It’s a hot morning in July, and my family is at an estate auction in rural Kentucky. The four of us piled into a three-person truck cab early on a Saturday morning to get here. I’m eight years old, and I’m grumbling about missing Transformers. My parents were antique-hunters, so my sister and I missed a lot of Saturday morning cartoons to auctions, yard sales, flea markets, and small-town stores.
This particular auction is held outside of a lonely three-story house mostly surrounded by fallow fields. We follow our parents as they survey the goods on sale. Our walk takes us past rows and rows and rows of folding tables jam-packed with stuff: piles of dishes, umbrellas, ceramic miniatures, embroidered pillows, and careful piles of old clothes. There are Rolleiflex cameras, disused farm tools, old mason jars, commemorative plates, and trays of dusty silverware. One table bears a wicker basket piled high with old newspapers and magazines. On the top and wrapped in plastic is a yellowed local telling us that RFK has been shot. It looks like the house has been gobbling random stuff up for the past fifty years before disgorging it all onto these tables. Many items have little paper tags hanging on bits of string indicating who has purchased them. Inside, the walls are crowded with pictures of people in gilt frames. Some are in color, most are in sharp black-and-white, and more than a few are in faded tones of sepia. There is more furniture inside, too–a bed, an armoire, and a safe as tall as I am. It’s stuffy. There’s no electricity, which means no AC. All of the windows are open for light and ventilation, but all of the stuff and the people inside make the air thick and close.
“Who lives here?” I ask my mom.
“No one now,” she says, “It was an older woman. She passed.”
“She lived here alone?”
“Did we know her?”
“No, just read about the auction in the paper. I think there’s a son. Doesn’t live here, so he’s selling it all. The house, too.”
Hours later—one chest of drawers and several refinishing projects acquired—Dad is driving the pickup, and the rest of us carefully hold boxes of paper-wrapped glassware on our laps. They got me a James Bond Jr. Action figure that must have been left by a visiting grandchild. It has a parachute that doesn’t fully deploy, but I like it. My sister is wearing a black felt hat that belonged to the deceased.
A basic fact of modern human existence: we generate a lot of crap. If we do nothing about it, then others have to bear our burdens.
It’s a different hot afternoon in July. I’m 20 years old and home from college for the summer. We’re picking over items in my dad’s two-bay storage unit for things to donate to Goodwill. In particular, we’re looking at his parents’ stuff. His mother, my grandmother, was a pack-rat par excellance. After his parents passed, it took us two years to get the house on the market, and half of that time we spent sifting through what she had squirreled away over the years. There was the usual stuff to contend with, like dishware, furniture, blankets, quilts, and clothes. We found two rotary telephones (which still worked) and a turntable and speaker set encased in a heavy polished wooden frame (which didn’t). Then there was the unusual stuff: boxes of rifle ammunition from the 1970’s, instructions for a VCR from the 1980s, love letters my dad wrote to a college sweetheart in the 1960’s, and planks of wood my grandfather planed from a tree he cut down in the 1950’s. We wrapped up dishes from the 1970’s in newspapers from the 1990s.
Each new mystery trove of stuff was another emotional hurdle for my father. Much of it was relegated to a storage unit for later sorting.
A basic fact of modern human existence: the crap we accumulate can hang on our hearts and pen us in.
Later comes. My grandparents’ clothes Dad feels ready to give up, but the storage bay doesn’t look any emptier without them. Two old lawnmowers, multiple coffee tables, a dining table, and so many boxes of glassware still make it impossible to see an inch of floor or wall space.
“So what’s the plan for all of this stuff?” I ask.
“You’re looking at it,” says my dad, gesturing to the unit.
“You realize,” I say, “that this becomes my problem some day?”
“Yes, I do,” my Dad says, with no trace of humor. I feel myself deflate a little.
We run into the facility’s owner, who’s glad he’s caught us. “Gotta clear out by middle of August,” he says between cigar puffs. “We’re being bought out by the city; they need storage for the Arts District.” So there’s only two weeks left to make decisions about the artifacts of my grandparents’ lives. Now I see my dad deflate a little.
It was a sweaty, unpleasant whirlwind of action, but we managed to quickly donate and sell almost everything before I headed back to college.
“You know,” my father says, “I’m glad that happened. I might’ve held onto that stuff forever.” His voice is light and free.
A final fact of human existence: sometimes, letting go can help us hold on.
Matthew Wiles holds a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Louisville. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and he teaches Composition, Developmental Writing, and English Studies at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College.