Estate of Mind
Finding meaning in discarded items
One day this summer, I was out running errands when a yellow sign caught my eye. Estate Sale, it read. Turn Here. I made the right-hand turn and continued up a tree-lined street until a line of cars told me I had arrived.
The moment I walked into the house, I knew I was in the midst of a true estate sale. The house was frozen in time. There were tube TVs and cassette decks, and piles of tchotchkes and knickknacks. Everything was analog and 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! Mr. Magoo!) and more 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 former college roommate. He’s a real car guy.
As I reached the top of the stairs, I began to piece this family together. There’d been a husband and wife, and a glimpse of pink carpeting suggested a daughter. A second bedroom off the upstairs hallway heralded clues of 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 yearbook from 1987 on a bookshelf. Next to that sat a box full of hand-dubbed cassette tapes: Peter Gabriel, Bon Jovi, Phil Collins. It looked as if nothing in this guy’s room had been moved or thrown away since Ronald Reagan was in office.
I went through the pile of clothes on the bed and was excited to find a vintage 1980s surf shirt and—wonder of wonders—a pair of Jams! Jams were neon-colored shorts that were all the rage in the late 1980s. Yes, I owned several pairs. Folding the shirt and shorts under my arm and retrieving the car brochures from the desk I headed downstairs. Five dollars bought the lot.
When I got home that afternoon, I tossed the clothes in the washer and put the brochures in the mail, then 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?
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, and son. Another search told me the husband had died more than a dozen years ago. The wife died in 2013, and the son? The guy whose Jams I’d bought for a dollar?
He died, too—last year.
So there it was.
We live in a is a community steeped in history. Wilton Parish was founded in 1726, while Wilton became its own township in 1802. But there is another history here, one that unfolds every day behind the windows and doors of the houses in each neighborhood. 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 estate sales. Instead, my fascination with these sales— in Wilton and around Fairfield County—comes not only with the history of the Lamberts and the Gregorys and the Comstocks but also with the history of the regular, everyday people who live here.
I’ve been to estate sales at houses owned by the very people who built them back in the 1950s. I’ve seen piles of photograph albums and ledger books—the stories of joys and sorrows and lives both remembered and forgotten. I’ve seen shag carpeting and mid-century centerpieces and games and toys and accordions and enough taxidermy to fill a horror movie set. I’ve seen a child’s discarded painting and a signed Alexander Calder print. And it’s these glimpses into another family’s life that reminds me how lucky I am to be living in a neighborhood I love surrounded by people I love.
Next time you see a sign for an estate sale, slow down and take a little time to check it out. Sure, you might find a cut glass pitcher for five bucks or a cool old seltzer bottle for two. 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
And maybe you’ll find a cool pair of Jams. Once summer comes, I’ll be wearing mine proudly. You can count on that.
ESTATE SALE KNOW-HOW
Not all estate sale agents are created equal. You can avoid being scammed by making sure to thoroughly check references, request a typed inventory after the appraisal process, and insist that they have proper security on the day of the sale to avoid theft.