I always sing along when I hear that country song about the man who buys a used ’66 Corvette and, in the glove box, discovers a letter from the original owner: a young soldier killed in Vietnam.
“My name is Private Andrew Malone,” I sing in the high, lonesome twang this song demands. “And if you’re reading this, then I didn’t make it home. …This car was once a dream of mine, now it belongs to you. And though you may take her and make her your own, you’ll always be riding with Private Malone.”
I drive a Honda. Yet sometimes I feel as if I’m riding with Private Malone.
A few years back, errands took me down Bradley Boulevard past an estate sale swarming with shoppers. I kept driving, figuring I had enough stuff to wrangle without mining the artifacts of other people’s lives. But as I watched an ant trail of bargain hunters struggle under the weight of their trophies—carrying lamps, chairs, end tables to their cars—I pulled over.
Busy estate sales, it turns out, look a lot like crime scenes: closet doors cast open, drawers tossed. Touring this suburban house without its former occupants, I felt like an anthropologist studying my own tribe. Judging from the décor, the family that had lived there traveled far and lugged home tasteful art objects as souvenirs. They entertained. They owned a round dining table that seated 10—with no leaves, no apparent thought of the time when they would be just two and then one.
I bought a tribal basket, a hand-thrown ceramic vase, two sets of dinner napkins, three cream-colored candlesticks, a saddle-tan leather portfolio and a circa-1950s cotton shirtwaist dress.
It’s that dress that haunts me.
I pull it over my head, slide the side zipper and wonder about the stylish woman who kept it all those decades. What did it mean to her? Did she wear it on her first date with her husband? Or on a trip to Cairo, feeling as crisp and elegant as a Hitchcock blonde as she shopped copper trays in some crowded bazaar?
Recently, I telephoned the woman who ran that estate sale, Stephanie Rigaux, owner of DC Estates, to ask about the dress’s original owner. The estate-sale business is flourishing as boomers and The Greatest Generation downsize or die. So Rigaux was unsure which of her many estate sales I was asking about. I texted her photos of the dress. “You know,” she warned, “that dress might not have meant anything to her.”
Organizing estate sales has taught Rigaux—a former lawyer who lives in Kensington—a lot about people’s relationships with things. She has had people tell her to toss their deceased relative’s ashes into the trash. (She refused.) She has refereed a fistfight between used booksellers scrapping over a pile of old tomes in a Chevy Chase basement. She has counseled an elderly former doll collector overwhelmed by an attic full of dolls, including many she’d inherited from her mother and grandmother.
“Before I sold the dolls for her, I photographed them, printed out the pictures, tied them together with a ribbon and gave them to her,” Rigaux says. “She was like, ‘Oh, my God, this burden has been lifted. I realize all that I wanted was the memories.’ ”
The work reminds Rigaux that any family’s life together in a house is temporary. “You realize all this stuff doesn’t mean anything in the end,” she says. “The stuff people held onto could just end up scattered on the floor. It’s not what’s important. It’s not what lasts, which is the love and the memories. The stuff is just the stuff.”
Still, Rigaux rescued a tiny bird’s egg left behind in an old Chevy Chase bungalow. She found the egg wrapped in cotton wool inside a jar. The jar was in a cigar box with a note, dated 1923, from an 80-year-old woman to her infant great-great nephew. The elderly aunt said she found the egg on a Kansas prairie in 1887. She knew she wouldn’t live to see her great-great nephew grow, but hoped the egg would help him know a little something about her. “I hope you can keep it from getting broken as long as I have,” the note said.
When Rigaux found the egg, she gave it to one of her sons. He was 8 then; now he’s 15. She wonders if he’ll still want the egg after he leaves for college.
I’ve lived long enough to know that there are possessions that weigh you down and those that lift you up.
My siblings are welcome to duke it out over our grandmother’s sterling punch bowl. I have what I prize—her cake-frosting spatula. It couldn’t have cost 60 cents new. When I hold it, I remember my sixth birthday, when Grandmother made a peppermint cake. She topped it with a leftover Independence Day sparkler, which briefly set her kitchen table on fire and sent us children running, squealing with delight.
In that country song about the used Corvette, the new owner takes a curve too fast one night and is pulled from a fiery crash by a young soldier: the ghost of Private Malone. I know what it’s like to feel guided by a friendly spirit whenever company is coming for dinner and I’m running late in the kitchen. The doorbell rings and I’ve only just begun frosting the cake. No worries. I have my grandmother’s trusty spatula to swirl the bittersweet chocolate with the memories.
Recently, Rigaux remembered the backstory to my estate-sale dress. The original owner was a glamorous homemaker and diplomat’s wife. Preparing for the couple’s estate sale, Rigaux found a single garment bag of vintage clothes, including the dress, in the attic. A daughter told Rigaux that her mother wore these ensembles on a romantic cruise to Italy.
I make a vow to the neighbor I never knew. The next time I see Italy, my husband and I will walk along the Arno River holding hands. I will think of her and I will be wearing our dress.
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda. To comment on this column or suggest ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.