An estate sale is more than a venue for good prices on antiques and kitchenware. As I discovered earlier this month, an estate sale is a glimpse into the stories of a home and the seasons of a life.
Justin celebrated a birthday earlier this month, and we checked out a few estate sales as part of the merriment. At our second stop, Justin stayed in the garage exploring the massive collection of tools while I stepped inside. There was art on every wall and card tables full of trinkets, stationery, napkins, and books.
The first box I noticed was full of eyeglasses. There were dozens of pairs each with a different prescription. On the wall was a Norman Rockwell-style painting of an eye doctor and his patient.
The story of the home was beginning to take shape. It appeared an optometrist had lived there.
Walking from room to room was thrilling. There were treasures everywhere, and just being near them all made me feel as if I had won an unannounced lottery.
In the dining room were beautiful pieces of pottery, serving trays, mint-condition cutlery, and china sets from around the world. There were wooden sculptures on walls and shelves like pieces I'd seen from Tanzania.
It felt like I had stepped into a novel. As Detective Emily, my task was to piece all the clues together. An eye doctor. People who liked to entertain. Travelers.
I sent a text to Justin, "Heading upstairs." He was down exploring the basement.
As I stepped into the first bedroom, the excitement continued. The closets were full of vintage clothing. Gloves and hats and blouses. All exquisite.
Who was this woman? I wondered.
In the second bedroom, I noticed a most magnificent collection of belts with styles spanning at least 40 years. Some were bright and bold, others were soft and neutral. So many beautiful belts.
Justin and I left that afternoon without purchasing much, but we discussed coming back the following day when everything was 50 percent off. That evening, Justin chaperoned a college dance. I read up on vintage belts and dreamed about the life and travels of the people who had once lived in that house.
We returned the next day bright and early. The walls were barer; some of the artwork had been purchased. But I didn't come for the artwork. I came back to sit in the room with those belts. I just wanted to see them and ponder the life of the woman who wore them.
There was another estate sale explorer in the room with me. She was trying on one of the coats for sale, a red one. "I might get it," she said. "Verna had the most amazing style."
"You knew her?" I asked; the detective had a fresh lead.
"Yes, I lived down the street. I was friends with George and Verna's kids. I'm back in town for the weekend visiting my sister." She headed down the hall to another room.
I looked down at the box of belts and picked up my favorite for the hundredth time. It wasn't so much that I wanted to buy it. It was more like I wanted to absorb the stories of which it took part — an accessory to dinners, travels, and evenings with friends.
More of the story was coming together. Her name was Verna.
Then he entered. A man who looked to be in his mid-80s. It was clear he wasn't another estate sale buyer. This was the optometrist and homeowner: George. The keeper of all the stories I'd be imagining since the previous afternoon. His eyes were red and puffy.
"My Verna had such class. Such style," he said to me. I looked down at the belt.
"She sure did," I said. "I've never seen such beautiful belts." I paused, aware that as I stood touching Verna's things, it was more than a personal treasure hunt. For George, I was in the museum of his life, and everything deserved the utmost care.
"I'm Emily," I said shaking his hand.
"I'm George," he said. "These things were my Verna's. Can I show you her picture?" He reached into his wallet. The plastic photo insert worn and torn. There was Verna on their wedding day.
George told me the story of the day they met and the life they built together. Their kids and travels. Her gradual health decline and the letters she wrote for every family member before her death two years prior.
"Oh, she spoiled me. She spoiled the hell out of me. She was my girl."
The neighbor in the red coat came back into the room. She introduced herself to George; they hadn't seen one another in decades. George told more stories. And as he cried, we cried. We didn't bother with small talk or pleasantries. We stood still for a few moments in that upstairs room; it felt like the quiet of an empty sanctuary.
Eventually, George headed out to run errands. The neighbor left with the red coat. I sat down on a chair with a needlepoint cushion.
After much indecision, I selected a few designer belts and a long leather skirt and met Justin downstairs. We purchased our items and left.
I don't know where Verna's belts have traveled in the past, but they've found a new home with me in Minnesota. Their story will continue. And if George's remembrances are any hint at their history, it's been a really beautiful journey so far.