This post was first published in October 2010 but is getting new life thanks to reFresh Friday.
We have lived in our house for over three years. And in that time the yellow house next to us has always been empty. Full of someone’s stuff, but empty. We learned at closing that the lady who owns the house was in a nursing home. I learned a lot more last weekend at her estate sale.
Mary Jane Sutter and her husband, Wilbert, built their house in the 1950s and have been the only owners. He was a post office employee and died about twenty years ago. They never had kids, but according to their belongings, they loved the theater, to travel, and entertaining friends (also pin-up girls and Playboy magazines, but that’s not really important to my story).
About seven years ago, Mary Jane fell in the house and hurt herself. She laid there for a day and a half before anyone found her. She went to the hospital, assisted living, and most recently this spring, back to the hospital for falling again. Soon after, she passed away.
Last weekend, the executors of her estate had an auction to empty the house. They carted away two full-sized dumpsters before getting to things they could sell. Apparently, Mary Jane had not been in her back bedrooms since 1992. She became a hoarder after her husband died and had filled her two back rooms with so much stuff that she couldn’t enter them. But you know what could enter them? Squirrels. And I know this because one morning I was standing at my kitchen sink washing dishes as a squirrel stared back at me from inside her house. Eh, good morning, squirrel!
Walking through her house and yard during the sale and looking at the stuff for sale, I got an overwhelming sense of sadness. Things that were being sold: her china and silver, her boxes of family photos, her wedding dress, and her wedding album. Things you’d think would be going to a family member. But they didn’t have kids and there was no one left to want anything. That broke my heart.
I just had so many questions. Did they want kids and weren’t able to have them? Did they make the conscious decision to live childless? Do they have any regrets? What would they have changed? What would they do again? Were their lives good?
I can’t imagine being at the end of my life and knowing that the things I treasured most were going to be thrown away because there was no one there to want them. Things that had meant so much to me: my wedding dress, photos from my life, my Bible, my wedding rings. I hoped she didn’t know that her stuff was being thrown out in the yard and snooped through by strangers. It seemed disrespectful even though I was doing it also.
But the more I thought about all her stuff, the more I wondered if maybe she understood something I didn’t. Maybe she knew that all that stuff in her house didn’t matter. Maybe she knew it was just stuff and not important; that people, memories, family, friends, that’s what’s important. But then why did she accumulate so much stuff? She didn’t get rid of anything. She still had the paperwork for her 1953 refrigerator. She had 23 boxes of tissues and 7 boxes of Q-tips. She had over 100 pairs of shoes. And tons of alcohol. She obviously wasn’t done living in that house when she was taken away.
I think that’s just how it is: you’re not done living, but it’s not really your choice. And the stuff doesn’t matter. Maybe it was liberating for her to know that someone else had to clean up her mess. To spend time remembering her life, seeing what was important to her.
I bought her wedding album for $1 that day.
They didn’t fill out the front page where it gives you all the wedding specifics, but I’ve put a little note in there to make sure I remember. I want to remember this woman who did life in the house next door, who traveled the world, who loved shoes with a vengeance, who buried her husband too soon, and who wasn’t ready to leave her house one day and never return. I want to remember that stuff isn’t important and that my legacy is in people not possessions. And I hope that one day, if there’s no one left, some stranger will feel compelled to remember me too.