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Monday, May 07, 2007

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The Hoard

The mother of all estate sales took place last week. Everyone's been talking about it. Everybody's been there. I didn't make it until yesterday afternoon, the final day, but some of my friends were queued up for the early bird showing last week. One, a vintage clothing afficiando, told me that when they opened the doors, she almost started to hyperventilate. By all accounts it was a treasure trove. If the sale were a movie, the tag line would be, "and they never got rid of anything."

After seeing some of the gorgeous clothing on display at the Cinco de Mayo party and hearing all the breathless accounts, I decided that a lack of spending money was no excuse. It was a cultural event, not to be missed. I promised myself a ceiling of twenty bucks and one hour, and went in.

It was staggering. There must have been twenty rooms in the house, and every one was brimful of stuff. There must have been fifty closets. Also full of stuff. People were coming and going like ants, up and down the street, arms and cars full of stuff.

And this was after being picked over for four days.

Most of it was good stuff. There was room after room of shoes and dresses, that had kept one woman at the height of fashion for forty years or more. She must have "kept herself up", as they say. The tag sizes never got higher than a 10. In the early sixties, she must have been a sparrow. I feel in love with an orange and pink sheath, but couldn't make the zipper meet around my ribcage. There were dozens of hats, hundreds of scarves.

The hallway closets were stuffed with linens, many still in plastic wrap from twenty or thirty years ago. It was impossible not to be struck by how many of the items had apparently gone unused. The things that had been used were mostly in very good condition. Clearly, these were people who took care of their things, which is something I notice, because I don't take very good care of my own things. There is a year-old pile of dry-clean only clothing on the corner of my dressing room floor right now. I guess I am hoping it will pull itself together and walk itself to the cleaners.

There were dishes for every conceivable configuration of food and diners. If they wanted to serve french onion soup at a casual luncheon, there was a set of earthenware dishes for that. If they wanted to serve sorbet in between courses at a formal dinner for twelve, there were several sets of stemware to choose from for that. If they wanted to crush ice, swizzle a tallboy, sip an espresso, eat salmon, nosh on canapes, toss a salad, butter some toast, there were specialized implements for each course, in an array of materials and patterns.

For some reason, it was the wrapping paper room that made the deepest impression on me. It was an entire room full of gift wrap and trim. Most of it, but not all, was Christmas-themed. There was some seasonal decor as well. But box after box, roll after roll, of wrapping paper. I stood in that room a long time. I couldn't fathom a private individual having to do that much gift wrapping. Macy's probably doesn't keep that wide a selection or large a stock in its gift-wrapping department. Like so many of the other items in the house, much of the paper had gone from the store into storage without ever seeing active duty. But it was neatly stacked and organized by theme and season. Bows in one box, paper in another, collapsible gift boxes of every imaginable size, some already assembled and the lids carefully wrapped by hand, ready to go.

What struck me was how much energy had to be locked up in that room. Granted, I am no whiz at domestic management, but I figure that even with hired help and plenty of space, it must have taken an enormous amount of time, money and effort to acquire, store, maintain and use that much inventory. I realized, as I lifted the lid off an empty box, prettily and meticulously wrapped in striped paper from the sixties, that I was looking at someone's life's work.

Maybe it was a good life. Maybe keeping a beautiful home, and dressing well, and giving lots of presents brought pleasure and fulfillment to this woman. Maybe people were blessed by her style and graciousness. Quite possibly those were her gifts.

Or maybe it diverted and diffused a creative urge that must have been huge.

I know something about using stuff to create a diversion. My stuff isn't as nice, and it sure isn't put away neatly. But that pile of clothes on the floor, those bags of things that can never get closer to the goodwill than the top of the stairs, the dishes I don't feel like putting away, and the piles of unread books on my bedside table, all serve as excellent excuses as to why I can't get down to what is really important. Not with stuff to be cleaned or moved or avoided or moaned over. Like spoiled needy children, the stuff demands to come first and its demands are endless. The past two Sundays in a row I have let myself become exhausted and angry, attending to stuff. Is the stuff satisfied? Does the stuff say, that's enough, now go write a poem, take a walk? No! It has to be dusted and wiped and sorted and put away all over again the next day!

I don't want stuff to be my life's work.

I brought home a couple of sheets of vintage wrapping paper, sealed in cellophane, to remind me of that. I also bought two darling little owls--one brass, one painted wood--to remind me that I want the objects that I do keep and acquire to meet at least one of three criteria: usefulness, beauty, or meaning. There are too many things in my house that don't make me happy when I look at them, and those little owls made my heart give a little hoot at first sight. I also got a couple of bedspreads that will nicely cover some of our ratty second-hand armchairs. I put the owls on my shelf and the bedspreads in the wash, and then I carrried those bags and boxes from the top of the stairs to my van and dropped them at the thrift store this morning.

For ten dollars, I think I got quite a lot.

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Blogger Erika said...

Though I take your point about not being consumed by stuff, the talk of rooms organized solely for the purpose of gift wrapping makes the Martha in me get goose bumps.

I love the idea of having a place for everything and everything in its place, clutter in the house clutters my mind and there is nothing more relaxing to me than sitting down to dinner after a day of theraputic house work with good friends, good food, and the appropriate dishes.

Perhaps with a career that involves a lot of intangibles, the organizing of my stuff gives me a marxian sense of actually seeing the product of my labour.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Maybe some of it has to do with stages of life, too...there was a time I was really into creature comforts and I'm a little wary of them now. But I agree there that the soul can be fed by a beautiful atmosphere. As long as the props are the sauce and not the main course.

6:28 PM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

i went to an estate sale last year. it had such a feeling of pathos. strangers rummaging through what used to be someone's private life. i couldn't bear it and left heart sick

6:31 AM  
Blogger littlepurplecow said...

Enjoyed the visual tour. And hear you on "I don't want stuff to be my life's work."

11:57 PM  

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