Yesterday’s post by Suzanne Enoch about her collection made me to think about what I do when I’m not writing. Other than reading research books, my favorite thing to do is attend estate sales. Because this is Florida, most estate sales are living estate sales — the owners of the property are usually moving in with one of their children or into an assisted living center, and so they’re in the process of combining households or thinning out their possessions. Because of this, many of the sales consist of decorative items and collectibles.
I’ve purchased some very cool things at estate sales. A bracelet made entirely of coins from 1942, a number of Victorian and Edwardian era compacts, a set of brass opera glasses, a Turkish brazier, marble table lamps, antique scones, and even a mysterious large steamer trunk that took me about two days to break into. (FYI: The trunk hadn’t been opened since 1935 and held a huge amount of antique lace, some of it from Paris, and an old silk parasol with an ivory and wood handle that was evaluated as originating from early to mid-1800. A true treasure!)
But as cool as these things are, I don’t go to estate sales for the items. I could get those from any antique shop in the city. No, I go to estate sales for the stories I find.
For instance, in one house, hanging in the front hallway was a WWII aviator’s suit looking just like the ones you see in the movies, made of leather and lined with creamy fleece. I’d seen one of these in person, but it was in a museum and no one seemed to know who it belonged to. And I couldn’t see it up close, either, as they always display things far away, and often from behind a glass wall.But at that estate sale, I got to look at that uniform, touch it, and even read letters written by the man who’d worn it. Here’s a picture I took of it – yes, that’s allowed, too. I know that the pilot flew some very dangerous missions because there were pictures of him wearing a dress uniform with half of it covered with medals and ribbons. But flying wasn’t just what he did for the war; it also defined him afterward. When the war was over, he joined a flying club, and some of the members were men he’d flown with in combat. Friendships that lasted the years. Pictures always show the planned smiles of a group. As I looked at those photos, I wondered what the pictures didn’t show. Were there rivalries? Secrets? Shared wounds?
No uniform hanging behind a glass wall ever made me wonder about the man who’d worn it.
One sale I went to was a foreclosure. According to the woman running the sale, the owners had gotten wealthy very quickly over a three year span. They’d poured money into the house and, one year after it was built, they lost all of their money, and the house, too. It was a huge, overly ornate castle-looking house covered with dark stone masonry and decorated with a turret and horrible gargoyles. It looked more like a movie set than a real house. A corny and predictable movie set, at that.The inside was stuffed with expensive oddities like two huge two thousand pound black iron chandeliers flown in from Spain and a red marble wine holder that was too big for any kitchen or den I’ve ever seen. The walls were painted every color of the rainbow, too – peach and tropical green, sky blue and burnt orange. It looked like a sunset had exploded indoors. But those walls ran down to touch the edge of large four hundred year old tiles taken from a castle in France, shipped all of the way to Florida for this one house.
The woman running the sale told me that each tile had cost the owner over $2,500, and there were hundreds of them lining the floors. As I walked through the house, I tried to imagine the newly wealthy owners cooing over the details of their expensive decorations and colorful walls. How would it feel to be suddenly wealthy beyond one’s wildest dreams? How giddy would I be if that happened to me? Would I also ask for an ornate castle with Spanish chandeliers and French tiles? A two-story library with a mural on the ceiling? A marble pool with statues pouring water into a hot tub?
Where does one stop asking for more when there’s no limit? And how does one go back to living in normal-man-land after the breathless thrill of owning it all?Another house I visited was that of a Jewish rabbi and his wife. They’d grown frail and were moving in with their son. I found out that the rabbi’s wife was one of the first princess character actresses at Disney World. Half of the house was covered in Jewish artifacts and antiquities, while the other half was filled with every Disney collectible imaginable. Did she hum, “Whistle while you work?” while he worked on his scripture lesson for the next day? Did he think it was adorable that she wore her Snow White costume for children’s parties? I know she did that because of pictures I saw.
Walking through that house, I had the distinct impression that they were a joyous couple, and that those walls had rung with laughter. The rabbi and the Disney princess. Tell me that’s not a story.
Have you ever been in a house or seen an artifact that ‘told’ a story? Have you ever visited an historic sight or someone’s home and discovered something about them from their decorations? What story do you think your decorations and collections tell?