Everything enters the waste stream. If it’s your precious heirloom, lovingly treated in your will, maybe it’ll get a prized place above a fireplace or in a gallery that will take about 40 percent of the list price. If it’s something less remarkable – a popcorn maker, a blue mixing bowl, a gently used comforter – it’s anyone’s game. Once the initial transaction is set, presumption will always point toward the initial estimate of worth (plus depreciation), barring some kind of Antiques Roadshow moment. Some things gain value with time, but most don’t. Dented and bashed, they shed value in an obvious way. Rusted and out of fashion, things lose value slowly and imperceptibly, just like we lose our childhood memories.
When we buy things, we don’t consider their demise because optimism is the whole point of acquisition. We are bullish on utility and aesthetics. By the time we dispose of our things, they have lost either or both of these qualities. We dispatch our stuff to the landfill or to new hands. Our things migrate past us to an unknown future, normally in a slow trickle: We throw away a chipped plate here and recycle a few old magazines there to keep our homes in an approximation of order.
Piece-by-piece has its exceptions. Consider estate and garage sales, mostly distinguished by whether the owner is present at the sale. Generally, an owner stages a garage sale to clear things out. They get to choose the sale items, prices and presentation. The condition that makes the estate sale possible is exactly the opposite. The owner is absent but their things linger on, with heirs hoping to find some value after picking anything they want out of the pile.
About two years ago, I found myself picking a few things out of an extremely large pile. More specifically, I was looking for something to read. I was also trying to dispose of more than 2,000 square feet of stuff. My mother died while folding laundry one night (mostly small decorative hand towels, by the look of the basket), and as the eldest child, the job was left to me to deal with her estate. Executing an estate engages skills from conflict resolution to advanced math. It is not a task for the infirm or the organizationally challenged. Me, I was thousands of miles away from the house in question and responsible for making sure my two younger brothers got their share.
What counts as a share? What counts as value? It’s hard to say when confronted with a storage area the size of the main house chock-full of every toy, seasonal decoration, hand-made computer part, possibly-working lamp, leftover bit of china sets past, and piece of correspondence or child-made art accumulated in the time since before your parents were married.
You stare down the piles. Because your family has entirely and recently disintegrated, the idea of pricing is the furthest thing from your mind. There are two warring strands that pick apart each box. First, there is the urge to photograph and archive every single thing. Second, there is the impulse to destroy or sell it all without consideration. The more boxes you look at, the more you will be suspicious of the tension between these reactions. As you look at even more boxes, you will be overwhelmed by the overlap and become both enamored of and deeply hostile to the idea of selling it all off. At this point, the possibility of mental illness starts to seem like a warm reprieve.
Gripped by this particular psychosis and flummoxed by the house’s seemingly endless supply of desks, forks and blankets, I called in the heavy artillery. More specifically, I hired a team of former airline attendants to manage the sale of my mother’s estate.
It turns out that the same skill set that qualifies you to effortlessly dish Diet Cokes to a metal tube full of twitchy weirdos helps you convince wandering passers-by to buy anything from costume jewelry to antique English wardrobes. I had been to estate sales before and found them deeply sad affairs where a mix of the nosy, poor and exploitative poke through dim rooms of smelly and vaguely-priced detritus. I did not want that for our family home. At the same time, I needed it to be emptied. I wasn’t looking to make a profit so much as I was looking to find new homes for my parents’ treasured things. There was the Thai teak dining room set we oiled every month as children, the collection of Russian dolls, the cookbooks, the hats … everywhere you looked, there were more things, and the idea of all these things came to terrify me as much as it comforted me.
The ladies worked the same kind of magic on my mother’s house that they’d used to subdue thousands of surly airline passengers. They turned our frown resolutely upside-down, waved some sage, attached price labels with string and sold off the whole lot, including the broken laundry machines, non-working lamps, carpets of dubious cleanliness, tea sets and hideous art. It was astonishing to see our dusty piles of heritage-grade stuff transformed into displays of assorted merchandise and moved out the door with systematic fervor.
Not that I was able to see the sale. They wouldn’t let me come. They have a policy of not letting clients come to the sale itself, as we were likely to get involved with the goods – cling to them, perhaps, or try to bargain to get them out the door. Which meant I needed something to read while I sat in my hotel room.
I was done with the one book I brought with me: David Mitchell’s wonderful The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoot. For some reason, I thought a historical novel about immortal baby-eating Japanese monks and their Dutch would-be oppressors would be just the thing to get me past my mother’s funeral and back home again. No dice. A few days before the sale, I rummaged through the paperbacks in bins. I picked Fathers and Children by Ivan Turgenev, an old paperback of a 1948 translation wedged between a bridge manual and my middle school American history textbook. Ten cents.
