Naked curtain rods and hard questions

Published 10:08 am Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Every “estate sale” sign has a story behind it, the plot of which is sure to contain two critical elements: life and death. That is why visiting one is an exercise in sobriety. If plundering through the remains of someone’s three score and ten ­— factored down to a pile of Tupperware, king-sized sheets, and garden hoses — does not remind you of your own mortality, you are not, I would guess, very good at making associations or what experts call “non-linear thinking.”

Or you may be 16, as was the case with my shopping partner last weekend. It would not be fitting for someone her age to waste time considering the sadness of the situation when a yellowed copy of Wuthering Heights can be had for a quarter. 

And though every aging saga is unique in its details, most narratives include a chapter on an end-of-life move, either to Daughter Judy’s or the rest home or, as in this particular case, “assisted living.” At least that’s what the ad said regarding the Mrs. After decades behind a pulpit, the Mr. had joined a celestial congregation.   

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Daughter No. 2 and I had arrived early. As we merged with other gleaners walking up the driveway, we noticed the car tags. Rankin. Hinds. Madison. Out-of-towners always show up when antiques are involved. A mahogany curio cabinet with a “sold” label already dangling from its ring pull testified to that fact. So much for the “no early sales” admonition.   

Old, we were quickly reminded, has a certain smell. It was pungent where a woman was going through a pile of vinyl suitcases. It wafted thick from a stack of Christmas decorations.

Old also has a look, as evidenced in the home’s gold carpet and a kitchen outfitted when congealed salads were all the rage.

While I fingered a set of Oneida flatware, I listened to an exchange in the hall. It reminded me of another estate sale, when I overheard the lady with the cashbox tell someone that yes, her mother knew they were selling the house, “but she didn’t know about this.”   

I pictured that mother, her face lined deep with days, frowning over folks pilfering through her coffee cups. Oh, this estate sale stuff is sad business.  Nothing is sacred. It’s a home soil invasion.

And for the kids left to clean up after a demise, an estate sale is ground zero. I am told that memories threaten to detonate at every turn, even under a couch cushion where a photo from Easter 1973 was stashed. Those left behind (the ones with the cash boxes) must carefully avoid sinkholes of sentiment, looking the other way as their father’s favorite Florsheims go for fifty cents.

I played my part in the drama, not by investing in the $600 set of china, but by buying two sprinklers and a shoe rack. Whenever I load my finds, I think of a fellow buyer who once said her husband wasn’t “garage sale savvy.”

“He thinks he can put a lamp shade in our truck bed,” the woman laughed.

“And you don’t know the difference between a garage sale and an estate sale,” I had thought to myself. One is about cleaning out, and the other — the one involving her new lamp — is about clearing out.

There’s a big difference.

Making non-linear associations like that can get pretty somber after the half-price round ends on estate sale Saturday afternoons. The house in question is nearly emptied, leaving little behind except naked curtain rods and hard questions.

What really withstands time?

Fostoria glassware?

Craftsman tools?

Pastor and author John Piper says we should think often of our dying: “There is scarcely any thought that will purge our priorities of vain and worldly perceptions like the thought of our imminent death.”

I would add that an estate sale provides the perfect setting for such meditations.

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at