On Friday, while walking to work, I saw this sandwich board advertising an estate sale taking place that afternoon around the block from my office. I was intrigued.
During lunch, I made my way over. As I approached, walking past the clusters of vehicles crowding the small street, I began to feel uneasy. And even though the warning bells were growing louder in my head, I entered the house regardless.
. . .
In January, when my grandmother died and I went to Florida to handle the affairs, one of the things I did was get an estate sale guy to come and take anything that could be worth anything to sell. While my husband and I were in FL, I was driven my by to-do list — without that structure to the week, I would have been a wreck — and setting up the sale was just one more thing to do. I had researched the one we picked online while still in Boston. When I was in FL, it was just a matter of making a phone call, setting up a time and standing around while they did their thing. There was not a lot of sentimentality involved.
Mike, the owner, and his wife Judy were absolutely wonderful. They were warm, kind and understanding, as well as flexible with the fact that we were only in town for a short period of time. The one thing I was concerned about was the fact that my grandmother’s house was not in the best shape — it had not been lived in for about a year, and it had not exactly been kept clean. But when I met with them for the first time, they drawled, “Oh, honey, this is fine. Trust me, we’ve seen worse.”
They had no qualms about poking in every nook and cranny — even the kitchen, which had sent Rick scrambling out in a panic during our first trip to the house — pulling our sugar bowls and wine glasses and random tchotchkes even I had never seen before, bundling them together in lots. They took the mounted deer heads that had belonged to my great-grandmother’s ex-husband and the chandelier that hung over the dining room table. They took a stack of 45s, my old toy chest and the Batman lunchboxes my grandmother bought in 1990 or whenever because she thought they’d be worth something someday. They would have taken the cuckoo clock if a piece hadn’t been missing and the cedar chest if I hadn’t peeled part of the wood finish off when I was little. At the time, I was more curious about the process than distraught or bereaved.
Mike and Judy made two visits — one to get the lay of the land, and the other to actually cart stuff away. On the second such trip, they brought their daughter Trudy. Trudy was a grown woman in her late 30s, but about 14 years ago, she had been hit by a car on the highway while trying to help an injured dog in the road. She fell into a coma for four months and when she woke, she was no longer able to function independently. So Trudy tags along with Mike and Judy as they carry out their estate sale and auctioneering business. They warned us before Trudy came in, “Now, she’ll talk a lot and ask you a lot of questions, but just nod and smile and don’t disagree too much with anything, so she doesn’t get bothered.”
Trudy was an interesting person, no doubt. She asked a lot of random questions about our lives and things in the house, particularly a shoebox full of my old action figures (which Mike and Judy also took to sell). At one point, when it came up that Rick grew up Catholic, she asked some question about having lots of sex and not using condoms. That may have been when Mike suggested that Trudy go back and sit in the van.
After a couple of hours, the van was full with boxes of knick-knacks, housewares and furniture. If not for the void left by the deer heads and the exposed wiring of the chandelier, it was hard to tell anything had been taken at all; there was still a world of clutter around us. But for the time being, dealing with the auctioneers was just another item checked off the to-do list.
The bulk of the items were taken to one of the auctions that Mike and Judy hold in Tennessee, in a part of the state that attracts buyers from around the South. The deer heads, they told us, might do particularly well up there — for people with cabins. A few months later, I got a check in the mail for just under $300, our total after their 50 percent commission. The deer heads, for the record, sold for $40 apiece.
. . .
As I entered the Medford estate sale, I knew it was all wrong for me to be there. But I lingered anyways. I walked around the living room and saw a TV with a painting leaning against it, an armchair, some sort of assistive footstool. Some religious iconography. Everything had a price tag.
My mind immediately began to fill in the blanks of the story behind these items, this house, this sale. People came and went like it was a realtor’s open house, assessing property, tromping up and down stairs. Meanwhile, I stood in the living room and imagined a little old lady watching television. When she dies, who stops by, rings the doorbell and makes the discovery?
I peered into the kitchen. A couple of people, apparently the ones running the sale, had set up a table where I assume you would go to pay for any items you wanted. A variety of housewares were gathered on the kitchen table — salt shakers, creamers, butter dishes, priced $.50 and up. To my right, someone was washing something in the sink. It seemed perverse to me, that this woman’s kitchen had been converted into some sales room. Who was this woman at her sink? What was going on?
Despite my animal brain telling me to run-flee-go, I poked into one more room, a small bedroom/study adjacent to the living room. On the shelves were a bunch of knick-knacks that had been culled from random corners of the house. There was a dresser bearing a $30 price tag. I couldn’t even fathom a purchase. Whose room had this been, I couldn’t help but wonder. Where were they now?
After that, I had to go. It just felt all wrong. While I was there, no one said hello to me or asked me any questions. The front door had been wide open. There was a practically a cash register set up next to the stove. The house had ceased being a house, I now understand. It was, at least for those few hours, a place of business, an open house on reclaiming the material residue of what once was a life. This is what happens when someone dies and their estate is settled. I know. But in my mind, it was a house that belonged to a person, now deceased. Everyone else in there saw opportunity; all I saw was loss.
It’s not as if I burst into tears, or even carried some deep, unearthed sadness with me the rest of the day. I felt more anxious than anything else. I was obviously not ready to go to an estate sale, and I had not expected that. But why, I wondered, was I more affected by an estate sale in some stranger’s home than when the auctioneers came and carted away the Batman lunchboxes and the blue glass bird I gave my grandmother as a present so many years ago? Why did this woman’s story, which I made up as I went along with nothing really to go on, seemingly affect me more deeply than my own?
Perhaps because, as I invented it, this unknown woman’s story was new and tender, unshielded by the callous of bitterness or resentment. Or maybe it took the distance of a stranger’s life to bring me closer to my own story, to really understand what Trudy and maybe a bit of survival mechanism distracted me from comprehending at that moment back in January: that my grandmother’s death, however of a mixed blessing it was, is still difficult and does not come without some measure of grief, however displaced or delayed. And like calling Mike and Judy, realizing that is just one more item on the to-do list.