What I learned at the estate sale: Some endings come at the right time

The signs went up overnight: ESTATE SALE. By the time I went out for my morning walk, cars were everywhere down the street and around the block, surrounding the severe Mid-century modern house, all concrete and corners. It was sidewalk-colored, and looked like it should have a loading dock. From the outside, it looked like the perfect setting for a dedicated modernist who could tolerate no signs of a life cluttering up the rooms.

Of course I went in. Clearly, the life that had inhabited it was over, and the brisk workers were not bereaved family members, but efficient recyclers and disposers of stuff, hired for the day. What was left was a vast assortment of stuff from valuable Mid-century chairs to frilly country-fied chair cushions to copper cooking pots. So much for my assumption that the outside would predict the inside.

As I walked around, I got the haunted feeling that comes when I invade a place of endings – the accumulation of unfinished dreams, unspent hopes, unmet intentions that I imagine hovering in the air, the other detritus of a life now over.

But maybe I’m wrong, I think halfway through the house, maybe as the body pulls away from life, letting go of things and of ambitions is a freedom, a relief, a welcome lightening. Maybe it feels that it is time, after too much life, too much illness, too much of everything. Maybe the end comes at the right time, or even later, at least for elders who have had their full measure of years.

Before I understood any of this, I visited a beloved family elder in her nursing home. She was there only because she could no longer navigate her own home with her arthritis. So her sewing machine was already long gone, her immaculate kitchen that housed the remainder of her farm kitchen passed to other hands, and the scratchy sofas with doilies on the arms were in someone else’s living room, probably minus the doilies. But in her nursing home room, she still had her pictures of the family, and her crochet hooks and knitting supplies, though she could no longer wield them as she used to.

Her mind was as sharp as ever, and her commanding presence had taken hold of her wing of the home it was clear as she summoned fellow residents and nurses and maintenance men to, “Come meet my great-grandchildren.” They complied, to a person.

Later, in the privacy of her room with the door closed, she shocked us, this woman who had never seen a challenge she couldn’t meet with spirit and energy, when she said, “I don’t see why God is keeping me here. I don’t see what purpose I am serving.”

Our first thought was to say that she was still valuable to us, that we needed her. But before we spoke, we realized that to ask her to stick around for our twice a year visits was an empty platitude. We didn’t know what to say, except, “We love you Grandma.”

She said, “I can’t do the things I used to. I am ready to go.”

That visit was the dawn of my recognition that maybe endings don’t need to be resisted. Maybe the haunting that I experience is not about a sad ending. Maybe the dreams, hopes and intentions are looking for an open window so they can escape the prison of a particular house, or life. Maybe they want to join the others floating around, waiting to be claimed by a different life, at a turning point of its own. Maybe just like the spatulas and bowling balls and mink stoles in the estate sale house, they are looking for a new home where they will be appreciated all over again. Maybe it’s all fine when a good long life ends, and when things pass from one hand to another.

I didn’t take anything from the estate sale, as I am full up already. Except a chance to consider endings again and find them maybe not so sad after all.


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