“I’m sorry for your loss,” the buyer says as he streams through the door of the estate sale I’m having at my parents’ house.
Loss? What loss?
“Thank you,” I say, mirroring his somber note.
“My condolences,” says another buyer a few minutes later.
What? This is an estate sale, not a funeral.
“Thank you,” I say, feeling once again, like the last person to know what’s going on.
The third time a stranger expresses heartfelt remorse, I get it: They think my parents died. But they’ve just moved to assisted living. Most estate sales, apparently, happen post mortem.
“Ohhhh, thank you,” I say, “but my parents are still alive. They’ve just moved on.”
The stranger looks at me weird, like I’m some spiritual kook, and slinks away. “I mean to assisted living.” She doesn’t hear me, but another shopper does.
She shakes her head disapprovingly, as if selling my parents stuff while they’re alive is tacky, though that doesn’t stop her from shopping.
It’s not like you think!
I want to explain that my elderly parents moved out because a fully loaded, four-bedroom house became too much for them, that I’m selling the contents and eventually the house — with their permission — to help pay for what I hope will be many more years of their retired life. But that is too much information to download on someone pretending to care but who really just wants to know if I’m selling the bookcase or not.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” says another buyer, removing his hat respectfully.
“My parents aren’t dead!” I say, perhaps a little too firmly.
“Boy, am I glad to hear that!” another shopper says. “Because I won’t buy anything that belongs to someone who died.”
I must have screwed up my face, because she adds, “Bad energy.”
I nod, as if I understand, but think she’s a pint short of a quart.
I’m in a weird spot, standing in the home I grew up in surrounded by presumption, superstition, and more memories than the Smithsonian.
The year-long week began four days earlier when I flew to California from Florida to sort the homestead’s contents. I put trash in the driveway, donations in the garage, items for sale in the house, and what I wanted to keep in the back bedroom.
Then shoppers came through like a Waring blender and swirled it all back together. Seriously, if you ever want to clear out a house, label everything trash, donation or off limits. That’s what goes first.
After two days of dismantling the house a piece at a time — mom’s costume jewelry, dad’s tools — I finally discovered what all these buyers were talking about. Letting go, item by item, feels like a hundred small deaths.
It’s the end of an era.
As the last buyer leaves, she thanks me and says, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Me, too,” I say. Condolences, I decide, are in order.
I shake the nostalgia off, however, because I need to tackle my next task, which is to sort through the remains and draw the line between what to let go of and what to keep. I need to find that sweet spot on the continuum between nothing and everything. I consult my stomach lining and two experts and come up with this formula:
• Need, use, love. Those are the key words Mark Brunetz, Emmy-award winning host of Style Network’s Clean House, tells me he uses when helping folks figure out what to keep. Do you need it to live your life right now? Would you use it today. Do you love how it looks? If you answer yes to any one of those questions, it might be a keeper.
• Add your own filtering questions. This is not a one-size-fits-all exercise, but these additional questions served me well: Does it mean a lot to me, and why? Will it go beautifully in my home? Is it worth shipping? Do I have a place for it? Am I keeping it out of guilt? Will it burden my kids?
• Choose meaning over value. “Don’t grab the most valuable pieces,” said Gary Sullivan, an antique appraiser for PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, who for years did estate liquidation sales for families. “That’s what people do, but that’s not the right decision. Keep what means something. If you have an antique that a dealer is willing to buy for $5,000, and you decide to keep it. You just bought it for $5,000.”
• Choose small over large. I loved some of my parents’ larger furniture items, but shipping costs were prohibitive. I get just as much resonance and connection from the pearls Dad bought Mom. They are easier to pack and store. Don’t underestimate the cost of housing and maintaining an item, said Brunetz.
• Get your story straight. Everything has a story, and that’s what makes letting go hard, said Brunetz, also the author of “Take the YOU Out of Clutter,” Penguin, 2010. Ask what the story is that you attach to the item, not the story your parents endowed on it. “The minute an item transfers from a parent’s house to yours, it’s no longer about the meaning they endowed it with,” he said. “Once you’re clear on your story, you can cut what you decide to keep in half; that becomes a really great touchstone for determining what to keep.”
• Remember the present. Living your life for a day in the past (but it meant something) or one in the future (I might need it) robs you of today, said Brunetz. Live in and for the present.
• Check your sentiment. How you love someone lives in your heart not in an inanimate object, says Brunetz. “Your heart can never be too full but your home can.”
Join me next week as organizing guru Peter Walsh weighs in on what to do with the really tough stuff like letters, photos, wedding dresses.