Friday, November 12, 2010

A Life for Sale

Please remember, all comments through Thanksgiving will be entered into my blog drawing for the book "Simple Abundance" -- and maybe something else!

This post has no illustrations. I thought about it. I thought about it a lot. But sometimes, you have to let the words tell the story.

Not long ago, I went to an estate sale. It was a spur of the moment decision, having seen the sign as I passed by a fairly upscale neighborhood en route to somewhere else.

It was the second day of the sale and nearly 1 p.m., so I didn't have great expectations for special finds, the sale having been picked over by neighbors, dealers and others earlier. While I tend to snatch up things no one else would ever think of, I entered with low expectations. They were accurate.

When I left, I had purchased a Michelin guide to Paris (I mean, really. The buildings are old and historic. Do I care that the prices are different?); a "little blue book" of all sorts of facts for 1964 (purchased because it was small, funky and would be a good tear-up for projects) and a biography of Mozart for Rick. At 75 cents, it was a good stop.

But what I found most interesting during my brief spree was how much this sale -- this sale of leftovers, really -- told about someone's life. What is revealed in piles of leftover crystal, books, paintings. The leftovers of a life together. A life for sale.

It became fairly apparent that the couple -- and it was, or had been, a couple -- living here was well traveled with guide books from Florence, Israel, Paris and London -- many with markings in the margins. They loved music and had a large collection of sheet music, mostly classical (which in retrospect I should have bought to tear up), and it clearly had been used, with bent corners and tattered margins.

They attended the theatre, keeping Playbills as memories. I wish I had bought the program from a long-ago London production with Barrie Humphries (now Dame Edna) and Julia McKenzie (now PBS' Miss Marple) in the chorus. But I let it go. Enough's enough!

It was apparent that he was a physician and most likely, a dermatologist or perhaps plastic surgeon, judging by the large collection of heavy tomes on the topic. They appeared to be Jewish, with a number of sacred texts, prayer books, and documents written in Hebrew, I presume. (They also had three copies of "Exodus," which is a wonderful book, but three copies?) They had excellent taste in art and it appeared as though the items on the walls -- still high priced at half -- were selected abroad or reflected their experiences. There were several old cameras, lots of slide sorters and a light box. An interest in photography was clear.

Someone in the family probably smoked (there was a stale tinge of tobacco in the air of the house) and they had the ashtray collection to prove it. (A sign of the times that on day two of the sale there was still an enormous selection of ashtrays...?) The basement, with its immediate access to a lovely backyard, was relatively unfinished, with a plain linoleum floor, outdated curtains and a ratty plywood bar at the back. Seemed a shame -- it would have been a wonderful room to enjoy.

What was left of the china, serving pieces and glassware was nothing to write home about, but remember, it was the last afternoon of the sale. I suspect what remained were the old bits that had long ago been replaced by nicer pieces. There were a few straw hats -- nothing remarkable. No millinery flowers. But on each door hung a bejeweled evening gown ensemble -- and there were a few other nice pieces in the closet. They did things -- elegant things.

And finally, a postcard addressed to the that home. With the names of the owners (which matched up in name to a certificate for the man of the house.)

From this one piece of junk in the house (not that I've ever considered postcards junk!), I suddenly realized I was in the home of some highly respected civic leaders in our community, whose volunteer roles had included board positions in numerous charitable organizations. I didn't know if he was still in this world, but she is still very much alive and very active.

It felt really creepy.

We often put up parts of our lives for sale -- usually in the front yard or garage -- and we're there along with it. People argue about our trinkets, trying to talk us down from a dollar to fifty cents and we either agree or say, "no, that price is firm" and end up hauling it back inside for another sale or a trip to Goodwill.

And while they may think, "Wow, that was a good sale" or "What a bunch of crap," or maybe even, "That person is just like me!" (at least, that's what goes through my head), for the most part, the endgame is mild diversion and non-involvement. It is, after all, our junk we're getting rid of -- the things that we know we'll not use again. But it isn't really the leftovers of our lives.

But when you've been plowing through someone else's estate leftovers, making up stories about their lives and discover it's someone you know -- or know of -- well, it felt creepy. It's not like they're dead. Or even if they were...

I guess I can make up all sorts of scenarios -- maybe he died, she's remarried and who needs his out of date medical books or memories of that life? Or he's still in the picture, retired now. Or maybe they're moving to a condo and who has space for all that stuff. Maybe she's ill and going to die soon and why not settle now instead of later. It's pretty easy to make up little mysteries based on the remnants of her life, and it's kind of fun.

But it's also a little creepy.

(Note -- l later relayed this story to a colleague from work. Without my telling even everything that was there, she said, "Oh, that's Dr. Abcdefg. He died; she's moved to Florida." Every now and then, things like this remind me that I live in a small town.)

Once a year, Rick threatens to bring a dumpster to my house and get the junk out. (He has done this to his mother's house. I really felt bad for her, because he's a maniac!)

I politely decline. Most of the stuff I have is because I like it. Yes, it's WAY too much and I should purge, but I like it. Some is old, passed on from family; some is acquired. And then there are the presents -- the ones you love and wouldn't part with for the world and the ones you'd kill to part with but just can't. It seems so wrong to throw out something given with love. And of course there's the sentimental stuff.

