I went into my neighbors’ house today but I didn’t know their names or what they look like. The sign in their yard said “Estate Sale” so we stopped by to find a deal on something we don’t need.
There were sofas, recliners, tables and cookie jars. In the bathroom, one drawer held samples of Elizabeth Arden eye cream, brown Mary Kay eye shadow and a disposable razor. The other was filled with unopened dental floss, a Norelco razor in a leather case and one AA battery left in a 10-pack. Old Spice talcum powder was on the counter. Two curling irons hung by the mirror and baseball caps reading “Jesus-Christ He is the Real Thing” and “Combat Medic” hung in the hall.
An unused 50th anniversary picture frame suggested a long life together but the number for the home health nurse written on the message board is when it hit me. This was the conclusion of their story. The china with roses around the rim, the dryer that makes noises, and the matching recliners in the living room hold memories that will never happen in this house again.
There was no explanation for why they left, no photos on shelves or walls, but there were signs of health in decline. The bedside toilet for sale in the garage. The hospice magnet on the refrigerator.
Whatever happened, they had faith and family to get them through. A prayer hanging in the hall said, “Lord, help me to realize that nothing can happen today that You and I can’t handle.”
Another picture reads:
“A family is a blessing;
it means so many things.
Words can never really tell
The joy a family brings
A family is a band of faith
That even time can’t sever
A gift to last all our lives…
A family is forever.”
Were there days when the family didn’t bring joy or the bond was almost severed? Did they ever lose faith or struggle to pay the mortgage? What changed after the kids moved away?
When life slowed down, did they rock on the back porch watching birds and squirrels in the pecan trees and drink coffee from the mugs that said “Handpainted in Korea” on the bottom? Were the spider lilies blooming in September their first sign of fall and did they watch birds hatch each spring in the crepe myrtle nest by the kitchen window?
What was her favorite Christmas decoration to put up every year? The snowman with stars and hearts on his belly? When was the last time they listened to Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians Christmas or played their albums about Sunday in Hawaii, the first Easter, or the Jimmy Swaggart gospel and camp meeting piano records? Did grandkids play the piano when they walked in the front door?
At the sale, people loaded chairs and a propane grill in the back of trucks and walked away with bags of spatulas and Tupperware.
“My mom had one of those. I remember eating a lot of Jell-O on that. The top had different designs.”
“Need some boric acid?” “Not today. I don’t know what it is.”
“We could use this for a Halloween party.”
“We have so many I don’t need another. But it would be good for cooking peas.”
“Man they have some stuff.”
I don’t know what boric acid is either, but “Man, they have some stuff” will also be said at my house on the day everything is sold or hauled away.
The name J.C. was written in the front of the Bible my husband bought at the sale. Tucked inside Psalms was the poem, “A Limb Has Fallen” from a memorial service in 2015:
A limb has fallen from the family tree,
I keep hearing a voice that says “Grieve not for me.”
Remember the best times, the laughter, the song,
The good life lived while I was strong…
My mind is at ease, my soul is at rest,
Remembering all, now I truly was blessed.
Continue traditions, no matter how small,
Go on with your life, don’t just stare at the wall.
I went back to the house to find more of J.C.’s story and to see if he was alive or another limb that fell from the family tree. The sale was over and a cleaning crew was boxing unsold items to drop off at the thrift store. They didn’t know anything about J.C. but said a grandchild bought the house and is moving in.
A neighbor across the street said “Mr. J.C.” wore a blue WWII veteran hat and walked a copper-colored dog named Penny every afternoon. Penny was an orphan dog who adopted him, he said.
“I went to the sale too, and realized I didn’t know them or some of our other neighbors,” he said. “I haven’t seen Mr. J.C. and Penny walking in a long time and I don’t know what happened to them. I don’t know anything about his wife. It is sad, but I guess that is what happens when we no longer sit on porches or play cards together.”
I missed my chance to get to know Mr. J.C., to hear the stories of where he served in World War ll and what he did when he came home. To ask how Penny found him and how a marriage can last that long.
I interview strangers every day. It is time to get to know my neighbors, too.4