My daughter purchased a leather chair at an estate sale. She was thrilled with her bargain but she also described how strange it was to walk through a house with other strangers picking over the bones of what was once someone’s home and beloved possessions, at last coldly devalued to nothing more than nickels and dimes.
Her experience reminded me of an estate sale I once experienced myself fifteen years ago. I had to write about it, of course, and I eventually added it to my book I Was Just Thinking.
Interesting how a mere decade and a half doesn’t sound all that long when put in the context of a lifetime but in retrospect it is a very long time when you note the changes that can happen in that length of time–the children all grown up, the middle years turned to aged. So much change. Not even funny.
So, I decided to revisit that old essay because that time, that walk through the last visible remains of someone else’s life, is even more poignant and meaningful to me now - fifteen years hence.
It was clean sheets day. I opened the linen closet and discovered my blankets, extra pillows and some sheets strewn about the floor. It was a linen wreck. I smiled. Not a normal reaction, you say, stumbling upon such a mess? Everything is relative. I'll show you.
I don't know what made me stop. The sign was small and handwritten. It said, ESTATE SALE TODAY. I don't usually do garage sales. Perhaps it is because I already have more than enough junk in my own garage, why do I need someone else's? But I was compelled to follow the little signs to a well-groomed older neighborhood, graciously lined with mature trees, and pulled up in front of a pristine brick ranch. Obviously once well-loved and well-lived in, it suffered quietly, enduring the indignities of being invaded by the footfalls of prying strangers.
More little signs directed me to enter through the back gate. I noted the landscaping. It takes years to build gardens and to have lush lilac bushes, camellias and thick mondo grass lining the beds and walkways. Years of tending and caring were evident at every turn. Once inside the gate I found lattice trellises engulfed in ever-blooming roses. Someone must have really loved this place, I thought.
I entered the back door and became just one more intruder into a space that was obviously once a busy private home but was now a market place exposed to the buying public. In the kitchen the drawers and cabinets were pulled opened for full viewing. Plates, cups, bowls, pots, pans, silverware, good, still usable things but sadly no longer needed by the owner. On the wall next to the sink, there was a rack full of collectable state demitasse spoons, mementoes of forgotten vacations probably spanning decades.
On the window ledge a drooping potted plant, desperate for water, sat next to a ceramic mug that proclaimed that the user was the Best Dad In the World. Down the hall and in the den, framed happy faces on the walls beamed back with convincing smiles, old and young, successfully masking average family life, the good, the bad and the ugly. They contributed to the uneasy feeling that ghosts were watching every move I made.
I wandered through the rooms, one at a time, cognizant that the furniture was once carefully chosen and the drapes special ordered to match the carpet. Looking around at the material goods that remained like silent testimonies to the people who had until sometime recently lived and loved there, I was struck by the enigma of it all. It was all worth something once, all those things, but what was painfully evident was that the worth of it was only relative to what I call the Human Factor.
Granted there are wonderful things that exist well past the original owner. Museums and monuments attest to this. Designated value is often greater for a work of art when the artist and successive owners are long dead. But ordinary things, the stuff of our daily lives, the stuff we work so hard to accumulate, and use everyday, lose their intrinsic significance the minute we can no longer use them. They have no real value except as interpreted by human need of them.
So, one has to wonder why we attach so much importance to our stuff? We fret over stains and marks and dings and tears. We fuss at our kids for scratches and the wear and tear of daily living. We make big deals over the things that have no true worth in and of themselves. And yet we collect, save and protect them, spending incalculable sums insuring them against damage and theft. We even identify ourselves with and by our things.
The last space I examined before I left the estate sale was the linen closet. Neatly stacked, perfectly matched sheet sets and carefully folded blankets sat waiting patiently for someone to use them. I could imagine the clean sheet days in this house. Freshly laundered linens stretched onto beds by the loving hands of the one who washed and dried and wrestled with the folding of them. But without a doubt it was the love in the using them that mattered, not the clean sheets themselves.
The day I opened my own linen closet and saw that my granddaughters had been playing in there, I smiled because I remembered the linens waiting uselessly in the house that no longer mattered. I knew instantly what did matter, though, was the love I share with my granddaughters, not the chaos they made out of my linen closet.
I know what you are thinking, children need to learn how to respect stuff and clean up after themselves. Well, my answer to that is that children also need an oasis from the riggers of learning. Sometimes they need to feel comfortable and not have to look over their shoulders waiting for more instructions on how to behave and how to be.
Messes can be cleaned up. One day, my linen closet doors might be flung open for viewing, everything, efficiently folded, waiting to be used, bought or thrown away. Who will remember my sheets or how tidy my linen closet was? However, I would bet dollars to donuts that the girls will forever remember playing in my linens and not getting yelled at for it. That's the Human Factor thingy again.
What I learned at the estate sale is that which is truly priceless is rarely tangible.