Last weekend we went to an estate sale of a former neighbor who is alive and well. I had previously thought estate sales were held after the owner of the household goods had deceased, that a surviving child or executor had to take over and liquidate what was left. I was happy to learn—actually realize—I had been making the wrong assumption about estate sales always following the death of the owner(s).

This former neighbor, JoAnne, is in her eighties. She has been a widow for several years. She downsized and moved from Austin last month to be near her daughter about twenty miles away in Georgetown, Texas, a fine little town with a great square and classic Texas courthouse. She’s a great lady, and I miss her.

JoAnne is tall, agile, quick-witted, highly intelligent, charming, interested in things, and always greeted my wife Ellen and me with a smile. She and her husband bought one of the first houses in our neighborhood in the early 1980s. Equipped with a masters degree in biological chemistry, she had been a biochemist earlier in her career–including work for the State Health Laboratory in Lansing, Michigan, and the company that makes Sucrets throat lozenges. Later she became a mother and a grandmother. She is also a woodcarver.

I wasn’t shopping for anything in particular at her estate sale. After looking over everything fairly well—some cooking utensils from early in their marriage, numerous pieces of furniture, some beautiful woodcarvings from their travels—I wound up in the garage, one of my favorite parts of a house. There among the garden tools and hand tools I found one item of particular interest, an old orange dish pan about one-third full of hundreds of miscellaneous pieces of hardware. Two pieces of masking tape formed an “X” over the dishpan, with a price of $5.00 written on the tape. This was the last day of the sale and I bought it at half price. I like a bargain.

Two days ago I cleared off an area of my workbench and began to sort my new purchase into my already established collection of miscellaneous hardware. But first I got rid of some pieces I knew I would not use: a couple of mis-matched metal casters with plastic wheels that came from some cart or chair, some brackets that had held up curtain rods, and other things that I did not recognize or saw no way to use. That old dishpan contained hundreds if not thousands of screws, bolts, nuts, washers, nails, and other miscellaneous items that may be good for something someday. You never know.

Here I was pondering which category they went in, such as which of three general sizes of wood screws to put each one in, or whether to put a washer into a larger or smaller category. I worked on all this a couple of hours. Still I had several hundred small pieces left that I’ll sort later. I poured them from the dishpan into a plastic food container, and washed the old orange dishpan with soap and water, scrubbing it with my car wash brush.  After the dishpan dried, I placed it on a shelf for later.

Before finishing this story, I called JoAnne to talk about it. I imagined that each of these pieces I was handling had been her husband’s, that his hands had held these same pieces as he pondered which ones he needed, or where to put them. But I was wrong. JoAnne was the fix-it person in their house. Her husband spent his spare time playing golf and, as she put it, “If something needed to be fixed, I had to fix it.”

Almost from the start of sorting my new acquisition of hardware, I imagined a future estate sale at our house. Would Ellen and I be alive and well like JoAnne and decide it’s time for us to downsize one last time before moving to a smaller place? Would I sort this hardware one last time, finally dumping the small pieces into that old orange dishpan, along with some odd brackets or short metal strips I’d saved, for our estate sale?

Or would my daughter Joy and son-in-law Luke be stuck with handling these things after my death? Would Ellen be alive to help them? Or would she be gone, too? If Joy and Luke get stuck with this, will they imagine my hands going over each piece as I decided where to put it way back when? Would Ellen’s sisters Bobbie and Star be around to help them? Or will all of them be gone elsewhere for better jobs, or in retirement, or for whatever reason?

No one knows the answers to these questions. But as I pondered them, they mostly amused me. Life cycles are natural things, and they vary greatly with individuals. It’s best that we don’t know the future. I don’t want to know the future, much as I might think about and plan for it. I can’t think of a single reason why I’d go to a fortune-teller, although some people apparently are comforted by their “fortune future.”

Judging from the hardware JoAnne amassed over much of a lifetime, I bet she was good with her hands. But, as I think about it, that’s not so true in my case. My fingers morph into thumbs on fine detail work.

That $2.50 purchase at JoAnne’s estate sale was such a good investment. In less than a week, I now view it as invaluable. And I’m glad to know she’s a handywoman. The next time she comes back to our neighborhood for a visit, maybe she can help me fix something I’ve been postponing.

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With much appreciation to JoAnne for reviewing and commenting on a draft of this story. She added this note in her comments: 

“I got my love of wood  and knowledge of how to make and repair things from my Dad.  The spool bed that I sleep in now had five coats of paint on it before he and I cleaned them off to the beautiful maple beneath and refinished it.  It has since been the teenage bed for me, my daughter, one teenage granddaughter and now myself, in my old age. Hope to see you and Ellen soon.  Jo”