An elderly neighbor of mine passed away last autumn. I didn’t realize this until the following spring when I saw people pull up in front of her little green house on the corner to carry away her things. First it was the chair, then a couch and a tall lamp. This came as a surprise as change tends to do. Abrupt and unexpected. She was old and frail and we’d seen less and less of her over the years. Her son Lenny lived with her and tended to the maintenance of the house and yard. He was a shy and gentle soul who never let anyone get to know him except for the neighborhood cats, which he attracted in droves.
As neighbors go they were my favorites. I like shy and gentle people, the elderly and cats. I was a bit pissed at myself for not knowing what had happened for almost 6 months.
MM suggested we go over and take a look at the obvious to us now, estate sale that was happening at the little green house on the corner. I admit I was curious as I had never been inside. I wondered where her son was as I got on my shoes and we headed over.
Half the neighborhood was there sprinkled among the other shoppers. I was stricken at first at how cramped it was, full of people pawing through Angie’s things. I felt funny. I didn’t know her all that well but now I felt sort of protective of her stuff and her memory. I took a quick tour of the downstairs bedroom. I saw her hairbrushes and clothes for sale. It seemed all too intimate, all too strange and all too much.
Oh I had spoken to her several times over the years exchanging cards at Christmas and the like. I knew she had lived there for over 40 years and had raised a family, watched most her children move away and start lives of their own. I know her husband had died there. I know that she seemed somewhat hard and no nonsense. I know that my preconceived notions about her had allowed me to keep her at arms length like I do with most people.
But now it was so different, so final..
The rooms were tiny and jam packed with various things. It was overwhelming right away: there was so much. It was difficult to take it all in. The first thing I zeroed in on was a set of commemorative dishes priced at $650 dollars next to a tin of cocoa marked “new” and on sale for one dollar. Along with old dishes and salt and pepper shakers shaped like Minnie and Mickey, there was a package of paper towels for sale and paper napkins. Who buys this stuff? I wondered to myself and more importantly who sells this? I was tempted to open the refrigerator to see if there was some old milk for sale but decided against it.
MM beckoned me up the flight of steep creaky stairs that led to the upstairs bedrooms, all small and filled to the brim with stuff. Old holiday decorations and kids toys neatly arranged in boxes. It was hard to believe they had hung on to these items for so long.
The atmosphere was oppressive, it was thick with oldness and stagnation. I could feel the 40 years of history there. This was once a place of life and hopes and dreams and now only lost memories remained. It was as if the remains of a sweetness had stagnated and turned acrid; buried under the heaviness of the years.
It wasn’t long before I had to get out. Needless to say I didn’t buy anything, I wasn’t planning to.
Time passes so quickly. It’s too easy to just go with the flow and let circumstance carry you along. I am in the midst of that and I sensed my neighbor was too but only she had floated farther than I…and stayed too long, accumulated too many things with too many links to the past. So many that there was scant room for anything or anyone else.
So much stuff with so many memories attached to them. It’s easy to do; hang on to things. I too have that pack rat mentality. Sometimes you never know when you may need something.
More importantly, these cherished bits of happiness; intangible memories encased in tangible objects enable us to hold a piece of the past. It seems holding on to these things brings us closer to what we miss. It’s a little silly when you think about the significance we give to objects, it’s not logical. But who is logical? Especially not when we love someone. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I truly understood how important mere objects can become.
I have limited myself a few items, tokens of memory, attached to a person not so much as a time. A few items: a Buddha statue of my father’s and his namesake tree in the front yard. A tiny doll my teenage daughter played with when she was younger, The blue striped blanket my son came home from the hospital with. I have kept the odd concert ticket, a tiny figurine from when I was 4. There isn’t much.
I’ve been ruminating on this experience all summer. It’s prompted me to re think the way I’m living my life. How I hang on to needless things. The tangible and the not so tangible. Outdated stuff, old baggage, outgrown ideas and ways of thinking. How possessions can possess the possessor and how little by little all this stuff we accumulate weigh us down… keeps us from flying.
Perhaps my neighbor missed her chance to fly, maybe her son being thrown out of the nest so late is in flight now. At any rate we all must go someway, somehow. I ponder this as I watch my neighbor’s tree come down foot by foot until it’s gone and I realize it’s been blocking what I see now is a great view of the mountains.
“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh