I attended an auction today. I didn’t go because I was looking for any specific items, but because friends and family would be there, and because I knew the woman who was having the event. I watched as strangers made competing bids for her stuff—the stuff of decades—and I watched as they boxed it up piece by piece and carted it all away. At noon, I stood looking at a jungle of merchandise and following a flurry of activity; by six that evening, the evidence of an existence had been erased.
I’ve never known her exact age, but she must be well into her seventies. She owned a collection of Department 56 Christmas figures that had filled some twenty floor-to-ceiling x three-foot shelves. This was a collection that had begun in the early 80s, thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of original value. And auction attendees were purchasing it all for a pittance. I not only watched the auction, but I watched the woman watching it. I am sure she was reflecting on when her husband was alive, harking back to those days when her children lived at home. I could envision her readying that home for the upcoming holidays, setting out the newest figurines with a sparkle in her eye, positioning them among the older pieces just so. I imagined the warm feeling that attended the compliments visitors offered on her outstanding collection; and now, the emptiness that accompanies the realization of the ephemeral nature of material objects—and of life.
Away went the tools from the detached garage, the circular saws and extension cords, the miter boxes and monkey wrenches, testaments to her deceased husband’s handiness. Antique furniture—beautiful pieces that she had gazed upon for more years than I’ve been alive—was carefully loaded into the back of pick-up trucks. A winning bidder drove off in her mini-van. Her mini-van no longer. Dishes, appliances, wall hangings, shelving, sofas and chairs—all gone in a relative flash. Children’s toys from another era switched hands in a cold and methodical fashion. She faced four more nights alone in that huge, empty, echoing house before her trip to Tennessee, where she planned on finishing out her life in the company of siblings. Her final move. She told me she hadn’t been in Tennessee since she left at age twenty-five. I tried to picture her at twenty-five, but I could not. I would need to see photos for that. I mentioned that she looked frazzled. Indeed she was, she said. This was her first auction. I told her that people generally only had one auction.
It is a popular maxim that you can’t buy beer, you can only rent it. Well, the truth of the matter is, you can’t really buy anything. All of the possessions we hold dear eventually end up scattered to the four winds, sent to the care of others at some point. Maybe we buy perishable goods or items with short functional lives, but those books and CDs and wall hangings and figurines and well-crafted tools are but rentals. Maybe we will be lucky and die while residing in our long-time homes, leaving our stuff to the family, but most of us are forced to cash in once in our lives. I had an idea of what that ageing woman was feeling because I had been there. I had cashed in. I’d had my auction.
I had my auction far too early in life. Things happen, some beyond our control, some owing to our own arrogance and complacency. I watched my collection of prized Beatles memorabilia be divvied up and made to vanish for diminished returns. My power tools, my chests of carefully-sorted and labeled hardware, my library, many things that meant something to me, the products of toil and care, all imbued with memories that only I could see, memories of my wife and children, of more idyllic times, of outings, parties, vacations and laughs, were all carted off for next to nothing in a grinding heartbeat. And then one spends a few empty nights in a hollow, echoing structure that belongs to someone else now. The building, in the span of a day, has become a house rather than a home.
Auctions seem like happy events at face level; the atmosphere, in fact, is almost festive. Attendees trade jokes as they compete; buyers marvel at their new purchases like children on Christmas morning; laughing commentary regarding the odd stuff that some folks will pay good money for resonates about the grounds. The reason an auction is being held, though, is generally anything but happy: someone has died, or an old, familiar life is being exchanged for a new, strange one. Often a lesser one.
People, for the most part, only have one auction. It is difficult to accumulate an auction’s worth of stuff—a lifetime’s worth—twice in a lifetime. And holding an auction is not a fun thing to do. A person would not want to endure it a second time. An auction cannot be held until the house is sold, and the seller cannot live in a house with no furnishings. Everything is a rush, a matter of timing, and the work involved is overwhelming. And then you are hit with the unsettling revelation that your prized possessions are not yours—that they never really were—and that there is not a one of them that you can take with you when your ride comes. You silently bid them adieu, hold your head up and hope that the new possessor will enjoy those material objects as much as you did. And even if the buyer is in it as a business, with an eye toward turning a profit, you know that one day, barring destruction by time, wind, water or fire, those figures—those symbols of your past life—will be auctioned off.