Estate Sale. Magic words conjuring antiques at bargain prices. Dave and I were headed to Putnam Park, “Connecticut’s Valley Forge” for a lovely fall walk, but the homemade, red-lettered sign on the side of the road was lure enough for a twist of the wheel for a detour.
Tucked in the woods just beyond the park entrance, the house was probably built around the time the park opened in the late 1800’s. Strong bones and gracious details were evident beneath the peeling paint, sagging sleeping porch, and broken windows. A tumble of cast-off furniture littered the yard, and two decrepit sheds at the end of the driveway seemed at one with their woodland surroundings as their loosened planks leaned among fallen limbs and leaves.
Many were drawn to the house by that sign. Men examined rusty tools in the shed off the kitchen. Wives and girlfriends checked china figurines for cracks. In a glass-fronted cabinet, I spotted a stack of plates, blue on white, the kind sold in grocery stores, but I liked the rustic design of a thatched English cottage. I scrutinized them for chips, counted out eight intact plates, and started a “hold” pile behind the makeshift cashier’s table. I’d lost track of Dave the moment we came through the door.
“What’s in there?” A man called from the kitchen as I entered a walk-in closet.
“Mm, mostly products: Lysol, Windex. Old mops, a broom, some bottles – not vintage, just old.” The stuff all of us have in our cupboards and closets, only here, doors and drawers were swung wide and pulled out; the mess we squirrel away exposed for inspection.
When I returned to the kitchen, a bearded man leaned against the wall, his arms folded against his chest, while a woman, his wife I supposed, picked through a box of dish towels and tablecloths. She glanced at me and we shared small smiles.
“So much of a life here,” I said.
“I know,” she replied. “I imagine my kids, after I’m gone, saying, ‘We’re going to have one hell of a yard sale!’” The three of us laughed, then she added, “But you do get a sense, at a sale like this…I don’t know...You think of the person.”
“Once I was up in the attic at a tag sale,” I said. “It was filled with boxes of Christmas decorations. And I pictured the family, a time, when the garlands were up and the ornaments hung on a tree… and I got teary. Later someone told me, ‘No need for sadness. They moved to Florida.’”
Again we laughed. As I inched among the boxes and chairs and counters to go to the next room, the bearded guy unfolded his arms and moved to let me pass. “That could be it. Maybe these people are on a beach somewhere thinking, ‘Those poor people in Connecticut!’”
In the den, I admired a black ladder-back rocking chair with a caned seat. Nice, but we already have one that’s similar. A tall, narrow bookshelf near a doorway was crammed with books. I angled my head sideways to read the titles, among them The Da Vinci Code, Painting for Beginners, The Power of Intention, and Birding in North America. Books I have read; interests I have. Books give a sense of those who bought them, and I felt that whoever had lived here was someone I would like.
Into the next room, the living room maybe? All the rooms were small, and with the jumble of boxes, chairs, and odds and ends, it was hard to discern which room had been used for what. The floor here, too, was crowded with boxes of books. “Wow. They read a lot,” I mumbled.
“Yeah,” said another browser beside me. “Have you been upstairs yet? Rooms full of books.”
I climbed the broad staircase with its dark wooden banisters and, on the landing, was confronted by a machine the color of lichens and the size of a dishwasher. A small plaque on the device below a neck-sized hole read, “Vita Master.” A black-treaded exerciser, frozen mid-step, but ready to march on, waited on a side table down the hall.
Dave found me there and handed me a small plaque. “Look. The Desiderata,” one of my favorite pieces. At one sad, lost time in my life, I burst into tears at its reassurance: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
As I stood, head bent to read the plaque, a petite older woman approached. She had short, gray hair and a kind, lined face, and her eyes met mine as I looked up to let her pass. Her expression was wistful as she said, “You get such a sense of a life here.”
I nodded slowly. “I know. I just spoke to some people downstairs who said the same thing.”
Clothes hung in every closet: floral silk blouses, cotton dresses, a sixties-style peasant skirt, jackets, flannel slacks. So personal, these clothes: a woman once bought and wore them close to her skin.
Down the hall and into another room. Boxes and boxes of books. I picked up a photo-journal of the Kennedy family, published after the president’s assassination and dedicated to John Junior. Now he’s gone too. In the pictures, JFK and Jackie cuddle and cavort with their little ones, Caroline at four or so, and John John, a toddler. The pictures of Jackie reminded me of my Mom in her youth, so I held on to it.
“Jansen!” I exclaimed upon spotting the familiar mottled gray cover. “I still have my copy from my high school history of art class! I was just talking to a friend about this book a few days ago.” The stout redhead poking through another box of books nodded, polite and uninterested, and continued her perusal. I gather she’d not taken history of art.
So many books! There were plenty that had been bestsellers in their day, and multitudes on the power of prayer, on the brain, on inspirational healing, and health. Someone had been sick in this house; that was clear.
In the master bedroom, I walked in on a conversation between the petite older woman I’d met in the hall and one of the sale’s organizers. With her auburn hair caught up in a loose knot, the organizer was youthful, energetic, tattooed, and friendly. “No,” she said in answer to a question I’d missed. “No one was sick here. Well, at least, not the owner. She was a nurse and her kids tell me she was the kind of person who would drop everything to help someone else. She ran a resting house for invalids for a while. So, yeah. Others were sick here, but she was fine. ”
The three of us smiled together, and I felt relieved. The woman who bought and read these books had children who respected her. From the sound of it, she’d not wasted away at her death.
The young woman folded crocheted Afghans and white pillowcases as she chatted on. “Of course, her kids can’t come here during the sale. But I’ll tell them about conversations like this. They picture a rummage sale, a bunch of blank-faced people pawing through their mom’s stuff. But I’ll tell them, ‘No. People cared. They asked about your mother,’ and that will make a difference.”
It made a difference to me. To walk, by chance, from a brilliant fall day into this woman’s life. To see her books, her clothes, and her collections. To worry about her and the nature of her passing. It helped to learn she’d had a full life, and that she was beloved.