Thoughtful Thursday: Estate Sale

May 10, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

Welcome to the May Intelligentsia.

#31: Elana from Elana’s Musings
#27: Lost In Translation from We Say IVF, They Say FIV
#23: Strongblonde from Strong Blonde
#17: Ernessa from Fierce and Nerdy
#15: Tara from Turkey In My Oven
#13: St. Elsewhere
#11: Lori from Write Mind Open Heart
#11: Rebecca from Get Lost With Me, Darling
#10: Mel from Stirrup Queens
#6: Sara from Aryanhwy

Thoughtful ThursdayLori wrote eloquently a few days ago about attending the estate sale of her childhood piano teacher. I noted in my comment on that post:

Some of my favorite random items in my house are from the kinds of estate sales that involve loved ones clearing out the house after the funeral — the napkin holder that DH’s grandmother always had on her kitchen table; ramekins from my college roommate’s grandmother; a Shabbat candleholder from a great-aunt that I find wonderfully kitschy but which she clearly enjoyed without irony; a never-used purse from my mother’s closet that I can imagine an avant-garde teenage Tamale carrying someday. I also have a few that would qualify as actual heirlooms, some taken from the houses posthumously and some given to me while the people were still alive; the needlepoints and handmade sweaters mean so much more to me than the gold watch or diamond rings.

Buying things from a stranger’s estate sale seems icky to me, but having objects from someone special feels like keeping a piece of them alive. Using that napkin holder puts me right back at DH’s grandmother’s kitchen table, folding napkins into triangles with her.

I’ve written before about the heirlooms, items owned by loved ones that are either valuable or valuable due to sentiment. This estate sale idea brings up something else, though: having items owned by a deceased person who isn’t dear to you. The ramekins from my college roommate’s grandmother qualify here: I never even met the woman. She was close to someone who was close to me at the time, but when my roommate cleared out the house, she ended up with a bunch of stuff she didn’t need and decided to find good homes.

The Shabbat candleholder from the great-aunt also qualifies here. That great-aunt was actually a step-great-aunt-in-law, the aunt of DH’s stepmother. She met me many times and rather liked me despite despising almost everyone, but truly we barely knew each other. Again, though, she was close to someone who is close to me, close enough that I helped her clear out the house.

There are some other similar objects I didn’t mention in my comment on Lori’s post nor my heirloom post. My favorite high school teacher was also a close friend of our family. When he retired and he and his wife moved out of their home of almost 40 years, he needed to downsize his library significantly. Dozens of those books ended up at my house; my dad still has a few. The best thing about the books is that they are highly annotated, in his distinctive handwriting. I had a great fondness for him, so even though he wasn’t quite a loved one, the books do evoke wistfulness and good memories.

Having objects from strangers is, for me, another story. I just don’t like the idea of estate sales. It’s not that I object to antiques, and I clearly don’t object to used objects — the vast majority of Burrito and Tamale’s clothes are pre-owned, either by friends or strangers. What creeps me out is the idea of rummaging through a dead person’s belongings, looking for bargains. I’m sure I’ve bought something for myself at a second-hand shop that was donated after someone’s death, but at least there’s an intermediary. Going to a dead person’s house to buy their stuff feels like bad juju. There was a vintage clothing store near my old house that got most of its stock from estate sales; also feels like bad juju, as if a ghost might follow you around every time you put on her clothes (though I must say, there were always some marvelous clothes in the shop’s windows). I also get bad vibes from pawn shops, based as they are on stolen goods and drug addiction and desperation. There obviously needs to be someone out there shopping at estate sales and vintage clothing stores and pawn shops, and I’m fine with that, just not me.

In sum, I love having things from dead people that the person would have wanted (or did expressly want) me to have — me, specifically. I can tolerate having things from dead people that someone close to the dead person wants me to have. I want nothing from dead strangers, nor from sad strangers.

What’s your stance on acquiring objects from dead people? Estate sales? Other types of used goods?

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14 Responses to “Thoughtful Thursday: Estate Sale”

  1. Sara Says:

    I have a number of items that became mine after the deaths of my great-aunt, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Some of them had been set aside for me for years, some of them I picked out during the house-clearing afterwards (of the latter, one of my favorites is a nice compact cedar chest which is one of the few pieces of furniture we had shipped over this spring along with the rest of our books that had been in storage the last 6.5 years). Another which I treasure almost beyond price I received in Nov. when Gwen was born. My great-aunt Doris loved to crochet and had made many afghans for gifts and to sell at the craft store in the assisted living center she worked at (and lived in). What I didn’t know was that when she died, just over 8 years ago now, my other great-aunt Mary took her stock aside and selected out blankets for future great-nieces and -nephews (Doris never married and never had any children herself). Gwen has slept underneath her Aunt Doris afghan nearly every night since she was born.

    As for objects from the estates of non-families…I think it would depend on the item. I don’t think I would have a problem purchasing someone’s library, or a nice set of old furniture, but I wouldn’t be interested in their knickknacks, curios, etc. — things that had sentimental value, or perhaps unusual stories behind them. I wouldn’t feel like I could value them the right way.

