Domestic Tranquility: My Grandmother’s Plunger

By Stephen Halpert

We were at the flea market in Grafton, walking amongst tables cluttered with everything from old glasses and china to basketballs and battered tennis racquets, all at give away prices.
I paused at a table littered with strange looking rusty pipes, old tools and different kinds of racks. “Will you look at that? And it’s only seventy five cents!”
Tasha frowned. “Stephen, that’s just an old rubber plunger.”
“Exactly like my grandmother had in her upstairs bathroom closet on Oriole Avenue; same chipped red paint on its top too. Why if she hadn’t lived as far away as Providence, I’d say this well might once have been hers. And what a good deal!”
She poked at it and wrinkled her nose. “It’s old and decrepit and the rubber is dried out and cracked.”
“Tasha, if you were as old as this plunger…why I’ll bet it goes back seventy, eighty years to the last century. I’ll bet Eleanor Roosevelt had a red handled plunger just like this at Hyde Park; probably brought it with her to the White House to make the place more homey. Don’t you realize what a nostalgic American keepsake the classic bathroom plunger has become?”
“No doubt it will prove useful to someone,” she said. She turned her attention to a pile of old food stained cookbooks on the next table.
“Might be smart if we picked it up,” I persisted. “Real practical, antique rustic Americana.”
She swiveled around and looked at me. “Why are you suddenly interested in finding old bathroom memorabilia?” She arched her eyebrows. “Perhaps you want to start collecting plungers?”
“Well,” I took her arm and we moved on. “If you went to a real store you’d pay way more than seventy five cents for one.”
“But we don’t need another plunger. I think the one we have is just fine.”
“Are you sure? It never hurts to have a backup on hand just in case.” I picked up a rusty metal bank, looked at the price tag, shook my head and put it back down.
“In case of what? Or is it because it reminds you of your grandmother? Is that why you want it? Oh, look at that copper kettle,” she pointed. “Wonder if there’s a hole in it?”
“When I think of my grandmother I remember her delicate Dresden lamps and the figurines that chipped if you looked at them the wrong way, let alone dropped one. You notice how careful I am to stay away from expensive crockery?” I spotted something several tables away. “Wow! Now that’s a find! Those pewter bowls look like they date back to the Mayflower.”
We walked in that direction. “That’s all right.” Tasha picked one up. “I have enough bowls, and anyway I prefer stainless steel.” She chose a book from the table in front of her and opened it. “This is an interesting collection of recipes using prunes.”
“Wouldn’t you say pewter bowls are rare and probably valuable? Besides, don’t you have enough cook books?”
“You can’t use pewter for anything other than decoration, it’s poisonous; plus it never hurts to find a cookbook with some obscure recipes that may come in handy someday. You like prunes.”
“It’s decrepit. The cover’s all stained and torn. I’ll bet you could find a pristine copy on Amazon.”
“Not for ten cents, I couldn’t. But maybe you’re right.” She put it back down.
We continued on past rows of incredible bargains: slightly worn beach umbrellas, furniture on its last legs, and CDs by unfamiliar bands and vocalists.
After a while we stopped and bought sandwiches and cold drinks. We sat and ate and then continued browsing. “I guess it’s sold by now.” I said.
“What’s sold?” Tasha turned from a carton of kitchen utensils that had seen better days.
“My grandmother’s plunger. The old one back there with the faded red handle.”
“Oh for goodness sake go buy it. Here, here’s seventy-five cents,” she reached into her change purse and handed me three shiny quarters. “Really, go buy it, otherwise I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Are you sure?” Suddenly I had a vivid image: my grandmother with a determined look on her face as she tromped down the hall of her Providence home, the red handled plunger firmly in hand.
“Please, be my guest. Far be it from me to interfere with your boyhood memories.”
“That’s fine. It’s probably gone by now anyway. Lots of antique dealers prowling around here this morning, and good deals like that get snapped up in a hurry.”
“I don’t need to go back and buy that cook book, either.” She sighed. “I did like that recipe for prune whip though, but like you said it is rather tattered and some of the pages are falling out.”
“Splurge!” I smiled magnanimously. “Go back and pick it up. It’s only a dime. What can you buy for a dime now-a-days?”
“But I feel badly. I deprived you of your plunger.”
“Oh that’s ok. I’m just glad we can be honest with each other when it comes to making expensive financial decisions, and admittedly I know that somehow we’ll get along without it.”
“Your grandmother’s plunger?” she looked at me, and sighed. “Maybe I should buy it and put it away as a Christmas surprise. Would finding it under the tree make you happy and think of her more often?”
“Only if it needed to be called into active duty; and then it wouldn’t really matter, unless of course it saved us from having to call a plumber.”

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