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From Issue #54 October 23, 2014

Ghosts of the Estate Sale

What happens when you claim memories that aren’t your own?

By Therese Oneill

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I stand above a box that I’ve pulled from under a rough plank shelf in a dark laundry room. The box is full of underwear. Not the gross kind. It’s slips, mostly. Ladies’ camisoles and nylons, a ragged salad of off-white and fading flesh.

I think, “Maybe I need to have limits. Maybe I need to not touch the underwear.”

But the names. On all the bra straps and laundry tags, Lucille Brown, recently deceased after living 70 years in this house, had Sharpied her full name in a light, clean script, over and over.1 Why would she do that in her own home? Why would she need to?

I can’t leave the box because it confuses me, like a wink from a teenage crush. So I squat on the torn linoleum and pretend to look at old jars until I’m alone in the room, the last creak of the sloping floor fading behind me. Then I plunge my hands into that mess. I would like to say I’m looking for something in particular. That’s why normal people go to estate sales, after all — for a lucky furniture find or a cheap book. But that’s not my reason.

I just have to touch them, these things people held onto move after move, as their children came and lived and left. The useless things they needed so much that only death could tear them apart.

The first ghost

I learned what an estate sale was when my father died. Not because we had one — if we had, I likely would have learned to hate them; strangers pawing through our stuff. But the encounter arose after his death. I had time to kill in the town in which he grew up while I waited to meet with his estate lawyer. I drove past my long-dead grandparents’ house, the last place all my family had been a family.

It was raining, I was alone, and feeling painfully young, cold, and crippled by loss. A few doors down from Grandma’s old house, I saw an ugly sign that read “estate sale.” Black marker scrawled on torn cardboard. I thought they were formal, expensive affairs with bidding paddles and entry fees. Now I knew this couldn’t be the case.

A woman had died, and her only son was not local. He’d gotten a neighbor to open the doors of his mother’s house and try to sell whatever was in it. No cleaning or organizing. Her house, just as she’d left it for the last time.

The house was an exact replica of my grandparents’ home as it had been in my childhood: the same ’70s harvest golds and burnt oranges. Even the same peculiar odors of a life winding down. I walked in a sweet and sour vertigo, opening each familiar door and cabinet.

In a yard, garage, or rummage sale, people are trying to get rid of their own junk. An estate sale tries to rid heirs of things the owner couldn’t part with. Not because they were expensive or rare, but because a piece of their life had burrowed into the object. An entire week that occurred decades ago, frozen in the cheap porcelain of a souvenir Tillamook Cheese Factory cow figurine.

Only the owner should be able to access the memories in that object. Yet my imagination, already burning too hot from grief and memories, filled in stories wherever they could fit. I was the last person to leave. I couldn’t stop walking the hallway or opening one last drawer, building a life for the nameless woman with each old K-mart receipt and crocheted pot holder.

Now I do this every single weekend.

Sanitized souls

Survivors often hire an estate company, like Zantana Estate Sales in Salem, Oregon, to hold the sale for them. Its job is to sanitize and streamline the process, which removes stress from the family as well as the stains of a real life from the home.

“When setting up the sale, we first go in and pull everything out of cupboards and closets,” says Annette Owens, who owns Zantana with her husband, Homer. “We set up tables, as many as we can fit. We make sure items are in the rooms they should be. All kitchen items into the kitchen, tools into the garage, and so on. Then a couple days before the sale I will go through and price everything in the home.”

And they throw out the junk. Zantana’s goal is to sell 90 percent of the items in the house. Stained aprons with embroidery uncurling on the hem and a ticket stub from the 1986 World’s Fair go into the dumpster. These are the things I want.

I don’t like those clean and controlled estate sales. I want to go to the other kind, the ones where determined but distraught middle-aged daughters open the cabinets and closets and sit glumly in the garage at a card table, engaging in unsavory bargaining with someone who wants to knock $5 off the price of the old electric Smith Corona they’d written their high school term papers on.

After my mother died, a few years after my dad, there probably should have been an estate sale. But I was young and had no voice in the matter, and the remaining belongings of my parents disappeared.

It was about that time I started going every weekend to estate sales. I was ostensibly looking for rare books, LPs, and toys for my kids. But, really, I was looking for life.

The Brown house

An estate company ran the Brown farmhouse sale, where I found the Sharpie-labeled underwear, but the same family had lived at the farm for a hundred years, and there was just too much to clear. So the mason jars of unlabeled brown liquid stayed on dirty shelves, and hills of twisted fabrics sat on the orange shag of an upstairs bedroom.

