Monday, May 6, 2013

Temps Perdu

Coming home from my in-Laws' today, I started seeing the signs as soon as I turned off the main road: "Estate Sale." I'm a garage sale junkie, thanks to my mom - I always love seeing what kinds of stuff people elect to divest. I've nabbed a perfectly good bike for $5, DVDs of movies I love for 75 cents. I was intrigued.

"High End Yard Sale," the next sign promised. Ooh! And this was all pointing toward my house! Maybe I could walk over with the baby and find a deal! I drove on.

The signs followed me all the way home, and when I was almost there, I figured it out: this was an estate sale for my neighbor - an elderly woman with whom I'd possibly exchanged two words in the four years I've lived here, both of them probably, "Hi." My husband always thought she was German; I'd often see her walking the almost mile-and-a-half to and from our Whole Foods while laden down with groceries on her return. I don't think she drove.

Her house sold last week. On Friday, I saw a dumpster filled with detritus from the move - tons of garbage and broken furniture and who knows what. And then here we were on Sunday - her estate sale.

I always associate estate sales with a death, but I don't think she died; I saw her while the house was on the market - barely five feet tall with big 1980s plastic-framed glasses and close-cropped white curly hair. She'd come out to get the mail and I'd glimpse her from a distance, but never knew more about her than that.

Until today. As we pulled up to my house, fire trucks were arriving at hers. The house was being emptied of estate sale shoppers, and a frantic worker was pacing around on his cell as the firemen unwound their hose. There had been a gas leak, a passerby told us - a few minutes later they had got the gas turned off in the house and were waiting until it was safe to let people back in. The Munchkin was intrigued by the fire trucks and ambulance, so we went for a closer look. A pretty blonde female firefighter was being chatted up by all the male ones - the situation didn't look that serious.

As the firefighters loaded up and my son waved bye-bye to the trucks, my MIL asked, "Should we check it out?" Why not, I thought - maybe there's some good stuff left.

When we crossed the threshold, I was immediately struck with a feeling that I was trespassing - this woman, whom I didn't know at all - wasn't home, and would never *be* home, here, again. I marveled at the ways her house was different from mine; a wall taken out here, a boundary pushed back there, but with the same basic footprint. Hideous bronze-and-gold shiny wallcoverings in the tiny bathroom. Hand-painted flowers, ivy, and birds on her closet doors. A meticulously cared-for garden, which she must have loved. But she hadn't invited me here.

And then, there was the *stuff.* I can only imagine how crowded the place had been on the first day of the sale. All that was left now were a few furniture pieces, a bunch of old-timey cameras, and glassware - tons and tons of glassware. Tchotchkes, too. Bookends with naked cherubs and a bullfighter clock, sporting a sticker touting, "REALLY WORKS!" A large collection of wrestler dolls - the kind that look like Stretch Armstrong from the '70s, seemingly totally out of character for this tiny old woman. She still had a complete encyclopedia set.

In the other rooms of the house, we were giggling at the mishmash of remains: there were two complete military uniforms, a bunch of old bedding, a faux Tiffany lamp next to a lamp with a carved deer on it, a large portrait of a smiling man done in sepia tones that was probably from the '50s, a Bowling League print with dozens of signatures from 1975, and jars upon jars (at least a dozen) of the same face cream, called something like, "Eternal Youth." Must have been her favorite.

And then, I went back into her bedroom. As I was admiring an old radio/turntable cabinet, I looked up, and froze. Opposite her bed on the wall hung her wedding portrait. It was a color photo-on-canvas of a beautiful, smiling bride and her new soldier husband in full uniform, stoic and proud, as they emerged from the church on their wedding day. I gaped. My eyes welled up with tears. The other rooms came together - the military uniforms, the sepia-toned portrait - they were unmistakably this stoic soldier, and they also matched a black-and-white framed 5x7 of the same man, now much older, grinning from ear-to-ear, which stood on her dresser. She had been beautiful. And very much in love. And that husband was now gone - had been gone, for how many years? Her life, which must have seemed like a blip, gone. And wherever she was now, she hadn't taken these with her. Why?

I stared for a long time, trying to marry the image of this young girl with the older woman I'd never bothered to know. Here I was, newly married, holding a new baby, and the juxtaposition of our two lives - hers now almost over, mine, seemingly, just beginning, hit me harder than I would have thought it could. I blinked back tears, hugging my Munchkin to me. Did she think it would be over this fast? Did she look at that portait every day, and wonder where those years went? Had she ever thought that she would be without him for this long?

I had to get out of her house. I was done prying - it wasn't fun any more. I pushed past strangers, making a beeline for the door, resolved to enjoy my life, appreciate my husband, and divest myself of unnecessary objects before I got to a point where others would have to do it for me. Back at the entrance, I took one last look around, and felt so sad that I hadn't made any effort at all to connect with her while she was still around. I didn't want any of her things. This woman, whose name I didn't even know, had taught me a valuable lesson: enjoy your life. It goes too fast. And when you're gone, it's all just *stuff.*


  1. I love this...thanks for the reminder...and the inspiration to write again.

  2. Touching and beautifully written, Marni.