Bethken’s, Phoenicia, Ulster County, New York.
For years we frequented the vintage and bric-a-brac shop of a lady called Betty. She had inherited two small houses on a small piece of land in Phoenicia, NY. The Esopus river in Phoenicia ran below her houses and a heavily wooded road led to them. She lived in one house with her husband, Ken, a Japanese-American from Hawaii. They met when the war ended and she was in New York city in a welcoming committee for returning troops.
Fifty years later, her voice still rose in anger when she remembered how her family had tried to stop her from marrying. They are still married.
In the other little house, Betty sold the things she used to buy blind at auction. She investigated whatever she found in these boxes with interest and pleasure before placing them for sale. She endeared herself to us by admitting that she had tried – and failed – to grow a particular rose represented on English Ironstone pieces in the 18th an 19th centuries. She thought her love of this rose would conquer geographical zones, time and the shift of whole continents.
Everything was cheap. And then she would take additional discounts. She had a sizeable clientele of dealers, too.
We bought everything useful for our domestic lives: plates, bowls, glasses, vases, teapots, serving spoons, forks, trays, lamps; shoehorns of tortoiseshell; glass decanters for our experiments with brandy. We would buy gifts for each other and for our families which were more exotic: a beaded purse; a long silk scarf of faded pale pink silk; opera glasses; little cufflink boxes lined with luscious faded velvets.
I bought for myself only one exotic category of item: Valentine cards. All for a song. They date from 1900 or so. Their sentiments, pale colours, and girlish compositions are from another age which I can barely imagine.
They remind me of Betty who was of our age and of that other age too. She was diminutive and kind, modest, interested in so many things and very interesting herself, sweet and straight as an arrow.
She was without guile. How rare is that?
We miss her. She became ill perhaps four years ago. She is in care now and her husband, Ken, in his mid 80’s is alone in their house. I know there are lots of unopened boxes in their house; but the little shop is closed.