    When reading the title of this post, I immediately thought of the Strawbs’ song “The Life Auction”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be on youtube, but here are the lyrics:

    The Auction
    (Dave Cousins/Dave Lambert)

    The vultures stood outside the gate
    Quite unaware that fate
    Is unaware to those who wait
    In vain. Their pride
    Betrays the means of their destruction.

    Take my rings and trinkets bright
    But leave my eyes which give me light
    My tongue which gives me leave to speak
    The rest is yours and welcome.

    The wolves will suck the bones they bought
    Those over which they fought
    Their elders always having taught
    Them envy. Their greed
    Explains their total lack of conscience.

    The auctioneer is seldom lost
    Our paths have sometimes crossed
    But he has never failed to count the cost
    Of passion. Desire
    Is the whole point of his existence.

    Now you have given cause to bleed
    You join the wolf pack as you feed
    But now you find yourself in need
    Of comfort. But peace of mind
    Has no home for the loveless.

  2. strongblonde Says:

    so, maybe estate sales are regional? lately i’ve been seeing all kinds of estate sales as more of a “everything-must-go” kind of sale for people who are downsizing houses. i suppose that is different from an estate sale when the owner has died and whoever is left just wants to unload a lot of stuff with minimal effort? i suppose it is a mute point, however, because i have never been to one…mostly because they strike me as just too busy and crazy. i need time to relax when shopping.

    this post made me immediately think of b’s mom. she has a habit of “claiming” stuff from people all of the time. when his grandfather died we discovered her name on post-its under a few vases/pictures/etc that could have ONLY been put there when he was still alive. seems mighty strange to me to put your name on something in an effort to call dibs. she is also the person that believes that EVERYTHING is some sort of heirloom. if someone else owned it, it must be valuable. like you, i really prefer only to have something if i have a strong tie to it or if the owner wants/wanted me to have it.

    maybe this is because my family never had nice things? i feel no desire to have any of the furniture/goods that my parents own except a few things that i know belonged to my grandmother (a necklace or sweater). otherwise, i feel no strong tie to them. when b’s grandfather died (who he was very close to), b said that all he wanted was his class ring. he wanted something small to remember him and they shared the same college–something that they talked about on a regular basis. b’s sister requested the dining room table set, the living room furniture, the patio furniture, the kitchen table set, and a variety of other large items. to add to her fully furnished house. it didn’t make sense.

    i generally have no qualms about previously used goods….it’s also just a balance for me with being over-run with STUFF. 🙂

  3. Laurie M. Says:

    My husband has strong opinions about “other people’s junk,” so estate sales are not something we frequent. I would rather think about them in a positive light than a negative–no bad juju here. While owning something from a deceased loved one is bittersweet, owning something once owned by a stanger is a mystery. You are giving new life to the object, but you don’t know about the life it had before. What flowers did that bud vase hold? A stem picked on a first date? A precious gardening effort come to life? A spindly dandelion picked by a little hand? What will it hold in your home? Your daughter’s first flower from a boy? Where will it go next?

  4. Tara (TIMO) Says:

    Not a fan of the other dead people’s estate sale stuff. I like the concept of them but not the actuality.

    As for family, I’m lucky to not have had a lot of deaths in my family. My dad’s dad died when I was 4.5y & I don’t remember a thing about him as we weren’t close. My dad’s mom is still alive and there is nothing I want from her. Pictures would be nice but she threw them all away when she moved from her house of almost 50y to a room in an assisted living center. She kept all sorts of junk from that house (literal junk) but threw out all of the photos of my dad when he was young as well as ones from even father back in our family’s history. She shopped at thrift stores and estates sales primarily or from other people’s trash cans, so anything she gives you she got used. We just found out that when she would hear about a person dying in her building (a fairly frequent occurrence unfortunately), she would pay the janitors a few bucks so that she could pick through their belongings and take anything she wanted! Needless to say, my Dad spoke to the supervisor and put a stop to that. Therefore I have no qualms about goodwilling or just throwing things away that she gives us unless it comes new, in packaging.

    My mom’s dad did pass away almost 6y ago. I helped my mom and Nana clean up her apartment of his stuff. I did bring home a few things but mostly because they were given to me by Nana (either Grandpa told her what to give each grandchild or she thought we would want things). I got his camera equipment and even though I will (most likely) never use it, I will keep it because he wanted me to have it. Nana has been sick for about a year. We didn’t expect her to make it through the winter but she’s holding her own. She just moved from their full apartment to an assisted living studio (bedroom, bath, kitchenette) so she’s been down-sizing. She paints so she has been giving away her paintings to everyone. There are a few things of hers/theirs that I wouldn’t mind one day having but nothing I would claim at any point. They are/were both of the mindset that they should gift things while they were living so that they can see the joy in the recipients face.

    I’m not a sentimental person so I actually prefer knowing that someone wanted me to have their belonging. I don’t think I could go through someone’s stuff after the fact and pick out something I would want because of that.

