Last July, in an attempt to spare us from the summer heat, my son and I took refuge inside an estate sale. The house was overrun with strangers, everyone ogling the goods left behind by the home’s previous owners. We, too, did our fair share of ogling, peering into rooms and closets in search of treasures left behind. Eventually, I found them: dozens of vintage postcards from around the world, none of them yet sullied by stamps.
Given my postcard-sending proclivities, this was a no-brainer. I nabbed the cards and headed toward the cashier on the front lawn. But while maneuvering through the living room, I found myself engaged with another estate sale worker. After a bit of chatter, I got to the question most of my fellow oglers likely had on their minds, too.
“So,” I whispered, “what’s the story here? What happened to these people?”
He paused—apparently I’d broken some unspoken rule of estate sale decorum—before breaking the decorum himself.
“Well, the elderly gentleman died,” he said, “and his wife, she’s moving into a home.”
And here we are, I thought miserably, rifling through the remnants of their lives.
A few days later I fed my newly purchased postcards through my Smith-Corona and sent them out into the world. There were ten total, each of which described how I’d acquired the cards at the estate sale (“Same sad story: a death and a retirement home”), while also encouraging the recipients to consider sending something back.
“Perhaps,” I hinted, “these might spur a cross country collaboration.”
People did send things back—beautifully written postcards, mostly—though one man, a poet friend in New Orleans, sent me a nondescript cardboard box, instead. Its contents were mostly a mystery: seeds, stones, rosemary stems, a bracelet, and family photos. Most of these items had been carefully stitched inside a series of tiny packets, each of which served to further enhance their already cryptic nature. But most cryptic of all was the scrap of paper accompanying these gifts.
“A note will soon follow,” it promised. “There are no instructions.”
Frankly, I could’ve used a few instructions. As I opened one packet after another, I was left with far more questions than answers. What is the significance of the stones? I wondered. And who are these people in the photographs? The writer in me tried to fill in the blanks as best I could, concocting a narrative that seemed at least to make a little sense. But ultimately, all I knew was that each of the objects held meaning to the sender—even if their meaning remained a mystery to me.
“I don’t want to explain anything away,” he wrote, “because I hope the mystery of the box, with its layers and odds and ends, became, as you sorted through it, the gift I intended. And if whatever your imagination, concerns, and desires come up with goes far afield from what I gave you—then that’s what I gave you.”
He’s empowering me to make up my own story, I realized, from the pieces of his own.
The poet’s note began by explaining his inclusion of the stones and the rosemary—the odds and ends that, for him, recreated an old childhood ritual.
“When I was a kid, I loved odd bits of trash…” he wrote. “I collected dried lizard carcasses, bones from who knows what, coins, keys, chipped baubles from old chandeliers…”
Though he couldn’t explain the meaning behind these objects, the action of preserving them seemed important. But as the poet made clear, there was no mistaking the meaning behind the other objects—the photographs and bracelet, in particular. These objects had belonged to his mother, and since she had recently passed (“I’m not sentimental about this,” he assured, “it’s what happens”) these objects now held even greater meaning than before.
“The photographs and the bracelet … are the only objects I’d like you to return,” he requested. “In a way, they mean nothing to me, and yet they are crucial to my understanding of who I am.”
As I hold the bracelet and photos in my hands, my mind returns once more to the postcards. Or rather, to the people who never sent them, those nameless folks whose home we invaded that summer afternoon. Much like the poet’s photos and bracelet, the postcards meant nothing to me, either. And yet, I, too, felt compelled to make meaning from them, to find some link between the objects and my life.
Of course, there is no link—nothing tangible, at least. After all, I’d never been to the places on those postcards, nor did their images spur any memories for me. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d passed the postcards’ previous owners at the grocery store, or waved to them while walking the dog.
Maybe, I liked to think, we connected in some other way.
This is the part of the story that previously felt too personal to share. How in the moments prior to finding the postcards, my son and I had done a bit of additional digging in those nameless peoples’ basement. And how for half an hour or so we flipped through their dust-encrusted books and records, each of which gave us a better sense of who those people were. And there, beyond those books and records—tucked away in the deepest cavern of that basement—sat another clue: a box overflowing with 16MM tins. They fit neatly alongside an ancient projector, each reel carefully labeled to note precisely which 1950s Christmas had been captured on that film.
Perhaps it goes without saying that I was compelled by the contents of those reels, and that a part of me wanted desperately to watch those frames flicker past as they whirred against that basement wall. But another part of me wanted no such role in that resurrection. Sure, I could fit the pieces together to form a narrative, but who’s to say it would be true? What would those reels reveal, after all, besides a family that likely loved each other?
Later, when I received the box from my poet friend, I’d ask myself similar questions related to the limits of an object’s worth: What good is a bracelet without a wrist? I’d wonder. A photo without a context? What does it all mean without meaning?
That afternoon at the estate sale, we snagged the postcards, but we left the reels alone. Let them rest, I thought as I took my son’s hand and started up their stairs. Go make your meaning elsewhere.