I’ve been going to estate sales a lot lately. Mostly, I’m looking to expand my tool collection and you can find some pretty good tools for cheap at estate sales. On occasion, I find something else—stereo speakers, antiques, odds and ends that I’ll use in future projects. Lately, though, I’ve been going for more selfish reasons. Estate sales are like walking through a photo album or a diary. You get a sense of who a person was by seeing what tangible items they’ve left behind.
I’ve happened upon sales that were organized by people who are paid to come in to a person’s house, go through all of their belongings, lay them out neatly, appraise and price each item left in the house. The company works with (or for) the family who’s suffered a loss and is ready to let go of their relative’s belongings. A lifetime gets liquidated over the course of a weekend. Strangers come in and rifle through boxes of jewelry, closets filled with clothes, furniture, tools, knick-knacks, kitchen ware. Everything a home has. At the last sale I went to, the kitchen sink and toilet had been placed in the yard and marked with price tags.
It disgusts and intrigues me.
I’ve learned not to go into the bathrooms or the master bedrooms. That’s where the end of life resides. Walkers, bedside commodes, medical equipment—the last things in the house to be used or touched. The bed a person might have died in. It’s all too sad. And it feels like an invasion of privacy. I imagine the suffering the person might have gone through in that room. I imagine how the family might have gathered around the bed. I imagine the person being carried out of that room, away from the last four walls they ever saw.
I tell myself stories as I walk through the houses of strangers I’ll never ever encounter. I look for signs of children, grandchildren. In these rooms family dinners and Christmas trees. Visitors walked through the front door into a house once filled with love. There was a day the owners moved in. They picked out furniture and replaced it over time. They received crystal and as was an anniversary gift. It’s all so very idyllic, this house—this life—that strangers are now wandering through.
I’ve been to hoarders’ houses and considered what happened in their lives that made them start hoarding. Here was the sight of mental illness, abandonment, addiction. Behind boxes of old albums or collectables, the walls drip with sadness.
There are sales where I can put aside all my imaginings and get bits of truth, usually from the person’s relatives who are running the show. I’ve felt honored to hear these stories, to learn about the people who once lived here. Objects become memories, and the people selling them allow me a glimpse into their past, or into their relationship with the now deceased. And they seem happy, almost eager, to share.
These sales are sites of lives once lived, and when I have the opportunity to talk to someone about the person who lived in the house, the object I’m buying becomes more valuable. I surround myself with stories in every way I can, and knowing that the book on the shelf next to me once belonged to someone who cared very deeply for that author makes it even more special.
Objects are important to me. I infuse meaning and memory into much of what I own. I surround myself with life and love and intellect. Bringing home something from a sale, finding a place for it in my house, is like bringing home a souvenir from another life.
All this leaves me wondering what I will leave behind. I look around and consider how much of this stuff I’ll have when I die. Of all I have, what could hold meaning or value for someone else? What could be passed on, brought into another home, whether purchased as a good deal, or as a memento of a visit? What would someone want as a reminder of that time they were welcomed into my home, allowed to walk around and touch all that I owned, to take their pick of the objects that mattered to me?