The Estate Sale was called for 10 am and by 9:20 there was already a line-up of cars outside the house. We couldn’t believe it. We were new to this, after all, never having had an Estate Sale before. We had no idea how many hungry scavengers we’d open the doors up to. It all felt like a bit of a whirlwind. We stood there amid the heaps of belongings, feeling very weird about the crowd of strangers who had suddenly marched into our Grandparents’ house and had begun sifting through things that had belonged to them for several decades.
In the weeks leading up to this day, with every cupboard we had opened and every room we had cleared, we had slowly come to terms with the fact that they were gone now, and that we would not see them when we stepped into this house anymore. We had lost them both, somewhat unexpectedly, and within just a few days of one another, over the holidays in December. Since then, we had focused on the daunting task of clearing the huge house and of deciding what to do with the lifetime of things it held inside. This shift of focus was necessary and it helped deal with the loss, in some way. But the sudden flow of strangers into the house was a startling reminder all over again. All I can say is that it felt very weird.
In came the scavengers, with their magnifying glasses and precise questions. They held things up to the light, flipped things over, scrutinized them from every angle. Many of them were antique dealers and were there to find long-lost treasures. I stood quietly for a few minutes, watching them rummage through everything, leaving no stone unturned. The whole scene reminded me of that TV show Storage Wars — they stood in a room full of goods and had to zero-in on treasures and see whether they would be lucky enough to get a good deal, in the end. I couldn’t help but smile, amused by the idea of how everyone was searching for beauty in things — old things, used things, things that had lived a long, long life but apparently still had potential.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before my naively inspired “looking for beauty in unlikely places” perspective drastically changed. By definition, “scavengers” are not only collectors searching for discarded items, but also animals feeding on refuse. And, oh, did I start to see the animal side of them after a short while. Many of them rummaged through things much too carelessly and much too quickly, sometimes cracking glass or knocking things over, without care that these things might have actually meant something to the people standing right before them. In addition, a good number of them also turned out to be dishonest and deceitful, knowing very well that we had priced things reasonably and that they were getting a bargain as it was, but trying even further to get away with much more for much less. Many knowledgeable dealers came in and thoroughly tested equipment or tools, only to pretend later on that they didn’t know their stuff, in order to sneakily make us much-too-low offers. I guess this is all part of the game, but beyond a certain point, it became insulting.
It was not as though we were just having a plain old garage sale to clear unwanted junk, but many of these things were antiques with promise and value, yet people gave us attitude when we did not want to give them away for 1$. “What can you buy for 1$ nowadays,” my brother-in-law smartly commented at one point, “You can’t even get a pack of gum for that price!”. The point was not to make a fortune — not at all. But it was also not the point to stand in our Grandparents’ house, with all of the things they cared for and worked for over their whole lifetime to earn and be proud of, and watch strangers waltz in and treat them – and us – so rudely.
The hardest part of the day for me had to do with a beautiful, intricate lace tablecloth and a lesson in trust. A lady showed interest in the lace but was not willing to pay more than a dollar for it. So, my mother-in-law felt compelled to turn her down. When we turned our backs, the lady had left, and the lace tablecloth was nowhere to be found. We looked everywhere, in denial that people could stoop so low. But it was gone. How is that possible, I thought, that such deceitful behavior can exist, on a sunny Saturday morning where you are invited into a home and you have just been informed that these belongings are being sold because there were two recent deaths in the family? “I hope she feels really bad every time she uses the tablecloth”, I told my mom, who had also come by to lend my husband’s family a hand. “She doesn’t care,” she told me realistically. It was a matter of a few dollars and yet she preferred to steal from us. It was really unbelievable.
But, after a few hours of sulking and strongly disliking all people, my mood picked up again. Of course, not everyone was dishonest and deceitful. Some people were kind and sympathetic, and did not try to take advantage of us in any way. We enjoyed our conversations with those individuals and we felt truly happy when they fell in love with something and wanted to take it home. Some people even offered their expertise, helping us identify objects and describing their worth to us, based on their knowledge. I felt grateful for those people who were decent and kind, and lifted our moods. Those nice encounters were also a great relief for my mother-in-law, for whom this whole thing was immensely difficult and painful in many ways.
The strangers were not the only ones who discovered treasures and collectibles, though. We also made intriguing discoveries through the weeks and even while the Estate Sale went on. We were thrown right into past eras as we held antique objects we’d never see in present times. There was a whole generation of objects under that roof. I felt really sad thinking that once all of these unique objects disappear from the house, a whole generation’s history will also be gone from our immediate reach. We laughed as we discovered an antique grinder forged somewhere in the late 1800s, old-fashioned wash boards, hand-crafted crystal bowls and decanters that said “Made in the GDR (German Democratic Republic)” on their faded labels, a 1950s art-deco style cooler, old turntables and old records, archaic stereo systems and speakers, View-masters and slides.
Through all of these vintage items, we also learned about our Grandparents’ tastes and interests, which made us feel closer to them but also very sad that we had never known about these aspects of their lives when they were with us, and we had never paid attention to these unique objects when we visited them in their home. Some of our Grandmother’s things were so beautiful and so ornate, I tried to imagine how she had felt about them back in the day when she had picked them out and carefully kept them in the perfect condition they are still in. We learned about our Grandfather’s tastes in music, his interest in collecting binoculars, magnifying lenses and old cameras. We found hundreds of tools in the garden shed that went beyond the vocabulary words existing in our “tool lexicon”. Tools that were solid, heavy, hand-forged and made by companies that no longer exist. Everything we found was a testament to their life and their personalities – a confirmation that they were immensely hard-working, that they preferred to do it all themselves, to fend for themselves and that they felt pride in the life they had built and all of the items they had collected and taken such good care of through the years.
That’s the funny thing about “stuff” – even if one isn’t materialistic per se, we still tend to develop attachments to things. Things represent us – they embody the times in which we’ve lived, they represent our interests and reflect our personality. I thought of how much more interesting things were back then than they probably are now, when so many things are mass-produced and made in China, and often not as solid as they used to make them in the past.
It was a day of mixed emotions. Emotions that alternated, coming and going in waves. The sense of void and the feeling of missing them became unbearable at times. At other moments, it was the intense guilt and sadness that became overwhelming, knowing that they would be so profoundly unhappy that we were giving away their lifetime of belongings. There was also the fear and dread of having to do this for other loved-ones in the near or far future. We barely spoke to one another about these feelings, though when we did, it became clear that we were all feeling the exact same way. We’d be quiet for a moment, hug one another and move on. What else could we do?
The Estate Sale was a very difficult experience. The days we spent clearing out the house were also emotionally demanding, apart from being physically tiring. We gave many things a home in our own homes, and we donated a ton of things to shelters, palliative care units, and second-hand stores. The only comfort I feel is in knowing that at least some of the people didn’t only come to search for deals, or to take advantage of us, but that they were able to find something that they will enjoy from now on — something that might bring them happiness. If I am to set my skeptical, distrusting and hurt outlook on this experience aside, and re-adopt my inspired perspective, I think it’s kind of nice to think of it as little pieces of our Grandparents’ scattered throughout the city, living on in the homes of hundreds of people, as well as in ours.
(We miss you.)