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The Estate Sale (sometime in the early 1980s)
by Todd Wallace
Let me tell you about an estate sale I helped my mother with. The house belonged to a friend of a friend of the family named Rose. Apparently, the woman had so few friends that she considered Rose, an acquaintance, a friend, and made her executrix. Originally a man and woman lived there with the children who had long since grown up and moved away. The couple retired and eventually the man died, and later the woman died, and because my mom was in real estate and because she was afraid that Rose would exhaust herself, she went to help Rose sell the furniture and other belongings in the house.
I remember standing on the front porch with my mom while Rose sorted through her keys and finally unlocked the door and we walked into the front room. Immediately I noticed the smell of a house that had been lived in for a long time along with the smell of spoiled food, probably in the refrigerator. Everything in the house was left just as the woman had left it, with books and magazines on the end tables, cookbooks in the kitchen, and linen in the linen closets.
Rose had been talking to the adult children, who I believe lived in Florida, and she had a list of things that they wanted her to look for and send to them if she could find them. That meant that in addition to boxing things up for the garbage man, we also had to poke through drawers, boxes in the attic, and shelves in the basement.
At some point while we were moving things out of the house, the neighbors started to tell us stories about the elderly couple that lived in the house. The first thing we heard was that the husband died on the couch in the front room and it was two days before his wife called the ambulance because she thought he was just being stubborn and wasn’t getting up when she told him to get up. The next story we heard was that the husband sometimes seemed to be imprisoned in different rooms of the house: sometimes in the basement, sometimes in the attic, and in one particularly vivid story, the neighbors talked about giving the man a six pack of beer tied to the end of a broom handle through a window on the 4th of July. The neighborhood was having a block party, and the wife was otherwise occupied.
While my mother and Rose worked on the first and second floors and in the attic, I was assigned to the basement and told to look for tools that I thought would sell in an estate sale and also that I could look for tools that I would like to have for my own toolbox. The entrance to the basement was a few steps down from the kitchen, and the first thing I noticed was that the door was locked with a heavy bar – a two by four piece of wood that could slide into two metal brackets on either side of the door. The metal brackets were handmade so they must have been made by the husband. Walking down the narrow steps to the basement, it was mostly empty except for a washer and dryer on the left and a workshop in the corner. Inside the workshop were two workbenches, many older power and manual tools, and at least three homemade cabinets. Mounted to one of the walls was a jail-type toilet and the opposite the toilet was a small cot. Because the workbenches and the cabinets seemed to be lovingly hand-built, my guess was the man spent most of his time in this workroom building things for his own use and also for his wife.
There was a small portable cabinet, or maybe you could call it a tool box, which was in the form of a chest with three drawers. They were not many tools in this tool box, but each drawer was well made with a metal mesh bottom so it was light and strong. I could see that there was spiral notebook stuck to the bottom of one of the drawers, and when I took it out and read it, it contained rambling entries written by the man to the effect that his wife kept him locked up in the basement for days, and sometimes she even denied him food. I took the notebook up to Rose and she quickly tucked away in her purse. I heard later from my mother that Rose found the diary of the wife but after reading a few pages, she also put it in her purse and said that she would dispose of it later. My mother remembers that there were two sets of brass knuckles on top of a dresser, and those quickly disappeared too.
In the attic of the house, we found stacks of Life magazines from the 1940s, and we found the paper labels from soup cans. There were so many paper labels from soup cans that they filled up many, many boxes. We think that the woman might have been saving them for some kind of contest. We also found hundreds and hundreds of illustrated recipes, most of them taken from old magazines all saved in the attic. There was a memorable candy tin, with a brand name “Mavrakos,” with separate tin boxes on the inside, each for a different kind of candy.
From the beginning of the time we started working in the house, the presence of the husband and wife was so strong that it felt like at any moment you could turn the corner, and you would just glimpse one of them walking into the next room. In the beginning, this presence made it difficult and creepy to work there, especially alone. However, as we gradually cleared up the house, the presence seeped away until we had just an empty house.
Looking back at this whole experience, I realize that it changed me in some basic way. When I look at my house or other people’s houses, I notice not just the layout and the furniture, but I also think about how difficult it’s going to be someday to get everything cleared out for the next owner. In fact, I now visualize the life cycle of a house from a bird’s eye view, but with time greatly sped up. From this point of view, people going in and out of the house are just blurs, but occasionally, I can see large and small pieces of furniture and carpet going in and coming out. A family moving out almost looks like an explosion of things coming out of the house, followed by a pause while the house is on the market, and then masses of furniture being pulled into the house, like they were being pulled by a vacuum.