Susan Graim was president of a Chicago-based branding and communications company for 25+ years. Now retired, she enjoys writing for herself instead of clients. During Covid, San Francisco has become her safety net. 

By: Susan Graim

Reading time: 3 minutes & 30 seconds

Lured by the Craigslist estate sale listing, I dressed in my down-at-the-heels bartering garb and grabbed a stained and worn out carryall for finds. The sale was just a jaunt away so no need to drive and wrestle with parking in a crowded neighborhood. My wallet was stuffed with small bills to give me more bargaining power. I’d stick to my limit, however: Two hours or 20 bucks, whichever came first. Then I was done for the day.

Even from the end of the block, I could see that the house was dilapidated. The garage door was propped open for easy access. With a quick glance, I realized that the garage overflowed with the detritus of home ownership gone awry. Water-stained boxes and old bags filled with keepsakes from the past, unusable rolls of paper towels, and unidentifiable household objects stuffed shelves from ceiling to floor. Rusted tools and utensils rested on rickety tables stretched the length of the subterranean foundation.

The young man at the entrance introduced himself as the son and the estate sale organizer. He and his wife had spent the last four weekends emptying the house and they were more than ready to be done and gone. His grandparents, he went on to tell me, had lived in the house their entire lives and his father, now 72, had been born there and moved back in forty years ago. The young couple speculated that between the three generations the family had owned the property for more than a century. 

It was clear that there were opposing forces in the air. The millennials were anxious to move the junk out. I watched the son consider lower offers on worn out implements and furniture – until his father appeared. So, this is the proprietor of stuff, I realized. He obviously had the final word on pricing for most everything and seemed less inclined to let bygones go.

I recognized the syndrome. Before I retired, one of my final design projects was to name and brand a certified senior move manager. To summarize her skills, I wrote marketing copy: “Dina identifies what valuables to keep, and what to replace, discard or pass along.” Easily identifiable, this family needed her professional services.

Upstairs, the “auntie” and a nephew talked frankly in front of me about the uncle’s propensity for hoarding. Listening in, I circulated the sunroom, otherwise empty, to assess a collection of pressed glass perched on the window sills. Daylight filtered through, exposing the grime of unwashed and chipped glassware. Once, they had been treasured by the grandmother no longer there to care for them. 

From the second floor, I looked down to the yard below and spotted a garden of sorts. Splitting wine barrels of dried up plants were intentionally placed on artificial grass like a chess game or bumper car-racing track. Curious about whether the clay pots and such were for sale, I trudged down the backstairs, dodging spider webs and debris staggered along the step risers.

The yard was bereft of growing plants. Even the succulents looked exhausted in their moss-covered urns. Like mother, like son, he had had proudly displayed his collection of rocks and fossil stones along the fence rails. Although I don’t claim to be a rock-hound, I have a quirky fancy for geological specimens that serve as mementos of my travels. Some of his caught my attention. From my own adventures, I recognized volcanic rocks from Hawaii and iron-crusted shale from Utah. Then I spotted a stone, hammer head with grooves where the deer sinew had bound the rock to the wood handle. This might be a new artifact to add to my non-collection.

When I asked the price, he hesitated, his memories momentarily paralyzing him. “You know,” he said finally, “this is a Native American Indian maul. It’s valuable. My father found it in North Dakota years ago.”

I waited silently for his price tag. “You can have it for $25,” he offered, as if he knew that it would be closer to $150 on Etsy. Even so, the price was over my limit. “Sorry,” I replied, “That’s too much for me.” He hesitated, his eyes scanning the garage loaded with possessions collected for more than a century. Years of memories, rusting and disintegrating, in front of his eyes, Turning back to me, he said with sorrow in his voice, “Take it for $15,” as he laid the weight in my hand and walked away.

Photo Credit: Beth Macdonald

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