We art-types are our own breed. We collect weird things, like broken jewelry, empty Altoid and sardine tins, scraps of ripped up paper, trims and ribbons and beads and flowers. Yarn is stacked in baskets -- and don't throw out that tail of eyelash yarn -- you can use that someday!

We say -- "I know I can use that for something." And do I? Sometimes. Not enough, I fear.

I suspect if my life was up for sale, folks could tell a lot about me. What I loved, what I liked, what I did, where I'd been, what mattered. They could also tell I'm a pack rat, but then, they know that already.

Maybe that's kind of neat. But it's also a little creepy...


Annie said...

So much food for thought here, Jeanie. I wonder what they would think of us?

Him - Civil War buff, for sure
Her - Does she settle on ANY subject?
Him - Lots of tools
Her - Lots of yarn, etc.
Him - volumes of writing
Her - volumes of photos
Etc. Etc. Etc.

I can't imagine parting with any of it. But - I do. Better me than the pain it would cause my children.

Linda said...

Great post. I used to struggle with estate I've learned to embrace them. My daughter is going to collage my casket and we are having "make and takes" at my visitation the night before the service.

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

Oh wow, that is interesting... So interesting what you can gleam from a person's life by attending an estate sale.

We had one for my grandpa last fall. My grandma was there and it was definitely a tough day for her. We sold off his engines and tractors that he had fixed/collected throughout his life. It was surreal to see his stuff all lined up and to see people walking around and talking about it. I think it was emotionally exhausting for all of us. But my grandma didn't sell any of the sentimental things, like book, etc... I don't think she was ready to part w/ those items. but last fall I was at her house and she said I could take any of his books that I am interested in... But I just could NOT bring myself to take any of the books off his shelf. Eventually, I know I will - esp the ones I gave to him as gift... But I'm just not quite 'ready' to do that...

Marilyn said...

Fascinating thoughts, Jeanie. I have been thinking many of the same things in thinking about thinning down and getting rid of things. I don't think I had gotten to putting it into words; so yours touched a cord. Thanks!

beth said...

i'm a pack rat, too....but i try so hard to get rid of things when my husband rolls his eyes.....

Joanne Huffman said...

I hate garage sales and have had only 2 in my life (I hate watching people paw through my stuff). I have much more stuff than anyone needs. I've told my daughters to take what they want when I die, call my friends to come and get what they want; and, then, to walk away from the house, call a realator and have someone else deal with disposing of things.

Dogwood said...

So many words. At first, I wasn't going to read the whole post but then I started and could NOT stop! Very interesting and captivating.

Thanks. Have a nice weekend.

jet1960 said...

Amazing how much we think alike on this topic. I've not had the fortune of attending many estate sales, but I've been to yard sales that were obviously for reasons of older family moving to nursing homes or one passing away and also been to many auctions. It is hard for me to see someone's stuff, especially collections up for auction. Not that I don't understand how not everyone sees the value in such stuff, but it is just sad to see the remainders of a life, no longer desired, there for strangers to handle.

I've way too much "junk" myself. Too many interests leading to me finding too much that "I can do something with", as you say. I know I need to pare down, but I still hope to have time to get around to some of these projects.

I've lots of catching up to do on your blog. Way behind on my blog reading.

Karen Owen said...

This was a terrific read, Jeanie. So much food for thought here. Recently, I acquired a cabinet card photo of this beautiful small girl. The photo was taken in Buenos Aires probably in 1900 or so. I showed it to Warren, and he said "how does a family let something like this go?" I replied that perhaps everyone in the family was dead, or no one realized who she was anymore. It's sad really that this beautiful likeness of this adorable litle girl was sold to strangers, but she's found a home with me now. But, someday, when all my things are sold, and they find this huge collection of old photos - strangers to me - but I've purchased for my art, someone will be wondering how we were related. I actually like the idea that they will be puzzled!

Oh said...

This gives much pause for thought. The way we sell our stuff. Or, change our minds and keep it.

And the story here that tells of a couple's lives together and all the things therein. Sherlock Holmes would go absoultely mad with all the details and things he could ascertain about them.

Am I glad you found out the truth, that he's died and she has moved to Florida? Not really. It's too real. I like the questions, the "what if's" that come out of your tour through the home. And then things it tells us about you, too - all the more endearing to see what you choose and your reaction to the basement and how it could be used...

this whole piece is so rich. Thanks for sharing all of this.
And it reminds me, I think I have some things to send you'd enjoy...(paper stuff, of course!)

BECKY said...

What a lovely post, Jeanie! I've often wondered similar thoughts when browsing antique malls. I, too, would feel so sad in seeing old photographs and wonder how any family members could let such things go? I've read a couple of very good explanations here. A friend once told me that as long as someone is looking at it and loving it, or buying it...then I shouldn't be sad! Very moving and lovely post!

Wrightboysmum said...

We don't really have estate sales here although I am now wondering what we do instead but that's another question. I found this post really thoughtful and I do like the idea of things moving on and being useful or cared for rather han just tipped in the landfill. I'm a hoarder and like you can see the value in the little scrap that I may actually never use. Is it a bad thing not really but it does tell you something about me. Fab stuff keep it up.

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