This morning, at 5:07 am, as I was trying to fall back asleep after my daughter with the runny nose had crawled into bed, I heard two car doors close. A few minutes later (still awake) I heard another car door close. Then I drifted off. At 6:30, I went downstairs, chatted with my husband about the new puppy, and noticed a line of people outside our neighbor’s house. At 7:00, when I left to go for a walk, the line was longer and there was no street parking available anywhere nearby. At 7:30, when I returned, the line of people went around the corner, and more people were coming, some carrying folding chairs.
As it turns out, my neighbor was having an estate sale; better put, my neighbor’s attorney was having an estate sale on her behalf. My neighbor is still alive, but since last summer has been living in a care facility. When we moved here a year and a half ago, we didnt’ meet her but we met her caregivers, three of them, who provided 24-hour care. She grew up in that house and lived there ninety-something years; she never married, she had no family, only her caregivers. At least once a month we would see an ambulance out front, and she would be taken to the hospital for a few days, only to return. I don’t know what precipitated the final move to the care facility. I only know that the house has sat empty for the last nine months.
Last week there was a landscaping crew out there, trimming trees, mowing the lawn. I should have known something was up. Last night, in a Gladys Kravitz sort of way, I peeked out the front window straining my eyes to read the signs that were taped to the garage. Couldn’t read ’em. Went to bed. Woke up early, got annoyed quickly.
But after a day of cars coming and going, the line of people stretching and dwindling like pulled taffy, I ventured across the street, much more interested in the house itself than the stuff for sale inside. Some friendly people from the estate-sale-planning place were out front. I went in through the garage into the basement. A beautiful inlaid wood table here, some old skies there. A makeshift bedroom. A laundry room. At narrow, steep staircase up, which I took. Three bedrooms, one off limits, kitchen, eating nook, living room, presumably a bathroom somewhere. And people. Lots of people. Lots of people going through lots of stuff.
I did look at the stuff, but doing it felt wrong and creepy. I have no problem with estate sales, garage sales, thrift stores, Goodwill, any of it. I think it’s great that people reuse old things. But I felt like a voyeur, going through my neighbor’s house, wondering whose wedding dress that was, since my neighbor never married. Had she been engaged, called things off, got left at the altar? And the pink dishes – was pink her favorite color? Were they old Fiestaware, worth something? Was she a skier, and if so, why did she have more than one set? It smelled as though a pet had lived there, but I don’t recall ever seeing one.
One woman was going through a box of old photos, and that’s what just about did me in. She went through those photos, keeping some, leaving others. Why? I can’t imagine she knew the woman, or the people in the photos. Was she an artist, collecting objects for a collage? Did she have a fascination with old black and whites? Was there something sinister in her desire for photos of people she didn’t know?
I think a lot about the stuff I’ve accumulated in my life. We have three sets of china – china we registered for when we got married, china that belonged to my grandmother, china that belonged to my husband’s grandmother. Will my daughter want all that china? Will I get rid of it before she is saddled with that decision when I’m old and demented and in a care facility? And what about all the photos – and I mean all the photos? Should I organize them, label them, scrapbook them, scan them, or every ten years go through them and get rid of the ones that don’t matter any more?
Do I want some stranger rifling through my things? Do I want my daughter to have to rifle through my things?
I think about the things that we accumulate because they have meaning to us. They are memories and mementos, reminders of who we once were, a Girl Scout, a debater, a musical theater geek; a camp counselor, a teacher, a student body president; a granddaughter, a divorcee, a roommate.
I don’t expect my daughter to find meaningful the things that I have found meaningful. She will choose her own memories and mementos. I imagine a few will be of my husband and me, but she will collect things unique to her, to her life, to her experience. She should feel free to let go of those things of mine that have no meaning for her – but not till I’m gone.
In the end, while I do believe in holding fast to what is good, sometimes it is better to let go of what was good, once.