The estate sale started at eight a.m. on a Saturday morning. Things had been pulled out of the house and arranged on tables. People from all over the neighborhood came to see what was there, the things from the house that no one visited. There were other people, too, just for the sale. But those of us that lived near the old couple were curious what might have been inside. I was probably the only child in the neighborhood who had visited their home.
Mrs. V. was confined to a wheelchair. If the adults in the neighborhood knew why, the kids most certainly did not. The most that we knew is that she was sometimes on her porch sitting with her husband, but even that was a mystery because they had an awning, shrubs, and shades arranged to keep the sun off of the porch. At most we would catch a glimpse of them sitting there late in the afternoon, or early in the evening.
The most interaction we had was when Mr. V. had their dog, a chihuahua that barked incessantly at any movement, outside, walking in circles around the yard until he did his business. Occasionally, Mrs. V. would call out a greeting to me as I went past. What I saw of her was an older woman with white hair sitting in a wheelchair. She wore glasses and a dress. She smiled as she waved.
We lived in a suburb of Cleveland. Our neighborhood was older and had been built up shortly after World War II. The homes were small and packed in fairly close. The lawns were neat and tidy. Some yards were strictly off limits because of the angry people that lived there. Mr. V. was not angry, as far as we knew. He and his wife were just old and quiet.
I was invited into their home once, by Mr. V., who told me that Mrs. V. wanted to give me something. She was in her wheelchair in their front room. The room itself was impeccably neat and clean. The furniture was nice. That was a thing in all of those small homes: there was a room full of nice things. Mrs. V. smiled at me, and beckoned me to come closer. Their little dog sat in her lap, and, for the first time, I was able to pet that annoying little dog.
She handed me a small toy. It was a windup seal that clapped it’s fins together and made a noise. It was made of metal of some kind, and was painted. The seal sat upon a round platform, like at the circus. It was very nice, but was not my sort of thing to play with in 1972. I thanked her and left. Unfortunately, I lost that toy at some point. It’s possible my older brothers messed with it, and it’s possible I was a typical stupid kid that couldn’t keep track of things; regardless, it was lost, and I wish I had it now.
Mrs. V. died. I don’t know when, exactly. I did not understand, at that point, what death was. No family members had ever died during my short life. She was just gone, and no one said hello or waved to us from their porch when we walked past.
For the next year, Mr. V. kept up the yard, and walked the dog around in circles to do his business. Even I recognized it was a quiet existence. One morning, there was an ambulance and a police cruiser in the driveway. The rumor spread through the neighborhood that Mr. V. had shot himself. His dog had died a few weeks earlier, and he couldn’t go on alone.
The items in the estate sale were a snapshot of the century up to that point. He had served in World War I, and had a German Wermacht helmet with the spike on top. He had washboards and kitchen implements from the early 1900s. He had signs, posters, and calendars from the 1950s.
What interested me most was the collection of military surplus from World War II. He had diffused grenades, 80 mm shells, and ammo clips for an M-1 rifle. Nothing would still explode, but I thought it was the coolest stuff in the world regardless. He had belts, canteens, ammunition boxes, bayonets, and swords. It was a true warriors collection, but he was old enough to have been in the Great War; was he also in the Second World War?
I begged my father to buy me some of those mementos, which he did. We were outbid on the helmet, but we got several lots of diffused munitions. My mother focused on kitchen utensils, most of which were older but in like-new condition.
Unfortunately, so much of our lives come down to a collection of things. There were things that belonged to Mr. V., and things that belonged to Mrs. V. If you knew all the details surrounding the things, or at least how the person related to them, you might be able to piece together their life story. Lacking that detail, the things almost immediately begin telling their own stories.
The one thing that had an emotional attachment was the mechanical seal Mrs. V. gave me as a gift. I squandered that connection when I lost the toy, and I’m only clinging to the memory. I don’t have the thing to cement those feelings. I still have some of the ammo clips in my collection of things from childhood. I played with the cartridges and shells, marveling at them, and wondering about their secrets. How many men had Mr. V. killed in his wars? What was he thinking when at last he was free, and how lonely was he that he had to end his own life?
At some point in the future, perhaps someone will purchase some of my things at an auction. Will they know the history, and how it came to be in my possession, or will they immediately invent their own story, and begin a new history as they add the silly item from the previous century to their own collection?