  5. Mel Says:

    From people I know, I love it. Having something to hold or look at often makes me feel close to them. It gives me a door to walk through, memorywise. From people I don’t know… I can’t think of anything I own where I didn’t know the person who died. I’ve never been in a pawn shop, to an estate sale, or anything like that. I’ve gotten the kids second-hand toys, but I’m assuming that the majority of their prior owners were older and not dead (emphasis on assuming since I don’t know). But if I knew the person and loved them, I could see going to an estate sale to bring something home.

  6. Lavender Luz Says:

    May I just say that hearing analytical you talk about “juju” and “bad vibes” makes me smile just a little?

    Yeah, not a fan of walking through dead people’s stuff. I would only do it for a person whom I loved, for stuff that has personal meaning behind it.

    I’ve never been in a pawn shop, for the reasons you so eloquently state. Desperation gives a bad vibe, as you say.

    Thank you for the shout out 🙂

  7. a Says:

    I don’t like pawns shops, but we do enjoy auctions and estate sales and antiques. I don’t worry about dead people stuff – if it’s cool, it’s cool, regardless of who used to own it. Well, except for upholstered furniture. Let me qualify – if it can be cleaned, we’ll consider it.

    My husband is really into pocket watches. Aside from the intricacies of the mechanisms, he loves the history of the things. He likes thinking about what kind of life the watch had – and how it managed to survive for over a hundred years. He enjoys speculating about who owned it and what they used it for. Needless to say, the original owners are now dead.

    I have some family heirlooms. My mom and my aunt both gave me some small things from their mother. My other aunts gave me all kinds of great stuff – one when she decided that since I liked cooking, I would enjoy her LeCreuset cookware (guess that was the best lunch invitation I ever extended!) and the other who put everything in my grandparents’ house up for grabs when she went to assisted living. I got my grandmother’s china cabinet and buffet…and all the contents. That included some Limoges china, some Waterford and Baccarat crystal, and more importantly, several items from my aunts’ travels. And paintings and ceramics that my aunt made – we all have some of those.

    My husband’s family almost completely excluded him from stuff from his grandmother’s house when she went to the nursing home. However, when he went up to help move, he grabbed a few things no one had specifically claimed…including a photo collage of several generations, his father’s childhood bed, and a quilt handmade by his grandmother.

    I hope my daughter likes antiques…she’s the only one in line to inherit a whole bunch of stuff!

  8. emk808 Says:

    I inherited some money when my grandmother died, but other than that I’ve never been bequeathed anything. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with estate sales and would totally go to one if I thought there would be something there I wanted or needed. Antiques can be pretty cool, and most used items that someone is selling are good enough for me. If something’s falling apart or severely stained or if it would be something gross like underwear then I just wouldn’t buy it. Other than that, I like a good deal.

  9. emk808 Says:

    (This is Elana from Elana’s Musings, btw)

  10. Becky Says:

    I never buy used items. Who knows what kind of germs they carry? You can never be too careful.
    I have a friend who bought an antique doll for her daughter at an auction and she swears it was haunted! There were scary noises and weird shadows in her house after she brought the doll home. She was terrified and her daughter was scared of the expression in the doll’s eyes. The whispers and thumping sounds stopped after they got rid of it.


  11. I never buy from estate sales, pawn shops, antique or second hand shops. I’m not really sure for what reason, I guess I just prefer most things new. DH however loves to browse second hand stores and flea markets, and sometimes (but maybe once in 20 or less) comes back with a real treasure.

    I don’t have a problem per se about acquiring objects from dead people though. I didn’t see a problem bringing my mom’s still very nice dresses to a second-hand shop and I hope other women have found use of them instead of feeling creeped out (after all, she didn’t wear them on her death bed). Of course acquiring objects from deceased and dear family members has special meaning to me and I’m very glad I have those items as keepsakes. My sister and I split my mom’s jewelry and I just had all of the rings I got resized so now I can wear them too, which feels good. I also have jewelry from an aunt on DH’s side of the family whom I never even met (I actually walked away with a very expensive ring, but didn’t realize it, I just really liked it and DH’s sisters were not interested in it – got quite the surprise when we had it appraised).


  12. i don’t frequent estate sales or even flea markets. I love inheriting things from dead people. A great aunt left me a piano when I was in high school and I still think of it fondly. I’ve also, lived in not one, not two, but three places where the previous occupant had died. It definitely feels like they’re “there” for the first few months, but then eventually it become yours.

  13. St. Elsewhere Says:

    I have never been to an estate sale, per se.

    But items from people no longer alive? I have them. And they are cherished mostly for nostalgia.

    My mum recently gave me some cloth that originally belonged to an aunt of hers…the latter was 102 when she died. That cloth is so soft that it is perfect for making re-usable baby wipes and all that.

    So the functional value is in play too.

    But I won’t like to be an out and out collector of this stuff because the clutter gets multiplied!

  14. Jennifer Says:

    Truly love checking out estate sales. You never know what you will find. Its an adventure.


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