Estate Sale

Photo by John Griswold


A woman in a nearby town has died, only in her mid-70s, and strangers have gathered in her yard to walk through her house to see if they would like to buy her things. The house was built in 1945 and at a glance looks off-balance, taller than it is wide. It seems as if it should be a somber occasion.

But the morning is sunny, and it is still cool under the trees in the yard. The house has a solid and attractive front façade, with big windows and shutters, and it is painted a cheery color from nature. Auction-goers sip from travel mugs as they wait. Numbers were being handed out at 6 a.m., but that was unnecessary, as there are only 30 people present by the 8 a.m. opening. All are older, and most are women. A few know each other and talk softly in a group. Some peer at patio furniture and loose items on the lawn, such as antique bottles priced at a dollar or two. Others look at each other, shyly, aware of something like intimacy among strangers. There is a surprising number of neck tattoos in the small crowd: one—a large rose, on a woman who looks to be in her late 60s. Cars and trucks continue to drive down the narrow side street, looking for a place to park.

An auction employee at the front door lets in half the crowd and cheerfully warns to be careful because the rooms are small. The hand rail on the narrow, steep stairs is too low for modern code, and people have to take turns going up or down. There is a sense of hidden scurrying inside. After a short wait, the others are let in before anyone comes out.

“It’s like bumper pool in here,” a woman says when a man accidentally knocks against her, but only a few would-be buyers, including a couple with strength in numbers, are a bit grabby. There is beautiful oak furniture too massive for most homes now, framed prints, fabric art by the late owner, kitchenware, a gold-headed cane from the 19th century, a few books, some clothes. It has all been curated by the auction-company employees and gathered into little groups, like-with-like, and no doubt the house was cleaned and thinned of unsaleable clutter.

One man asks everyone waiting at the top of the stairs an impertinent-sounding question about the late owner. A stranger answers that she was a good friend of her daughter, an artist, and a wonderful woman. Both the auction listing and the obituaries are warm. She was a longtime teacher, had children and grandchildren, enjoyed travel, and after retirement taught English in China for six months. Going by the knickknacks and books, she had a casual interest in Zen.

One visitor passes through the house, looking at objects as if he might intuit the life they supported. Here are the owner’s mirrors, in which she saw her lovely self. Here are the owner’s spoons and dishes with which she fed herself and others. Here are the owner’s boots, playful and proud.

The sale is not somber; it is not sad. The woman’s estate—a word that always sounds ironic in these circumstances, either lofty or in its archaic sense cruel, as in “a particular state, period, or condition in life”—gives evidence of a life lived with affection, purpose, and interest. Who could want more than that?

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.