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Estate of Mind

Finding Meaning in Discarded Things



You never know what you might find at an estate or tag sale. Gott likes to think of the people and the memories behind the items he sometimes buys.

Last summer, I was driving up Fairfield Woods Road when a yellow sign caught my eye: “Estate Sale,” it said, “turn here.” Never one to disobey a sign, I made the right-hand turn and continued up a tree-lined street until a line of cars told me I had arrived.

Those of you who enjoy estate sales know that there are, generally, three kinds. The first are glorified moving sales, in which homeowners try to price mass-produced Ethan Allen furniture and Home Goods gewgaws at high retail so they can make a few bucks to cover the down payment on a new place in North Carolina. The second are junk sales, in which exhausted, bereaved family members attempt to unload years of accumulated detritus for pennies on the dollar. But then there are true estate sales, in which a home becomes a museum where buyers might find wild and wonderful treasures.

The moment I walked into the house off Fairfield Woods, I knew I was in the midst of a true estate sale. The house was frozen in time. There were tube televisions and cassette decks and piles of tchotchkes. Everything was analog, solid state, and injection molded. The prices clearly screamed “Get rid of it all!”

In the living room, I flipped through a box of records before entering the kitchen, where I found vintage gas station collector’s mugs (Rocky! Bullwinkle!) and more Cornflower Corningware than I’d seen outside of my own parents’ kitchen circa 1984. The dining room held a multitude of surprises including a few original automotive brochures (“The 1986 Volvo 240 has a number of advanced features”) that I picked up for my college roommate. He’s a real car guy.

As I reached the top of the stairs, I began to piece this family together. Surely, there’d been a husband and wife, and I caught a glimpse of pink carpeting that suggested a daughter. But the second room off the upstairs hallway heralded another clue: there must’ve been a teenage son. I’ve got pictures on my phone of an original Miami Vice poster that had been neatly rolled up and stuffed in a box in the corner of the room. I spotted a Fairfield Warde year book from 1987. Next to it sat a box full of hand-dubbed cassette tapes: Hooters, Peter Gabriel, Bon Jovi, Phil Collins. It looked like nothing in this dude’s room had been moved—or thrown away—since Ronald Reagan was in office.

I rifled through the pile of clothes on the bed and was excited to find a vintage 1980s surf shirt and—wonder of all wonders—a pair of Jams. (If you weren’t a teenage boy in the late 1980s, Jams were neon-colored shorts that were all the rage.) Five dollars bought the lot.

When I got home that afternoon, I tossed the clothes in the washing machine and the brochures in the mail, and went about my business. But I couldn’t shake a feeling. There was something about that house. Who’d lived there? What had happened to them? Why did it seem like everything in that house had just stopped, more than thirty years ago?

While in the son’s room, I’d pulled the yearbook off the bookshelf and seen his name inscribed in the front cover. So I googled the house’s address and the boy’s last name. Sure enough: there they were—husband, wife, daughter, son. Another quick search told me that the husband died more than a dozen years ago. The wife died in 2013, and the house, it seemed, had been closed up since then. And the son? He died, too—last year. So there it was.

Fairfield is a community steeped in history. Our town was founded in 1639, and we still encounter the names of our own towering historical figures—Burr, Osborn, Penfield—every day. The Fairfield Museum and History Center is, of course, an incredible resource that helps us understand the broad, deep, and occasionally unsettling history of the place we call home.

But there is another history here in Fairfield, and it’s one that unfolds behind the windows and doors in our own neighborhoods. When I bought my first home, I frequented estate sales so I could find furniture for the guest bedroom and flatware for the kitchen. Now, I rarely buy anything at an estate sale. Instead, my fascination with these sales comes from my fascination not with the history of the Burrs, Osborns, and Penfields, but with the history of the regular, everyday people who live among us.

So the next time you see a sign for an estate sale, slow down and take a moment to check it out. Sure, you might find a cut glass pitcher for ten bucks or a cool old seltzer bottle for five. But you might also find your curiosity piqued as you ponder the connections we make with each other and the bonds that connect us. Maybe you’ll think, as I do, about the people in our community whose stories must be told—because we need to hear them—before it’s too late.


ONE MAN’S TRASH  In the midst of a 55-acre field in New Milford, an oasis of vintage and repurposed finds abounds at the Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market. Open from April through mid-December, it’s New England’s largest market, and is often the backdrop for HGTV’s “Flea Market Flip”. 

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