Some friends of mine just love garage sales. They get up early on weekends to get to the sales before the "professionals" snatch up all the really good buys. Then they take a weekend off every once in a while to hold their own garage sale, at which they sell all the stuff that they’ve bought. It’s a game that you win by making more money selling than what you paid.
There’s no personal attachment to the things they buy or sell. And somehow that’s beyond my comprehension. Well, no. I understand. I just don’t think that way. When I buy something, at a garage sale or in a store, I invest something of myself in it. It’s not necessarily about money. Whatever I buy, I want it to fill a hole in my picture.
My family recently held a garage sale because we (that is, several households) were running out of space. For example, I owned two old oscilloscopes. One I bought in 1978, wanting to analyze audio signals. The other one was given to me by a retired physics teacher whose associates gave it to him when he hung up his lab coat. It was well used even then, and by the time I got it the trace on the screen was so faint you had to turn the lights out to see it. I never used it. I put it out at our garage sale last year, but nobody took the bait. This time, both instruments were sold to someone who knew nothing about oscilloscopes but heard that you could analyze audio signals with them. The price was ten dollars for both.
I had built the older scope from a kit, so I did have a kind of investment in it. I used it for a time, then went on to other interests. For years I thought I’d tune it up sometime to a useful condition. But I never did. By now, it was just a piece of electronic apparatus.
Not so with a reel-to-reel tape deck I sold on the same day. That had been one of my favorite toys thirty years ago. (People who call such things "toys" in that derisive tone have never felt anything for tools or machines or gadgets. They may have watched little boys running toy cars and trucks around on the floor and smiled at the fantasies they imagined were going through the boys’ minds. They couldn’t know the creative work that was going on, nor the emotional rush that developed—a rush that in twenty or thirty years would grow into a passion to make happen all the technology that people today take for granted.) Anyway, this particular tape deck allowed me to record and edit sound tracks for motion pictures, my grown-up passion of those days. It was difficult to let it go. I had spent a lot of money for it, money that I couldn’t really afford at the time, and now it was worth only about the price of a lunch. Even though the door to that particular dream had been closed for a long time, selling the instrument felt like a loss that was not monetary.
Some years ago, as we were packing for a move, my wife suggested I throw out my log book and section maps from when I took flying lessons a decade before. She couldn’t understand how much of me was invested in those documents. Another dream, of learning to fly, that was put on hold for a few years then stuffed into a dark cellar of my mind, ignored but never dead.
As our garage sale dragged on and the flow of customers thinned, I dug around in some boxes in the garage. A large carton at the bottom of a stack in the corner had not been opened in eleven years. It contained a set of chemistry lab beakers, a couple of glass funnels, photographic trays and tanks, and a slide copy stand I had built. Although rather crude in appearance, the stand had been designed for precision work. Memories of those days came back in a rush. All the hours of study and experimentation intended only for personal satisfaction never resulted in anything tangible that others might appreciate. But they were important parts of my life. I closed up the box. Nothing in it was for sale. I might find the stand useful in the future, I told myself.
I don’t mind being called a pack rat. I do collect things that seem to have potential value, such as those round tins that Dutch butter cookies come in. But I can let go of those. I can even let go of old books that date back to other stages in my life, periods that I have passed through and mostly forgotten: Walter Lippman, Aldous Huxley, Frederick Perls—heroes of my younger days. But the relics of who I was, even earlier than that, I find myself clutching at, as though without them I am diminished.
I decide that it’s a useful distinction when I am forced to consider what to throw away (and a garage sale is largely throwing things away and being grateful for the pennies other people are willing to pay for them). Just because something has potential value is not enough reason to hang on to it, when the dwindling of storage space demands a decision. I once packed everything I valued (at the moment) into a Volkswagen bus and started out on what I thought was a new life. I found out soon enough that I was still tied to many things—and people—from my old life.
I remember sitting, as a child, at the dining table in my grandmother’s house, looking with her through box after box of old photographs. Her past was in those little black and white pictures. The meaning of her life was contained in images of people and relationships, and the memories that they brought back to her. For me it was interesting to see how people I knew had changed, and how clothing and streets and houses had been transformed. I was stunned by a large portrait of my grandmother herself when she graduated from normal school. This heavy, wrinkled old woman that I knew, had once been slim and lovely, before her long blond hair had turned white and been twisted into a practical knot at the back of her head, before she had given birth to children and they to grandchildren, like me. My life at the time measured out into a decade, at most. Hers seemed to me to span eternity. Why would anyone hold onto old memories, when the rest of the world had left those years so irretrievably behind? Her stories were interesting to me even though they were not mine. The times when she arose at 4 AM to bake bread because by seven the gas pressure would go down too far to keep the oven hot. The old steam "donkey," as she called it, the streetcar that connected important intersections in the suburbs before public transit became ubiquitous and then obsolete. Her sons who strapped pads to their knees to polish the brand-new floors in their first new home, the very home we sat in forty years later. Her last home.
Perhaps it’s the moving around all my life that has made me cling to things. My grandmother and her home were inseparable. She had everything around her that had been important to her during her life, up until she died. Except her children, who moved away, and her friends, who eventually died along with those who preceded her. The world, unseen in that soft portrait of her as a young beauty, was lost just as it is now, day by day. Photographs were her links to her own life, reminders of days full of hope and dreams, and I suppose she thought that showing them to me would keep them alive beyond her.
There is only now, they say. This moment is the only reality. Yes, of course. This is the single point at which I can make a choice. But it does not come alone. Memories are what give meaning to life, especially if the present is difficult and the future is a dim and uncertain fog. A choice that I make in this moment is flavored by scents from the past. The value of this thing I hold in my hand is not what it seems to someone else, no matter how well they think they know me.
Still, they are right. That couple who just came into our yard and now picks through our past, they are not here to buy memories. This is now, and they need a new bowl to replace a broken one for their blender, or a cheap telephone to put into the bedroom so they won’t have to jump out of bed to answer it. That old movie projector that brings back memories for me is just a tool for entertaining their children with cartoons that they’ve saved from their own youth. To buy someone else’s castoffs is to satisfy some little need or some faint urge—feelings of this moment.
I’m not sure just yet whether unloading all these relics makes the memories less or more vivid to me. There are, for certain, some memories that seem poignantly unfinished. It’s better to let them go. There is not time anymore for dreams. I need to learn to keep the memories of Christmases past, with their sweet smells and bright laughter, and forget the yearnings that never fully bloomed.
This old belt that I used to like to wear because it made me feel slightly rakish, it doesn’t fit me anymore. Ten cents. If it doesn’t sell, give it to Goodwill.
Donald Skiff, October 6, 2003