In the early days of my life as an adult my brother gave me a set of blue nested mixing bowls: bright, clear, blue glass. Cobalt, people call it. I have lugged them from apartment to apartment and used them as mixing bowls, as bowls for dough to rise in, as bowls to eat dinner out of, to serve salads from at potluck suppers, as serving bowls for more dishes more elegant than noodle salad, and, last but not least, as punch bowls. I’ve had them for almost thirty years now and they show almost no wear despite nearly constant use and a lot of being packed up and relocated. They are miracle bowls.
This weekend, I went to an estate sale in a house where my brother lived, as a housesitter, for a few months, circa 1989. This was a very well-appointed house that, once upon a time, was the home of a good friend of my mother’s. He was a professor, and he lived there with his wife. The professor died two decades ago, and his widow has decided to downsize, finally, and she organized an estate sale. I saw a sign for it (“Estate sale: Friday, Sat., Sun., 9-1”) and thought, “I should go to that.”
I couldn’t convince my daughter to go with me late Friday morning — she was too hot, too cranky, too in need of lunch — but I did manage to convince her to come with me on Saturday morning. I went to the estate sale expecting to see good housewares and a lot of books. I was not wrong. While I could not justify taking home all the pieces I wanted — the well-designed white plates and pasta bowls; the little Fiestaware plates; the darling Pyrex refrigerator boxes — I kept my eyes peeled for things that I knew I could use and things that deserved to find a new home either with me or because of me.
I noticed, on a kitchen counter, a set of cobalt blue mixing bowls identical to the set my brother gave me. The moment I saw them, I realized that my brother had seen them, back in the day, and thought, “This is what I’ll get my little sister for her birthday.” So in that sense, they had a kind of sentimental value to me. And I had a strong sense that I should take this set home, even though I obviously don’t need them, because, duh, I have a set. I couldn’t justify buying them. It wasn’t the money — they were well priced. I just knew that my husband would think I’d lost my mind if I brought them home and put them on the shelf next to our other set.
At the same time, I really wanted them to go to a good home — to the right person. Instead of buying them, I did what seemed like the responsible thing. I went home. When I got home, I unpacked my haul (two flat linen sheets, one nicely printed 1950s cotton tablecloth acquired for a friend who likes these sorts of things, and two men’s handkerchiefs, one of which appears to have been picked up while traveling on SAS (airlines no longer print their own promotional handkerchiefs: a shame)).
As I was saying: I unpacked my haul. And then I did the right thing: I got onto Facebook.
“Nice estate sale at [location redacted]. Anyone who’s ever ogled my blue cobalt mixing bowls should head over there posthaste and snag a set for themselves.”
Within about six minutes a long thread had grown. A friend who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in the Bay Area bemoaned hysterically the fact that she’d moved to the West Coast: apparently, out there, estate sales are a different thing entirely and tend to lack lovely things like cobalt blue mixing bowls. Another friend, a dearest pal from college, who lives in Virginia, asked more calmly, “How much?” I honestly couldn’t recall what the price tag said. It wasn’t more than $20, I remembered. I tagged a few locals who might have been at the sale after I left. I thought, “Someone will notice those bowls and let us know if they’re available.” One woman said she was there half an hour ago, and didn’t notice the bowls. But another woman reported that she was just there, and she’d bought the little Pyrex refrigerator boxes, and the blue bowls were there when she left. $10.
It was about four in the afternoon on Saturday and I had no way to ask for a definitive answer to the question “Did the blue bowls sell?” All I could do was hope that the bowls hadn’t sold, and go back on Sunday morning, as early as possible. The last day of the sale was Sunday, and it would close at 1 p.m.
I awoke at 6.30 Sunday morning thinking, “Estate sale.” I showered and dressed and announced to my family, “I’m going back to that estate sale so I can see if I can get those blue bowls.” My husband and child looked up at me, not too interested, and said, “Okay.” I walked down to the house — not quite a mile away — and as I turned the corner I could see a woman leaving the house carrying the blue bowls. My stomach lurched. Some random person had the bowls??? And then I realized that I knew the woman carrying the bowls. She is a neighbor of mine, she lives about five blocks away, her name is Jo, and she is a peach. I thought, “Well, if someone else is going to score those bowls, it’s good that it’s Jo.” I called out, “Jo! You got the bowls!” She laughed and asked, “Did you come for them?” I said, “I did!” I caught up with her on the sidewalk. “I don’t know if you saw,” I told her, “But I had a whole Facebook thread going on about those bowls.” She said, “I did see the thread! And I was coming to work this morning and I thought, “I should stop in and see if the bowls are still there.” It turned out that she had bought them intending to get them to me so that I could get them to my friend G.
I was, you might say, bowled over.
I reimbursed Jo for the bowls, then and there on the sidewalk, and thanked her about a million times. She said, “It’s funny, I have a set just like these, except red.” I thought, “She gets it,” and told her that her small action would make my friend in Virginia very happy. Jo went off to work, and I put the bowls into the big tote bag I’d brought with me, and all was right with the world, at least when it came to blue glass bowls.
On coming home, I unpacked the second set of bowls onto our kitchen counter, and we dashed off to do the things we had planned for the afternoon. In the evening, when I moved the bowls aside so I could start making dinner, my husband ambled over. “They really are handsome, aren’t they?” he asked. “They are,” I agreed. I told him how I’d actually done a little research about these blue bowls, and how they were apparently manufactured by a French company called Arcoroc. There was a time when you could get these blue bowls easily — they seemed to be ubiquitous in housewares shops, high and low-end, but now they were a little hard to find. “EBay?” he suggested. “Etsy?” I said, “Even there! I only found one set for sale, and they wanted sixty bucks for them, which is pretty much what they cost if you bought them new, I think.”
I look at the two sets now, side by side, and remember something else. The set my brother gave me came with three bowls. I acquired the fourth bowl years later. The fourth one in my set, which is significantly smaller than the “small” bowl in the original gift, is smaller than the “small” bowl in the Estate Sale set, which I will name Yvette. What we have are two slightly different sets of four. In other words, I suspect that to have a “complete” set of these Arcoroc bowls, you’d have to have five bowls. But I’ve never seen a set of five for sale anywhere. I don’t know where Yvette came from. Was Yvette originally made up of five pieces, but the smallest Yvette broke? I will never know. My fourth bowl, I remember, I found in a housewares shop in the Hartford area ca. 2001, and I got it not because I needed it but because it was so obvious that I should have it and give it a home with its siblings. (My mom was with me at the time and she immediately saw that this was the right thing to do; I think she paid for the bowl, actually. It was the same shopping trip where we acquired two beer steins, for my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and we were also gifted with a basket for our newly-acquired cat to sleep in. The cat loved that basket. He wasn’t much of a beer drinker, though.)
If I were a perfect person, I would find another one of the really small blue bowls, and add it to the set, and then present it all to G. I would also find a bowl like the smallest Yvette I have in my possession now, and add it to the Hausfrau set. But this is a little crazy, and I think I should just be content with what I’ve acquired through chance and happy gifts.
I’m worried about shipping these bowls: their scarcity means that, if I ship them, and something bad happens, they’ll be difficult to replace. As luck would have it, I am going to be seeing my friend G. in about a month. So I’m going to wash these bowls, and pack them up carefully, and bring them to her in person. Don’t thank the Hausfrau, either, G. — thank Jo.