive for me. Weathered old cars obviously out of place in this upscale development lined both sides of the street as purchasing agents like myself scurried from driveway to driveway. Although there were some interesting stereo speakers and a splintered wooden chair that I could patch up, I exercised rare restraint. At the far end of the cul-de-sac lay my last opportunity, but hope turned to despair as I surveyed the offerings: baby clothes and nursery items. Having greeted the young vendors, I politely glanced over the tables of baby bottles, sleepers, comforters, and red and yellow plastic toys, each of these indented with sets of tiny teeth marks. Deflated, I turned to leave and then I spotted it amongst the other soft furry toys for sale. A huge artifical black cow head with pink cloth nose, soft brown horns, and sad brown plastic eyes. Its chin was white as was the top of its head and the big synthetic round ears. It was probably intended to hang on a wall opposite a crib. Although I'd never seen one of these before, it didn't take long to figure out why it was for sale. Utterly useless, but so much for $1. And so unique. The ridicule began as soon as I returned to the car where the kids waited impatiently, having completed their shopping. “What are you going to do with that? Mom will never let that hang in the house!” But I already had a plan. We would sneak it in to the living room and silently hang it on the mantle above the fireplace. We took bets on how long it would be before Mom noticed. Hours? Days? Weeks? But there was no doubt what would happen within seconds of the discovery….exile to the garage.

Or so we thought. Those who had guessed hours were right. When Tia happened to see the cow head on the way to the kitchen, she laughed as she inspected it more closely. The kids enjoyed the ensuing banter. I pleaded “Let's leave it up for a while. It's not hurting anything. Nobody ever comes in the living room anyhow. Besides, my brother has a deer head trophy in his living room, and his wife allows it to stay there. You know I don't hunt so there's no chance of me shooting a trophy of my own.” Tia relented, and the cow head stayed above the fireplace where it provoked snickers from the family with every passing. After a few weeks in residence, it became invisible in the living room as all of us became accustomed to its presence.

But it was not forgotten. Each time relatives came for a weekend visit, the kids escorted them into the living room and proudly showcased the cow head above the mantle. My parents were amused and puzzled by this. They laughed softly while shaking their heads. What kind of son had they raised? And who is this daughter-in-law that tolerates such nonsense?

Before Christmas, I brought down box upon box of decorations from the attic. Traditionally, we put stockings and wreaths on our fireplace for the season and I was genuinely concerned that once the cow head was removed, it would never be rehung. I argued that stockings and wreaths could be arranged around the cow head. My powers of persuasion were lacking. Decorations went up quickly and I panicked when I was unable to find the cow head in any of the boxes to be stored temporarily in the attic. I interrogated Tia and she assured me that it had not met the same fate as all yard sale shoes. I was nervous all through the Christmas holidays, but in January as the stockings and wreaths were meticulously packed away, I found and carefully re-instated the cow head to its place of honor.

Tonight there is a Tupperware party at our house with the festivities to be held in the living room. Most of the party guests (perhaps “victims”) live in very nice homes in nice neighborhoods. Some even live in the country club. Another lives way out in the country in a tiny bungalow on about 50 acres near the river. But as far as I'm aware, fluffy cow heads intended for a nursery are not acceptable as living room décor anywhere. So as our living room is vacuumed, dusted, and extra chairs are arranged in a circle, I wonder whether a beheading is eminent. “Are you letting the cow head stay?” I inquire timidly. “We'll see….” is the evasive answer. The cow head is still above the mantle when the kids and I escape before any of the ladies arrive at 6:30. Maybe she'll forget and leave it up. What will these women think of such a ludicrous accessory?

It is nearly 10:30 pm when the kids and I cruise up our driveway lined on both sides by nice cars and newer sport utility vehicles. The party is breaking up as we tiptoe in the back door, hoping to avoid direct contact with the ladies. But it is impossible to escape detection, so we greet the women who are all “Tuppered-out.” I venture a glance toward the mantle, and there she is, undisturbed, listening in to all conversations with head tilted slightly. She has been a topic for discussion this evening. It's hard to express the satisfaction I feel, the triumph, the acceptance. This silly cow head is my little protest against conformity, an unblinking reminder to investigate apparent absurdity. I know now that it belongs to Tia as much as to me. She's my partner in life and has developed much tolerance for my antics over these last 17 years of marriage. Our kids will grow up and move out some day, but I think this cow head is here to stay. And apparently so am I, thanks to faulty judgment, poor taste, and an indulgent wife.

Off to bed now. Tomorrow is Saturday. Gotta see what else I can get away with.