Early one fall morning, I got into my car for a Saturday grocery run, but a pickup truck blocked my driveway—just one of a dozen vehicles parked willy-nilly on my cul-de-sac. Oh, that’s right, I thought. This is garage-sale weekend.
Twice a year a local Huntington Beach real-estate agent organizes a neighborhood garage sale that attracts hundreds of bargain hunters. Most of my neighbors had taken advantage of the selling opportunity.
The shoppers dug through mountains of stuff like pirates searching for buried treasure. And truth be told, the hunt looked fun. Everyone seemed so determined, and, based on their smiles, so happy to be on the trail of the perfect thingy. If I were younger, I would have joined them. But my pirate days are over.
Forty years ago, as a cash-strapped newlywed, I inherited the privilege of hosting our family’s Thanksgiving dinner. My elderly aunt in Leisure World had abdicated this responsibility, passing it to me, but I was short on serving pieces. Long before plastic storage containers were deemed acceptable tableware, I desperately needed—or believed I did—a rectangular, three-way divided, crystal condiment dish.
Back then all good hostesses considered this piece a necessity. And after several weeks of foraging, I found a particularly promising yard sale. Sifting through the famous-clowns commemorative plates, the pig-shaped cookie jar that oinked when I raised the lid, and the pair of dog and fire hydrant salt-and-pepper shakers, I finally found the crystal dish. I took it home, and after cleaning it up, I gave it a place of honor in my china cabinet.
I’d bring it out every Thanksgiving, load it with the gourmet snacks of the ’70s: carrot sticks on one side, celery sticks on the other, and the obligatory pitted black olives in the center. I served black olives because my late mother always did, never mind that no adults ever ate the olives, because they knew that the kids had stuffed them onto their grubby digits to make finger puppets. Who was I to break with tradition?
That dish sat prominently on my holiday table for years. But as time passed, so did the elder generation of my family. Then, one by one, my siblings moved away, so instead of a houseful of guests, my Thanksgiving consisted of my husband and me. To paraphrase the great Dorothy Parker, the definition of eternity is two people and one turkey. With just us, I stopped setting out the big spread, so the condiment dish remained in the cabinet, a crystal wallflower.
After decades of disuse, that treasure became clutter, just one more thing to dust. I moved it to the back of a kitchen cabinet, behind the Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats, where I forgot about it. For something that I couldn’t live without at one point, it amazes me how easily it slipped my mind for years—until the garage sale.
I believe our lives have four distinct stages: childhood, youth, middle age, and old age. In shopping terms, that’s desired, acquired, enjoyed, and redeployed.
Childhood is the first and shortest stage, when our tastes are developed, often by watching Saturday morning commercials. This is where we dream about the stuff we desire.
In the second stage, we actually start buying stuff. Garage sales are where many of us first feel the thrill of the hunt. This also is the phase when we hear ourselves saying things such as, “Honey, wouldn’t this driftwood clock look perfect over the mantel?” and where we learn that what delights us might not delight others.
During that stage, I saw every garage sale as a shopportunity. But I only bought stuff that passed my I-didn’t-buy-it-and-now-I’m-kicking-myself test. (A friend still regrets walking away from a classic Shroud of Turin beach towel. He’d now be its proud owner if he’d asked himself my question: “Will I be sorry later if I don’t buy this?”) I’m frequently satisfied to simply hold an object, and after 10 minutes in my possession—10 minutes of owning it—I’ll put it back.
The third stage, middle age, begins after your treasures are brought home and proudly displayed. Over time you grow less and less pleased, until the day you hear yourself say, “I’m so tired of that old thing I could scream.” At this point you remove the treasure and store it out of sight, like I did with my condiment dish.
By the time we reach old age, our once-adored objects are just in the way. That’s when we take an honest look at our stuff and see it for what it really is: garage-sale fodder. The redeployment period signifies a rebirth and begins the cycle again.
I wandered across the street. One of my neighbors had six banquet tables piled with small doodads, while larger items such as well-used sofas, lightly used toilets, and never-used exercise machines became impractical lawn ornaments. Perusing the Big Mouth Billy Bass talking fish, the Clapper still in its original packaging, and a pair of green curly Pocket Hoses, I briefly wondered if maybe I’d found the “As Seen on TV” graveyard.
Though I saw mounds of plates, vases, candlesticks, canister sets, and refrigerator magnets (including two that read “It’s Cocktail Hour Somewhere in the World” and “Stressed Spelled Backward is Desserts”), I felt no thrill. That’s when I knew I had enough stuff.
Back home, I made myself a pot of coffee and carried a steaming cup out to my patio. Stretched out on a comfy garden chair, I looked up at the sky and watched the passing clouds. It was the perfect reminder of a lifelong lesson: Life’s true treasures have nothing to do with stuff.