I've spent three days at the church preparing for the rummage sale, digging through donated boxes of dusty books, orphaned wine glasses, pots without lids, lids without pots, books, and Christmas decorations, sorting them into piles according to their condition and usefulness. They get brightly colored price tags--a quarter for a vase, a dollar for a string of working Christmas lights, five dollars for a working toaster oven. Occasionally a truly valuable item finds its way to us--those are placed on a separate table to be eyed by the antique dealers who always appear not as incognito as they think they are, to turn pieces over and over in their hands before attempting to convince us that whatever the piece is, it's not worth the price we have on it. But they are not most of the crowd. Most people simply want something new to read, a mug to sip their tea from, or an interesting vase to put their fresh cut roses in. Rummage sales are a great way to shuffle possessions from one person to another.
People sometimes donate what basically amounts to trash--moth eaten curtains, moldy magazines, broken appliances, and so on. We sigh and mutter about these, but accept it as part of the search for treasures.
A glance inside the flaps of one box told me it was likely to be one of those, but I sat down on the floor to go through it anyway. Occasionally, digging around a little yields a trinket or two, or a paperback book at the bottom. I lifted the stack of papers on the top and was rewarded for my efforts with a handful of refrigerator magnets. I gathered them and set them on the floor, sifting through the rest of the box's contents with growing dismay. Christmas cards, birthday cards, and sympathy cards littered the bottom. We have a lady in our church who uses them to make Christmas ornaments so I set them aside as well. Then I found a fistful of yellowing snap shots and Polaroids. On the backs were captions-- names and dates with small inside jokes in graceful looping handwriting. I slowed down a little more, scanning through the paperwork I'd been pushing aside, focusing each separately--pamphlets and notes from Hospice nurses, medical records, and Do Not Resuscitate forms--one each for a man named Herbert and and his wife, Evelyn. The dates on sympathy cards told me that Herbert had passed first and I suspected that Evelyn had not been far behind.
A closer study of the pictures revealed a smiling couple arm in arm outside a restaurant--her, smiling, in a knee length pink dress, hair swept up and sprayed into a bouffant; him in suit and tie, peering through thick plastic framed glasses with a toothy grin; later on, a newborn swaddled in pink, a tow headed toddler with ice cream on her face; a girl on a pony, the family at the beach, a young woman in prom dresses; in another shot of the same girl in a wedding dress; a class reunion full of graying heads, but I spotted the same smile and toothy grin. It didn't take long to construct an overview of their lives--marriage, jobs, kids, retirement, grand kids, and, finally, each one facing the shadow of the other's inevitable death.
I realized I had the last fragments of someone's story in my hands, tossed in together by some relative on a mission to clean out the deceased's home. They'd gone through the house with a box on their hip, sweeping items into it with little regard for its sentimental value. I could just hear them muttering about the junk some people keep as they milled from room to room, opening cabinets and drawers, emptying them without really seeing.
There other things to do and I needed to move on, but I was transfixed by it all. The debris of someone's very full life littered the floor around me and I was supposed to decide what to do with it all. It took my breath away. How was I suppose to just gather it up and throw it away.
Debbie, our freckle faced, church secretary is an upbeat, bubbly, always practical sort. She walked by carrying an armload of clothes and stopped to make small talk.
I showed her my find. Like me, she was disturbed at the thoughtlessness of those who'd brought us the box, but she was more matter-of-fact than I was. In addition to the usual secretarial jobs, Debbie deals with our church pantry and financial aid for the poor. She gets the phone calls from bereaved mates when the other has passed away, smoothly orchestrates support networks, gathering people to help the one left behind with the aftermath. She is unflappable and I am often in awe of her sunny clarity.
She knew a little about the couple themselves. They were from Colorado and hadn't been here very long when he died and she hadn't lingered long after him. No one knew them very well, which is a little unusual in our town--most older people here are very aware of the power of community and they work hard to build relationships with others. The people who'd brought the couple's things in hadn't been very friendly, had dropped off the boxes and were gone. "We've had to throw out half of what they brought us," Debbie said. "They didn't care and they're long gone. There's nothing to be done here but throw it away."
I was still disturbed. What had happened next? Where were the grandchildren and the daughter in the wedding dress? Why was a stranger like me allowed into this story?
Debbie saw my dilemma and took the pictures from me with sympathetic smile. "Let me take them to the office." I didn't ask what would happen to them after that, but decided it was probably best.
It stayed with me for the rest of the day-- made me think about the end of my own life and how someday someone would be sifting through my memories deciding what to keep and what to pitch and what to donate. I very much hoped it would be someone who knew me and loved me as opposed to a group of strangers at a rummage sale. The experience served as a reminder of the brevity of life and how important it is that we maintain connections with others--both family and friends, lest we become just debris to be swept away in the end.