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Second Life

On giving a stranger’s useless and precious possessions new life.

A Guide to Navigating Estate Sales
Illustration by Frances Murphy

All of my favorite possessions were paid for with cash in the homes of strangers in Texas: My favorite sweater is a vintage Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt I found in the back of a closet in a four-bedroom house outside of McKinney, Texas. It was brand new, with the tags still intact, and had never been worn by the owner. My espresso machine is from a home in Irving. My typewriter, a portable Royal, comes from a home outside of Fort Worth; my mom paid $40 for it as soon as she saw the ribbon still worked. My favorite shirt is an atrocious men’s button-up that I found on a clothing rack in a stranger’s garage. It’s purple plaid with green and yellow mixed in. I had it taken in, and it’s the most comfortable thing I own. In the backyard of the same property, I found a kitschy plastic tray that freezes ice into the shape of Texas. It reminds me of home.

Life accumulates a lot, and when someone dies, there are heaps of material goods left behind. You end up with dishes and tights and cheap pens and garden hoses and books and printers and crosses and sweaters. There are piles of DVDs and thumb drives and underwear and spices and shoes. There’s rarely enough family to take it all (or family who even need it all) — hence the estate sale.

My mother and I routinely drive hours across Texas to stand in line with the other hopeful collectors and cheapskates who visit these sales. I’m usually the youngest shopper in attendance, if you don’t count those still required to hold an adult’s hand. While walking through older ranch homes or two-story McMansions, it’s a reminder that, regardless of economic station, building a life is an act of hoarding. Putting down roots, like buying a house, only leads to acquiring more things.

My mom is always searching for patterns, sewing notions, and fabric, so we have a primary mission for our mother-daughter journeys. But I’m never looking for anything in particular. Office supplies, like notebooks and pens, have to be dirt cheap. Kitchen appliances have to come with all their parts. With clothes and fabrics, it’s all about possibilities: Can I alter this to fit my body? Do I own other clothes I can wear this with? I once bought about two yards of Vera Bradley–esque quilted fabric that looked kitschy in the bin; it’s now living a second life as one of my favorite vests.

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It can be a process to find something you really love, but the key is arriving early to get first pick of the inventory. That’s why my mom and I have spent so many early mornings chasing the Texas sunrise, listening to terrible chat radio, and sipping from large cups of coffee and tea.

Here’s how it goes: If you arrive an hour before the doors open, there will be a small line. If you’re two hours early, though, you’re almost certainly guaranteed the first spot. People don’t really make conversation, and if it’s cold enough, everyone will wait in their cars. Eventually, the estate-sale employee unlocks the front door of the home and announces any guidelines or markdowns. Then we all file in.

Newbies mill around the front room, eyes agog at the state of the home. Nothing is neatly stored away. Instead, the items are arranged across every available surface. Small objects like pens or toiletries are packaged in baggies and priced to sell. Earrings, pins, necklaces, and other jewelry are put into display cases by the cash register. But everything else can be found where you’d typically store it. Looking for a toolbox? Go to the garage. In the market for cooking supplies? Make a beeline for the kitchen. The cabinet doors are often removed so the shelving can be used as a display. Every counter will be covered with canned food, pots, pans, plates, coffee cups, silverware. The fridge and oven may even have price tags.

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It’s spooky to take stock of the many possessions I’ve acquired this way. My journal at the moment is from a home office where a Christmas photo of George W. and Laura Bush was on display (this is Texas, after all). My food processor, in which I make excellent frozen yogurt, is from a kitchen in Collin County. My cheese grater, hand blender, and most of my bakeware are from that kitchen, too. I have a coffee mug with chili peppers from another home, and I have six miniature tea sets from a curio cabinet somewhere in Dallas County.

All of these things had another life once; they were bought with some other purpose in mind. I’m not sure I believe in ghosts in the Patrick Swayze sense, but I still think about the previous owners every time I use these items. What did they expect to make with this fabric? Did they have prayers or feelings they planned to fill this blank book with? Why didn’t they cut the tags off of that Cowboys sweatshirt? Why was the hand mixer never taken out of its original packaging? Did they buy these things thinking they would have more time to use them?

Estate sales can be for the dead but also for people downsizing or moving to assisted living. No matter the reason for the sale, I walk out of each home reminded that our time to cook, to write, to live is limited. I’ll always think about the people whose things are bringing me joy and pray that they’re at peace, wherever that may be.

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To me, the most evocative thing you can buy at an estate sale is a cookbook. The handwritten notes and tabs signifying the owner’s favorite recipes offer a different kind of intimacy than an unworn sweatshirt or a typewriter. When I’m deep in the haze of depression, I like to read these notes and imagine what lives and dishes these books could lead to. I always start by opening the book where the spine is well worn and envision the meals I’ll make when I’m finally feeling better.

My estate-sale white whale was Julia Child’s behemoth Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Child’s book is the cookbook, and I needed to have a vintage one, one that held all the scents of the meals its previous owner had made. Sale after sale, I came away disappointed. I had convinced myself that if I bought a copy at Barnes and Noble it wouldn’t be the same. I figured I would just never own it.

But one day, in a crowded living room, while waiting to buy a few dress patterns and notebooks, I caught a glimpse of something: a large book with the distinctive fleur de lis pattern on a navy background. It had to be Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “Hold on! I’ll be right back,” I whisper-yelled to my mom as I tried to quickly and inconspicuously cross a large living room full of people. I couldn’t risk someone else noticing my holy grail.

By the time I made it to the bookcase on the other side of that living room, I could see Julia’s name. There it was. Someone’s grandmother or mother or aunt was looking out for me. It was just $7.

The paperback set was almost untouched. No notes or dog-eared pages or tabs sticking out. This book would be mine to mark up and make memories in for some future owner.

Even though the previous owner left the book untouched, I’ve still felt her spirit pass into my kitchen, like she’s offered me an unsung heirloom. Because every time you take something from the dead, you take a little piece of them with you.

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Caitlin Cruz is a reporter and writer in Brooklyn and Dallas County.