My Labor Day Dalliance

While I was power walking during Labor Day week-end I got a quick call about a sort of inside job. I readjusted my route and headed west. Soon I stood before rows of high hedges. Wiping the sweat from my neck and brow, I boldly strode up a flower-lined walkway and entered a large, attractive neighborhood house built in 1841 for the sole purpose of ogling its contents.

Lest you imagine I harbor hidden criminal tendencies, let me assure you it was legitimate; there was an estate sale being held. My sister was the caller and when I arrived she was already scoping out the best goods. It was the last day, which meant everything under one hundred dollars was fifty percent off. In other words, a possible bonanza awaited her, and maybe myself.

Since my older sister is one of my best friends and has an enduring interest in estate sales, I have gone to a couple dozen of these over the past years. She buys things she considers investment-worthy. My sibling is a small-scale entrepreneur, someone who invests wisely, has bought and sold a lot of goods including real estate–unlike myself.  She also just buys for the odd reason. Given her experience and decent results, I like to observe what she deems worth her cash and why. And estate sales are interesting to me, a recreational experience. I have a fascination with houses: their architectural details, nooks and crannies, decorative touches and interior design, yards and gardens. Most of all, with the stories that resonate within the rooms. Objects can speak volumes about people. Perhaps even more, the ones they leave behind.

Most estate sales seem to take place after the homeowner has died. In this case, the owners had sold their home and moved, leaving behind what they didn’t value. I gathered it was a way to make a little more money. It was certainly tidier than leaving furniture, mirrors, baby equipment or a box of odds and ends at the curb. Most people, of course, donate items to charitable organizations or give things to friends and family.

I’ve moved enough to know how all this goes. From age twenty through forty-five, I moved about fifteen times. I’m not completely clear about that number because it’s possible I may have forgotten –or blocked out– a couple short ones. I became well-versed in sorting, tossing and packing. My children might argue otherwise. I’ve been in the same place for eighteen years and there are a fair number of items stored I barely remember. When I last moved, I cleaned out things deemed irrelevant, and left a good-sized two-story, three bedroom house for a much smaller apartment. You can never take everything with you. Nonetheless, I stuffed two desks, for example, trying to do so. I can’t get some of the drawers open. In my defense, I’m a writer. I still am attached to paper (and peculiar items like old glasses and rubber bands which I’ve written about in other posts).

But this place was a different scene altogether. It was an imposing structure, a toney historical residence. The majority of fine objects had been purchased. In the expansive, bright living room, I spotted a flawless white leather loveseat for five hundred, as well as a creased, worn brown leather couch for seven hundred. Three bookcases were displayed side-by-side, each about ninety dollars.  I paused. I own many books which have a habit of stacking up in various spots. But the more bookcases, the more volumes would have to be bought to fill them. A conundrum. I waited on those.

In the red-walled dining room–how can one concentrate on appreciating food flavors when color blares at you?– there were landscape paintings and photos that were ignored by shoppers. For good reason. A couple better dining chairs remained, two of which seemed like possible buys until I examined them better. I am unfortunately not a “DIY” person; I like what can be used immediately.

In the cramped kitchen (the house was built in the nineteenth century, after all, I reminded my sister)  there was dinner and glass ware, the lovely and simply useable. Silver and china serving bowls, scratched platters and worn cooking tools sat side by side like aristocrats and the help, all waiting to be wanted. A small countertop model microwave, for some reason, was marked “Not for Sale.” Three graceful Lladro porcelain figurines were wedged in between random glasses. They always seem to have a spot at these sales.

Once in the shadowy, comfortable study I had to back out: there were too many books. Most of them were common airplane reads, not my usual choice, but also lining the built-in bookcase were a few mysteries and therapeutic manuals, travel books, special edition National Geographic tomes, political biographies. I winced and lowered my eyes. I just didn’t need to add to my own book collection that day.


I confronted a door not to be opened and wondered if it was a bathroom, pantry or just a closet. It was a very old house; it seemed a few things had been altered over time, more than I’d see.

The basement was smaller than expected, two rooms with sad carpet. A door with a sign stating “Do Not Enter” led to the other half. Is there anything that makes you want to enter a room more than such a sign? There might have been extraordinary things in there, or something better left unknown. In any case, I saw a lot more bedding than I had in years. There were nicely folded mattress pads (I passed), many sets of king and queen-sized sheets of various colors and conditions, extra pillow cases and shams, towels and bedspreads and comforters jumbled on the floor. Along one side of a wall languished twenty decorative pillows. I kept picking them up and studying them at arm’s length until my sister got impatient. She had chosen a few sets of sheets, a favorite find for her to give to a daughter or those in need. I admit I felt a sudden lust for pillows. They are an item I often am drawn to but seldom buy. These, as well as most of the bedding, were in bold colors, which informed me further of the previous owners’ aesthetic sense: fuchsia, reds, some purples and blues. A group of outdoor pillows with festive designs caught my eye but, frankly, my balcony affords two plastic green chairs and tables only. I don’t lounge there often; neighbors are a stone’s toss away. These luscious pillows were made for the large redwood deck on the east side of the house, a place one might have coffee while admiring birds and watching roses grow. Sounded dreamy to me as I climbed the stairs to the main floor.

I was not getting much sense of who lived here. Urbane, yes, with some sophisticated taste. Perhaps a bit cultured, but hard to tell. It didn’t seem as if children had romped about, or a loping dog had torn up carpets or scratched wooden floors. The second floor was as much a blank canvass with four bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms. Bed frames remained in two; no chest or lamp tables were seen, no mirrors or knickknacks. It was as empty as if no one had lived their lives there at all.

Then I entered the main bathroom with classic black and white octagonal-shaped tiles. There on the counter were trays and bags of perfumes and lotions, make up and nail polish, all of it expensive, much of it partially used, then cast off. The most intriguing thing to me were groupings of travel-sized items brought home from many trips. I related to keeping somethings “just in case” and I don’t like paying a few dollars for “trial-sized” items. But these homeowners certainly had enough money for incidentals. I counted about seventy such items. Half of those had come from other countries, as the product names were not English. I picked up a few bottles and sniffed, wondering if they’d be handy. The prices were too high, some even more than I’d pay in a store. I left them behind except for one small soap by Aveda which I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Downstairs I met up with my sister. She tried to talk me into the good bookcases but I resisted. I tried to talk her out of four turquoise rings that were exactly alike, to no avail–she collects turquoise and silver. I paid for two purple floral pillows shams to give to a daughter, my little soap and a fancy wooden picture frame. Cost: four dollars. We were satisfied. The best part, for me, was catching up on our own news as we headed home, as we’re busy and live twenty minutes apart.

I often come away from an estate sale with a picture of the people who lived there, its history. Often, lingering secrets seem to reach out to me. But this time the place felt scoured of life’s residual energies, as if the previous family had been good and ready to clear out. They had moved, not died, and their lives were going on elsewhere. The grand historical essence may return after the rooms stand emptied of ownership a couple of weeks. I walked away pondering ponder who first built and loved this lovely home. But for the time being it was devoid of its deep roots. The property was resonant only of the business of buying and selling. Soon it would be cleaning and preparations for new owners. Different possessions will take the places of those departed, be a unique reflection of the people who enjoy them. Still, things don’t make or break us, but our truest being and doing. Housing is our small oasis, a place of repose and privacy. I hope the future folks living there will be extravagant of heart and soul, create a fully inhabited home. I may stroll on by and take a quick peek through the back fence by winter. Meantime, I await my sister’s next call. I might find one great book.