I sweep each hill of fabric to the floor like piles of leaves, then tidy them back up. Anything could be buried in them, forgotten. And my hunch is right: the estate company hadn’t gone through everything. In the corner, pressed behind old flowered sheets and scraps for a quilt that never needing making was a small black book. Sexual Satisfaction in a Christian Marriage, copyright 1922, the name Peter Brown written in bold, excellent handwriting on the inside cover.

The underwear had pulled me in, but the marriage book sealed me inside. I hug the book to my chest, feeling a tremendous closeness and affection for Peter Brown, who had been considerate enough of his new bride to try to learn what he could do to comfort and pleasure her at a time when only a true gentlemen would make the effort.

I walk through the entire house again, looking for more secrets in the cracks of the sale. I finally come to rest on a stump outside the kitchen that Peter must have chopped those graying piles of wood upon, so he could feed the old furnace every morning while Lucille corralled her many children toward the school bus. I pictured many more scenes like that. I hadn’t felt so connected with the departed lives of a house since that very first sale nine years ago.

And then, maybe I went too far.

Let me in

Underwear. A rusted tricycle. A high-minded book of sexual instruction. The smallest corner of ducky wallpaper still visible in an upstairs closet, whispering the memory of a nursery. I had written a century-long history of the Brown family in my heart, but I wanted more.

It was because I was a writer, I told myself. What a splendid story, following up on the lives of these lovely people. That was a lie, though. I have no use for splendid anything. The whole world is varnish and wax, and I am looking for the knots and splinters of the natural wood underneath. Even if it hurts to get to them.

The family was easy to find; there was a historic marker on the farm giving the family name. I searched obituaries, and from there it was as simple as the local phone book. I have yet to learn a basic truth: if I need to use the phrase “I’m not crazy” within the first minute of a conversation, I should reconsider the entire endeavor.

It was an altogether awkward call. “I went to your parents’ estate sale. I was wondering if I could interview you about them to see if my guesses about their lives match up with yours?” At first the daughter I’d found sounded pleased, and she promised to contact me again when she got back from her vacation in a few days. I gave her my name to look up so she’d see I was a writer, and therefore permitted more social transgression than the average person.

But she spelled it wrong when she Googled it. One wrong letter made it so my work and I never existed. She called me to decline while I was, of all places, on the toilet. It seemed our uncomfortable connection was destined to stay uncomfortable. “We don’t know you,” she explained, politely. “We don’t want to do it.”

But I know you! I wanted to shout. I touched the bed springs you dreamed of your future on! I sat in your kitchen and looked through the Christian chorus albums your mother played on Sunday afternoons!

I stretched across the bathroom and flipped off the fan in an angry swipe so I could hear the nuances of her voice. To hear any loopholes I might wriggle through. I leaned hard on my knees and felt something near panic in my chest. I talked fast and urgent, repeating “I understand your concerns!” and “my intention is to honor their memory!”

I deserve this

What I couldn’t say, didn’t even realize at the time, was I deserve this. All these estate sales I’ve been through since my parents died. All the life I’ve breathed back into dead souls. All these memories I’ve held for other people. I deserve just this once to go the final step. I deserve to be let into a family again.

I sent more information, hoping to change their mind. I gave them a copy of the full proposal I’d sent my editor. One that included mention of underwear and sex books, hoping my honesty might crack them. That tactic failed.

“You zeroed in on our mom’s underwear,” the daughter told me in her last call, a gentle undercurrent conveying that I ought to be ashamed of myself.

For not the first time in my 36 years, I felt a door being closed and locked by someone I thought should want to hug me and pull me over the threshold. Except this time I truly had no right. It would take me days to realize that, and to acknowledge my attempted invasion and the sad connection between what I’d lost and my hunger for other people’s lives and memories.

“She was in assisted living until she died,” the daughter said before hanging up. “That’s why her name was on her clothes.”

I didn’t know that. And for all the books and mugs and postcards I scavenged from their lives, I didn’t really know anything about the Browns. And more importantly, it was their right to keep it that way.

Typewriter photo by Ben K. Adams. Window photo by Corey Leopold.


  1. All the names in this story have been changed to preserve the privacy of the quick and the dead. 

Therese Oneill writes for the Atlantic, Mental Floss, The Week, Sunday Magazine, and more.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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