I received a note at my house last week alerting neighbors that an estate sale would be held on Thursday. It was staged just three houses away from mine and, in fact, attracted a large crowd.
I´d never been to an estate sale, but since it was nearby I decided to take a look. I didn´t realize that there is a caravan that follows this sort of sale. Once inside — there was a line at the door – I found the whole thing sort of sad. Hundreds of people picking over the remnants of once vibrant lives, all of it reduced to a discounted, “must-be-sold-today” transaction just seemed intrusive.
The estate-sale items belonged to Al and Irene Arens, an older couple that I´d met shortly after moving into my neighborhood but who hadn´t for quite a few years been part of the suburban rhythms of cutting lawns, walking dogs, passing waves and nods. I didn´t know the Arenses. But I do now, perhaps more intimately than I have a right to.
Al Arens was an accountant/educator, apparently very successful. Among the items at the estate sale was a proclamation recognizing “Dr. Alvin A. Arens as the University of Minnesota Beta Alpha Psi Accountant of the Year for 1995.” The poster-sized award celebrated his distinguished career — Price Waterhouse Auditing Professor at Michigan State University, author of leading textbooks, past president of the American Accounting Association.
Neighbors, especially those connected to MSU, surely would have known about his academic superlatives. But these were only the outer skin of the onion.
What the proclamation didn´t tell was Arens´ passion for golf: his clubs and training devices, golf balls and books. There was his jukebox: United Music Corporation Jukebox Model Ump -3 Number 11687. Or his music neatly typed into display labels: G-1: City of New Orleans (Arlo Guthrie); E-1: Lay Down Sally (Eric Clapton); or H-7: Stayin´ Alive (Bee Gees).
Irene Arens´ life unfolded in her paintings. Her works were primarily oils and acrylics, but she also did batiks. Her paintings are of a skilled and dedicated hobbyist´s, most of them going for $20. There were easels, brushes, blank canvasses, partly used tubes of paints, now passed on to others, which as an artist is no doubt what she´d want.
Bob Howe´s Epic Auctions & Estate Sales managed the Arens´ estate sale. He acknowledges that transitory nature of this line of business.“In the end it´s not about this stuff,” he said. “These things may have been accumulated on the journey. In the end, it´s about family and friends.”
He acknowledged that in a practical sense an estate sales is about moving on, letting go of the past, preparing for the future, certainly for families. My problem — according to my wife, anyway — is that I´m a saver. Not a hoarder, but I like my stuff: books, tools, music, tee shirts, mugs, wood scraps, newspapers. I AM NOT A HOARDER! But apparently I´m better grounded in the past and present.
I shouldn´t care if at some estate sales bargain hunters unravel my life as they look at my sheet music or record albums, pick through my watercolors or swing my wooden tennis racquets. But I do.
I looked at the Arens´ cross-country and downhill skis and thought of family vacations, commemorated with their Minolta 35mm single lens reflex cameras with extra lenses. Or the squashed flat baseball gloves — right handed and left handed. This was a gardening family — pots and tools and a spacious backyard off the patio. Now weeds have overtaken the beds and grass needs cutting.
I know what books they read, that they liked music thanks to vintage turntables and receivers (there was a grand piano, not for sale), that they liked things Asian — prints and rugs. They had antique dolls, Depression era decanters and stems. Their Norelco coffee maker was priced at $10.
And though I´m still uncomfortable with the trappings of the Arens´ lives reduced to $5 take-it-all boxes, I come away from their estate sale feeling that this was a couple, a family, that had a rich and meaningful life.
And so it was. I talked with the Arens´ daughter Linda, who confirmed that what I saw at the estate sale captured the life of her family — a happy family. As for moving on, Linda is moving in, into the family home with the grand piano still in the living room.
The estate sale as a memorial? Perhaps it is. Certainly was for the Arenses.
Correction: In last week’s article about Lansing businesses shaping the 21st Century I misidentified the president of Emergent Biosolutions’ bio defense division. It is Adam R. Havey. I apologize for the error.