We have a very new hobby—estate sales. We both grew up on the east coast where auctions are more common, but here in Los Angeles, they conduct estate sales. We are in need of absolutely nothing for our 776 square foot apartment, but we go for two reasons. First and foremost, Garth Brooks CDs. For those of you who are Garth fans, you know that his music is not available on iTunes and really hard to find used, so we keep hoping to nab something great. I am realizing, however, that our plan is slightly flawed because the good stuff seems to be gone by 1:00 pm, which is when we usually get there. So far we have netted Dean Martin, Billie Holiday, an empty Roger Whitaker case (remember to check cases), and an assortment of old Christmas music.
The other reason we go is far less noble. It’s to snoop. And maybe find something we really need that we just didn’t realize we needed, but mostly to snoop. We live in the apartment haven that borders a very wealthy part of LA. This means we shop and eat and go to the library with the uber-rich, and then we drive 2 miles to our aforementioned home for hobbits and sleep. And we wonder. We wonder what the insides of homes that sell for 2.1 look like. And what the people are like. And what kind of crap they leave behind.
I have learned a few things about estate sales in a very short amount of time (think two weekends). First, they are not always conducted because someone dies. Sometimes people just don’t want to move their stuff and they have an estate sale instead. I chuckle and contemplate us doing that. Please come in, we have books, and books, and a walmart bed frame, and some Ikea shelving, and, oh wait, what is this we have here? More books. We would take the camping gear with us.
Secondly, estate sales are kind of sad. We all value our stuff to some degree. Even the least materialistic among us have a special connection to some article of clothing or tool or piece of furniture. It is in these things that we make sense of our lives. The sweater that you got from your favorite aunt or the chair that was handed down from your grandmother or the set of sheets that you picked up on a trip to France. Something.
The first estate sale we went to was a huge house full of collectibles. The lady (I’m assuming lady) had collected teddy bears and dolls and holiday decorations. They were everywhere. The things that people have tell you something about them, and it’s easy to construct a made-up narrative with the contents of randomly upended drawers as themes weaving through the story in our mind. As we traipsed unceremoniously from room to room, I poked my head into the pink-tiled bathroom that was at the back of the master suite. There on the knob over the pink tub was a cheap, clear shower cap, standing at the ready. Drying until it was needed again. But it wasn’t going to be needed.
Given the nature of the items in the house, I am pretty certain that this was not one of those estate sales where people move. As I stared at the shower cap, I dragged my husband in to see it, pointing loudly and whispering, “Wow, that’s really eerie. It’s like it all just stayed where they left it.
We wandered through the rest of the house not wanting to leave any room unturned in our search for treasure, but the shower cap stuck in my mind. Hanging there all alone. A testament to life and water and heat and feeling. To the fact that those towels stacked next to the door with a $2 ticket on them used to wrap around bodies that laughed and cried and stayed in the shower just a little longer than necessary to enjoy the steam as it rose up and overtook them. A reminder of life in process. The hallways were stacked with stuff, but it was in the most intimate places that we could see evidence of people who had lived here with their treasures.
Sometimes I think that its sad that their family didn’t want to take all their stuff and shove it into a back bedroom as a shrine to people they loved. The stuff is all that’s left, but it would seem to me that holding on to something would be better than nothing. And then I come to my senses and realize that no one has a back bedroom that big and stuff is not someone. It’s not the thing you want to hold on to.
But my sadness is more than this house’s hemorrhaging the things these people collected. It is the reality that a life stops, things are rearranged, and life goes on. Our presence, along with the 50 other people milling about on staircases that are not ours, is a testament to this reality.
The things don’t matter. And they never really did that much. But that’s hard to remember in the middle of living and acquiring and sharing and giving and decorating. Because when you’re alive, they do matter a little. They are the way that you do life. But what really matters is you. The you that lived a life full of laughter and tears and memories for the people you leave behind to hold on to. Because when they hold a sale and your most precious possessions flood out the door in the hands of people you never knew, you want to leave behind a life that is bigger than your sweaters and teddy bear collection.
At an estate sale, you never know the story. You walk around and pick up garden clippers and TV trays and wonder what kind of person built their life around these things. And then you take their Billie Holiday CD, and you head out to your car and go home and listen to her crooning “I’m travelin’ light” in her perfectly silky voice. And you can’t help but think about the narrative that someone would construct if they wandered through your home with your socks sitting in a pile in the corner of the bathroom and a loofah left to dry. They might deduce that we read, and we have a thing for cheap furniture, and I’m pretty into vintage fabric, and we are not the kind of people who organize our spatula drawer. But that doesn’t tell very much of the story at all. That doesn’t tell who we are. And I am reminded that my snooping isn’t going to get me too far because estate sales don’t tell us much of the important stuff either. Piles of stuff tell us about what people buy. It doesn’t tell us what makes them laugh. And what we laugh and cry about it worth so much more than a set of pots or a garage full of tools. We are not our things or the piles of stuff with price tags on them. We are our tears and our laughs and our moments and our souls.