Yesterday I spent the day by myself, making the rounds to different estate sales in my neighborhood. Estate sale-ing is always a hit-or-miss, slightly fraught experience; if it's a good one, there is a tension in the air that I find absolutely maddening, remembering the morning my parents held my grandparents' estate sale themselves, not knowing, I guess, how traumatic that experience can be for the family, which is why they're often handled by agents. I remember my mother immediately hustling us out of the house after the initial stampede of shoppers — people had been lined up down the sidewalk, waiting for us to open the door, and they literally pushed their way into the house. My sisters and I sat wide-eyed and appalled as they rushed to grab things off the walls. I doubt either of my parents had ever been to an estate sale before. It wasn't their thing, and I know it was painful for them to watch scavengers carelessly tossing things about as they looked for treasure. I think they always regretted doing it that way, but at the time it was the best they could manage, and once it started, what could they do?
Most of the amateur estate-salers I know are fairly responsible about the activity, I think; we have an appreciation and respect for the lives indicated by the wide-open cabinets exposing Sweet & Low packets, half-used Avon handcreams, piles of handkerchiefs — all now for sale. It's impossible not to enter these spaces without being reminded of one's own mortality, the impermanence of all our careful plans, efforts, and evidence. Nevertheless, sometimes what's left suggests so much. Sometimes you walk into a place and think, "Wow. She was just like me." There is a stocked pantry in a cool corner of the basement. There are sewing supplies carefully organized. There are stacks of greeting cards and letters wrapped in bundles. There is a collection of teacups and saucers obviously chosen for their spritely, delicate decorations. There are magazines saved from decades long past.
Yesterday was one of those. I wandered, slightly overwhelmed, bumping into others who were bumping into others, all of us scanning surfaces. On an enormous table were boxes and boxes of old greeting cards and various ephemera, as well as several small sealed bags filled with air-mail letters. I grabbed a couple of bags of them, along with some other stuff, and went on my way. Later that afternoon, many hours later, I went home and sat down to look at the letters. I read a couple and scanned through the envelopes. It became quickly apparent that there was a story here, one spanning several decades and at least two families. It was 3:40 p.m. I called Andy at work and told him what I'd found, and he encouraged me to go back to the sale to see if I could find the other letters. I raced upstairs, changed out of my pajamas (yes, I put them on the minute I get home), hopped back in the car and zoomed back over to the sale, which was closing in six minutes. There were two bags of letters left so I grabbed them, along with a few more magazines, and spent the rest of the day trying to organize the letters chronologically. It took hours.
Several big gaps are apparent. It's amazing to me that someone in the family didn't want these. I feel so upset that the group of them is now broken up — obviously, whoever organized the sale took stacks of letters and just split them up into different baggies and sold them off individually. I can see that someone in the family had been living at the address since the '50s. Whoever it was had kept letters going all the way back to the '30s, many written during WWII and the Korean War. They are an amazing collection of primary documents. I'll have more to say about them, I think, when I'm done reading the ones I have — I'm probably only halfway through. Perhaps many families have boxes of such letters — I don't know. Mine didn't; this is the first collection like this I've ever seen in real life.