The sale boasted a surplus of Russian fiction. This was what remained of my father’s collection. He was a military man with a graduate degree in Russian Studies. He never got to travel to Russia – security clearances kept him out of the Soviet Union and its successor states. His Russian was well below fluent by the time I was old enough to ask after it, but he retained an enduring love for the Russian novelists. I made my own collection of them over time, lifting a few things from his library here and there: a lovely copy of And Quiet Flows the Don, a few battered Solzhenitsyn paperbacks, whatever Dostoevsky hadn’t made it onto my shelves by the end of college.
My mother had majored in English. As an adult, her tastes had turned to Stephen King and the mystery ecosystem, but she retained a missionary enthusiasm for Charles Dickens. I still have never finished David Copperfield. This is largely out of spite. In retrospect, between the forced Dickens and coerced Tolstoy, it’s a miracle that I developed any love for reading serious fiction.
I had dinner with an old family friend the first night of the estate sale. Over beer, he remarked on the Turgenev: “You’ve never read it?” I worried this question in my mind for some time after. What did he mean? Was I just now finding a work like Moby-Dick or East of Eden, revealing my lack of grounding in the canon? Did he mean something deeper? Did the book had something to say about his long-time friends and their children? I never got a chance to ask, but I continued reading the story through multiple late night solo dinners at a rotating cast of restaurants, always retiring early to the Residence Inn and getting to the house by 6 the following morning. It blurred for me, this time. I was also trying to sell the house, so there was the day the water heater needed repair, the day the basement might have issues, the day of the bathroom vent, the day of the pool cover, the day of the attempted robbery.
Through all of it, I followed the young student Arkady’s visit to his family. Having not been home in some time, he brings his friend Bazarov as a kind of protection. Fathers and Children (sometimes translated as Fathers and Sons) is probably most famous for putting the notion of nihilism into print. Arkady describes his school friend’s nihilism this way: “A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.” His family is neither impressed nor shocked, as his uncle Pavel says: “There used to be Hegelists, and now there are nihilists. We shall see how you will exist in void, in vacuum; and now ring, please, brother Nikolai Petrovitch; it’s time I had my cocoa.”
This was my father, pitch-perfect. On every holiday, I’d bring home some new idea, some cutting-edge theorist to try out at the dinner table. His engineer’s brain was never impressed – the question was always how it worked, an empirical issue unable to be settled in argument but necessarily examined over time.
By Arkady’s definition, my mother was a bit of a nihilist. This didn’t mean that she was impressed by my intellectual gymnastics; on the contrary, she tired quickly of the kind of flight from authority to authority that my philosophy degree engendered.
All of this was dithering. I killed time while projecting onto a 19th century Russian novel in a hotel room and waiting for the call that my family’s belongings had been sold off. I envied Arkady’s family and thought him foolish for his youthful desertion. I loathed Bazarov, even as he reminded me of at least half a dozen ex-boyfriends. Mostly I tried to etch the inventory of my mother’s house into my brain, Matteo Ricci-style.
On the last day of the sale, I wandered through the nearly empty house. I was waiting for the consolidator to arrive. This sounds like a Jason Stathem role but turned out to be just a person who comes in after an estate sale to buy what’s left. Some goes to charity, some to the landfill, the gems into the market. Seller gets a check for the lot.
Thousands of things had already entered the waste stream, priced to sell and settle into their new homes. The hat my mother had worn to my grandmother’s funeral; the Cabbage Patch Kid that had been a Christmas highlight; a marked-up Betty Crocker cookbook; a set of tiny screwdrivers – all of it gone, the house’s corners squeaking back at you for the first time in my memory as I paced it. The consolidator made a pile of what was left and offered me an amount of money that only my spreadsheets remember.
I wanted at this moment more than any in my life to be exactly Turgenev’s nihilist. The empty house was a showcase of ghosts, shelves heavy with what was once there. I wanted all of it back. If only the china hutch and plant stands would repopulate the dining room, I would bow down to their authority. I would take the leather sofa on faith. I would extend reverence to anyone who could keep these in my life without cost, allow me to walk among and page through them. Instead, I shrugged off principle and paid a man to take our leftovers away – a once-glamorous rug, a few lamps, a set of hard-worn tools, boxes of clothing, all things that once were worth something and now were reduced to value.