punchbowlLast March, when things were still very grim with my husband’s health, my sis-in-law Teresa called me up and asked me if I wanted to go the peddler’s mall with her. Up until that point, I hadn’t felt comfortable leaving William for a whole afternoon at a time, but things were progressing slowly and I realized it was time to let go a little. So I left him and, with no expectations, drove with Teresa to this place I had passed thousands of times before but never thought to go into.

When we walked inside, I instantly felt like I was back in my Ukrainian grandmother’s apartment. The huge warehouse-like space was divided into booths that were filled with used, whimsical treasure. The booths with the antique dishes appealed to me right away, and I started examining crystal relish dishes, platters designed to hold deviled eggs, lamps that dripped with glass teardrops, juice glasses stamped with cheery orange flowers.

The best part was, though the booths were run by different individuals, those people weren’t actually there, so you could walk inside the booths and take all the time in the world without feeling the pressure to buy. For me, this was a huge plus as I’ve been known to avoid small boutiques simply because I feel too guilty if I leave without making a purchase.

Also, the prices were wonderfully, wonderfully low. It’s not often that you consider the merits of buying something for $5 anymore, but, again and again, that’s what I found myself doing and, as a result, becoming increasingly miserly. After seeing a blue Ball jar selling for $3, I scoffed at the one in another booth on sale for $5 and felt extremely satisfied that I would not get taken for $2. Meanwhile, back in real life outside the peddler’s mall, getting something for $9.95 almost always feels like a bit of a steal.

As I walked through booth after booth, I mentally started making a list of the things I needed to come back and get. There was a spoon rest ($2.50) with a picture of a radish that absolutely needed to be in my kitchen, a pie plate ($3) that featured some waving wheat, and those cheap Ball jars (total: $6) that I would use for flowers. As my list lengthened, I realized my biggest worry wasn’t how William was feeling back at home, but how I was going to relocate all of the stuff I wanted to buy.

Meanwhile, Teresa was on the hunt for books and I joined her briefly as she explained what she’d found. Then I veered away again, happy to be shopping with someone who also likes to examine things alone.

Then, I saw it: a wavy, purple punch bowl shot through with milky white glass so that it looked like a sea anemone. The sixth season of “Mad Men” had just started and I was in love with Don Draper and the 1960s all over again. This bowl belonged in that show. I bent over and saw that the glasses had extended handles so they could hang onto the side of the bowl with ease. I imagined having all of my friends over at Christmas, William wonderfully healthy, and serving a killer punch. Maybe I’d make it a 1960s theme and everyone could stand in the kitchen holding these little glasses, the women’s eyeliner extending catlike over their lids, the men in plaid pants.

But then I saw the price: a whopping $75.

“No,” I told myself. “Not a chance.”

So I left with my spoon rest and pie plate, returned home to my recuperating husband, and vowed to go to more antique stores with Teresa, which is exactly what we’ve done. The thrill of the finds and the thrill of a deal are what keep us going back. At one place, she found glasses in her Star of David glassware pattern for a shocking 25 cents each. At an antique store in Berea, I got eight, etched champagne saucers for $12. All the while, I continued thinking of that punch bowl, which I had described to just about everyone in detail but was sure had probably sold by now.

Then one day, as spring turned into summer, William turned into the parking lot of the peddler’s mall.

“Let’s find it,” he said.

We searched and searched, my memory hazy of its whereabouts, until finally we found it sitting on a bottom shelf. It was just as exotic as I remembered and he picked it up.

“It’s yours,” he announced happily.

He doled out the $75 and now the punch bowl is symbolically sitting in the pantry, ready to party.

Yesterday, as Teresa and I shared stories of our latest finds and planned a trip to the peddler’s mall in Lexington, I realized that that punch bowl and these shopping excursions have defined my year in a way that little else has. Though things have been and continue to be hard, these hours exploring have at once been a lesson in letting go and finding beauty in places where you least expect to. And, when all is said and done, that’s worth a lot.

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