Anthropology of an Estate Sale- Make an Offer
Sarah’s two-car garage was taken over by folding tables. In the corner where the furnace and hot water heater stood, a table proudly displayed dozens of plaques, trophies, and framed certificates, each with Sarah’s name. I never met Sarah, but I’m admiring her accomplishments in the garage she no longer parks her car in. From the dates etched on tarnished brass, its been decades since Sarah last played softball well enough to have garnered her many awards. I have no way of knowing, but perhaps Sarah is now in a nursing home, her possessions for sale. It is even possible that she has died.
An orange fluorescent sticker says $12.50 for the badly tarnished brass 18-inch trophy with a woman swinging a bat. For a moment, I attempt to rationalize purchasing an award earned by Sarah decades ago. Surely there’s a story to this piece of brass. I imagine her rounding the bases or striking out the last batter while bases loaded in the ninth. I wish she were here to tell me. Maybe she’d choose not to sell it and clutch it to her breast as if protecting the memory. I hope she still has one.
I feel as if an intruder- a bit unsettling actually. I have unfettered access to paw through the personal possessions of a stranger. I wish I didn’t know her name.
The big sign out front said ‘Estate Sale. Come in.’
I would have preferred Sarah to have been home. I’d go through her things differently if she were watching me. If interested in something, I’d hold it up and give her a chance to change her mind. “Are you sure, Sarah, you want to get rid of this? Are you sure your grandchildren wouldn’t want this, Sarah?” If she waved me off feigning no interest, I would at least have her tell me the story. Everything has a story. I hope someone listened to her stories.
Speaking of grandchildren, it doesn’t appear that her family had much interest in Sarah’s things. But maybe their busy or in another state. I don’t know, and I wouldn’t know who to ask. If I asked the young fella manning the cash drawer, he might think I’m being nosy. None of my business really. So I keep pawing.
Even the food in the kitchen was for sale — boxes of cereal and cake mixes and salt and pepper shakers. Make an offer. The family pictures taped to the refrigerator? Make an offer. Color or black and white- makes no difference. Buy them all and ask for a discount. Apparently, nothing Sarah had was deemed ‘hand-downable.’ Will no future generation have any interest?
Dozens of other scavengers mill around picking up and then setting down the remnants of Sarah’s life. If her things were bones, we’re picking them carefully. Tables and shelves display the life of Sarah as if it were a museum. The teacups and stem wine glasses remain near the kitchen. Hundreds of western novels are squeezed tight onto shelves in the bedroom. The bed too is for sale. The blankets. Even her undergarments. On the lamp-stand sits the Holy Bible; it also is for sale. Make an offer.
There are dozens of us in maybe a 1500 square foot home. “Excuse me,” I whisper after accidentally bumping into a woman scavenger while I’m looking at the pictures on the wall of Sarah, which I assume are family members. Some are black and white. A few appear to be turn-of-the-century photos of long-gone great aunts and uncles. Sarah’s family seemed important to her. The entire hallway is littered with family photos, and most have florescent green pricing labels on them. Except for folks like myself with a touch of morbid curiosity, few look at the pictures. I briefly consider buying one or two as wall art. A portrait of maybe her mother sits proudly in an antique frame every bit as handsome as the Mona Lisa. Well… almost.
I attempt to piece together a visual collage of Sarah. I look for her youngest picture and then progress to her as an elderly woman- not many of her in her later years. She possibly didn’t think she was photo-worthy. She looked like any other old woman to me. She got thicker with years. Then came spectacles, wrinkles, and gray hair. But her smile stayed nearly the same. Her lips curled up one way, and her head would tilt the other way — every photo.
I don’t think Sarah threw much of her life away. If there was a possibility an item might have a future use, she stored it away. Boxes of trinkets, and dishrags, and old reading glasses are stacked everywhere. Make an offer. Tables of Christmas decorations consumed much of the garage and tables set up in the patio contained bags and containers of picnic supplies. I’m not sure when Sarah last went on a picnic, but I’m willing to bet that it was a decades ago. But you never know when you might need a few bags of paper plates and plastic cups. Make and offer.
I’m back in the garage. I noticed a hardly used skill saw on a table. It’s an old school heavy duty saw you plug into a wall with the instruction booklet next to it. The green fluorescent sticker says $18.50. I buy it.
With my purchase, I leave through the front door. At the street, I turn around to say goodbye to Sarah. She’s waving at me, still clutching an old trophy. I wave back.