This morning my family went to several tag sales, as is our habit. Saturday is of course the major day for such things, but there are always a few that begin earlier, and a careful perusal of the local papers had yielded three, of which one looked promising. It was an estate sale, and the ad boasted “collectibles,” “books,” and a 1991 Chrysler LeBaron.
Since my parents sold their house, they have talked a lot about “divesting.” After clearing out her own parents’ home, my mom said repeatedly that she did not want to burden me and my brother with a similar task, and they had an enormous, slightly morbid tag sale of their own. And yet this has not curtailed their activities: every Thursday they examine the paper, annotate the sales page with arrows and underlines and the occasional exclamation mark, and plot their route.
By chance, the sale was located across the street from the “Home Sweet Home” museum, where, in 1823, the actor and dramatist John Howard Payne composed the eponymous song. It quickly became a standard, reprised in shows and bars across America. Reportedly, “Home Sweet Home” was banned from Union camps in the Civil War because it made soldiers too homesick and lowered morale.
The estate sale was held in a saltbox house, clearly old. It was an old-lady house. The kitchen felt vaguely midcentury; the floors were covered with grubby carpeting. Upstairs, a bedroom and adjoining bathroom had been fitted with metal safety railings. The sale was run by one of the services people hire to clear out the homes of the dead, and it was already teeming with people who pored over the bookshelves and boxes of kitchen utensils like a bunch of Dickensian rag-pickers. My mom greeted several regulars whom she knew.
There were rain bonnets. There were doilies. There were figurines. There were boxes of recipe cards in a spidery hand. There were polyester pussy-bow blouses. There were pamphlets from the local Episcopal church. There was a china dish still filled with cellophane-wrapped hard candies. As if it needs saying, there was a life. The woman running the sale told us the owner had been ninety-nine.
As for the dowdy car, we were informed that the owner had logged fewer than ten thousand miles on it.
I ran across a small, mildewed, government-issue 1941 prayer book, signed by the woman’s late husband: “To my wife, Camilla.” Her ID from the same period showed that she had been a nurse; later documents bore witness to her time in the local Ladies’ Village Improvement Society. There was not much of value, and not much one wanted to buy. My mother commented on how high the prices were.
I picked through a tray of clip-on earrings, trying hard to find something I wanted, although my mother had already found a stack of books. It was theatrically depressing. When I ran across a hardcover called Laugh While You Can, I thought I might have to leave, wait for my mother outside in the car. I took a final tour through the upstairs rooms, including the one with the safety bars that had clearly belonged to the dead owner. And there, on the wall, was this:
After that, everything was bearable.
And at the end of the morning, my parents had purchased a DVD of No Country for Old Men and had told the woman at the sale to call them if the price of the Chrysler went down.