I buy the dead woman’s earrings.
They are silver with dangling beads. They look like they’ve never been worn and are a bargain at five dollars. There are other deals here as I wander from room to room — an antique cherry desk, a Tarkay painting, two enormous Chinese vases.
I am an intruder. A voyeur in the midst of lives that breathed here, ate here, made love here. It feels unholy. And yet, this is the reality of this estate sale, as others straggle in the front door.
I haven’t been to an estate sale in years. I don’t know what draws me to this one. Perhaps it is the ad in the paper about the Tarkay painting. Perhaps a mini-adventure and reprieve from weeks of being closeted inside due to my recent fall. Perhaps the beauty of the drive itself on winding roads flanked with thick woods of blazing trees.
The house sits back from the road. Behind it, ample green grounds slope to a barn. It was once a horse farm. Inside, the rooms are spacious but look pillaged, with stacks of bric-a-brac, books, dishes filling corners and overflowing atop furniture.
A dining room table and chairs sit as silent testimony to holiday dinners, times of celebration with family, or perhaps evening meals eaten in a hurry or in silence. Spacious windows look out onto a patio overgrown with weeds and an abandoned swimming pool.
I touch a stack of quilts, pick up a decorative plate made in Turkey, then head upstairs. Now it becomes intimate. Here is the bedroom, her clothes still lined in the closet. She was small, a size eight. Her clothes were fashionable. Where did she go in these, I wonder? Plays? Fancy dinners?
In the other room, his shirts and sweaters hang neatly. He was large. They both bought quality, garb that speaks of those who knew the meaning of classic style, of things that last.
I stop in the hallway to breathe. I wonder — who were they? What happened? Did they have children or family? Did they know someday their lives would come to this, to strangers traipsing through their house, perusing their most personal items?
Years ago I was visiting in Tennessee and drove past the house my grandfather built. I spent my summers there. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door, explaining to the woman who answered my history with the house. Could I come in?
She was gracious and invited me inside. Memories flooded like waves into my heart.
The kitchen where my grandmother made biscuits from scratch, her hands dusted with flour as she cut circles into the dough with the top of a drinking glass; the dining room where we ate fried okra and pork chops; the corner of the living room where my grandfather sat in his rocker and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.
The upstairs had been renovated but I remembered the sloped roof, how I loved the sound of summer rain beating down on it, how I would curl up under my grandmother’s homemade quilts with a book. I remembered her sewing machine in the corner and how she stitched skirts and dresses for me to take back home to Texas.
The house was still there. But I had left it long ago. Only the memories remained.
I head outside now and walk the graveled drive to the barn. Tools, saddles and bridles. What happened to the horses, I wonder? Did they have a financial crisis and have to sell it all?
The people who called this home — they must have thought as most of us do that their lives here would continue forever. That buying fine clothes, Chinese vases and a Tarky painting were important. And maybe at the time, they were.
But now, the people who lived here are gone. And none of this matters. None of it. And we have come here this autumn day, scavengers at this estate sale, picking through their memories and souls, to the lives they left behind.
I turn around and walk back to my car. I don’t belong here. The truth is, none of us do. We can enjoy what we have worked for, what we are given. But we can hold on to nothing. We are simply passing through. We have memories. Those remain.
I look in my rear-view mirror and put on the earrings. I whisper a prayer for the woman who bought them in the hope of one day wearing them, but never did. I pray she and her husband had good lives. That they laughed and danced. That they loved well.
In the end, nothing really lasts but the love we share with one another. I pray they did that.
And I pray I can be loving as well, that I can learn to let go, knowing that the present moment is all that I — or any of us — really have.
I look again in the mirror, and smile, the light glinting off the beads dangling from my ears. I drive back home through a shower of golden leaves.