Penny For Your Thoughts?
I learned a valuable lesson from online auctions.
I flip through the online photos, each assigned a number and code. Lot 232: A gilded frame surrounds a print of a young child with a fuzzy-coated kitten, the paper water-stained and creased in the top right corner. Lot 312: A small intricate wooden box is stamped with the country name where it was purchased, likely on the waterfront lined with a smattering of tourist gift shops. There’s a set of coffee mugs with different state mottoes, old milk glass plates, and a hotel ashtray from somewhere in New York. An entire life exists in these lot numbers; a life reduced to a series of digits and codes, offered up to the highest bidder.
I close my eyes and rub the area between them. I can only look at the pictures for so long. The pressure is up which means the rain forecasted by the end of the week is on track, with scattered showers throughout the weekend. For me, it means I’m stuck in a dark room again. So, I distract myself by staring at the remnants of someone else’s life instead of staring inwardly at my own.
I’m back on the “waitlist,” as my mom calls it. I’m waiting for results from a new battery of tests. I’m waiting for the side effects of a new medication to pass and old medication withdrawal to ease. I’m waiting another week to see if anything indicates what our next move will be in the tiresome battle. While I wait, I try to stay focusedly-unfocused on anything else but my own misery.
I scroll through half a dozen more pages. I click the stars next to the items I want to watch, items on which I am unlikely to ever bid. The new sets of pots and pans go quickly, as do the patio dining sets, and outdoor tools. The souvenirs always go last, relegated to a Goodwill at best, a landfill at worst. I always wonder if the people who win these auctions, who collect their treasures with a 15 percent buyer’s premium tacked on, do they ever think about the life they just charged on their MasterCard?
Lot 436 pops up on the screen. I look at a couple of handfuls of old Polaroids and a few black and white stained photographs, all sitting in a tattered cigar box, their lot number prominently displayed in the background in bright pink. In a black and white candid, an older couple sits on a wrought iron glider, hands clasped together, smiles bright, and eyes squinting into the morning sun. A cracking Polaroid depicts a toddler riding upon a plastic-wheeled toy horse, bright curls glinting as the sun spreads its waves across the winter grass behind him. Prom dates exchange corsages and boutonnieres. A yellowed Christmas morning is awash in piles of foiled wrapping paper and cheap stick-on ribbons. There is a lifetime of memories starting at one dollar. A lifetime without a single bid.
I almost click the green bid button just to say “I care,” that someone cares about the life a stranger left behind. Didn’t someone love them? Didn’t someone grieve? Didn’t they have someone for whom to leave these things behind? It hurts my heart to see the vestiges of people’s existence abandoned in their end like a dilapidated house left empty and forgotten. The old man drinking coffee alone at the local diner, the woman at the nursing home whom no one visits, the graying dog chained to a tree in someone’s backyard. Where are their people? Where are their lives? What happened to the ones who were supposed to belong to this lonely box of Polaroids and tattered doilies and old milk jugs flashing by before me?
Leave it to me to make everything a story, my husband would say. I humanize the most lifeless things because I’m constantly aware of how deeply we are all interconnected. Just last week, my mother told me she threw away a handful of photos because no one living remembers any longer who or what they captured. The names I might recognize from days long past, she said, but the faces and places exist only in her memories now, and no one is left to remember with her. The sadness in her voice was palpable, even through the phone lines. I recognized it as I, myself, have a box of memories, printed on decades of photo papers of different types and textures. They belong only to me, now, too. Those faces and places don’t mean any more to anyone else than that cigar box in lot 436 means to strangers online.
“I’ll take them if you want, Mom,” I said, “But my kids won’t want your photos or mine when I’m gone, either. I know this because I asked.”
And I did. Years ago, when things looked very bleak, I re-wrote my will. I wrote down the history of the items I hoped they would keep and why they were important, a small reminder of our shared past for a time when I would no longer be here to tell them the stories. I asked them then, point-blank, “What will you want me to leave you when I’m gone?” Most of their answers I halfway expected while others surprised me.
My son wanted a no-value speckled ceramic frog. It was from the 1970s, even before I was born, and its smooth, shiny back was freckled with plaster nicks and scrapes. But that was what he requested from a house full of material possessions, so I wrote it down. My daughter wanted the tattered collection of quilts — those that were made for me, for my mother, by great-great-grandparents, those that she remembered via stories told and re-told in our family for generations. So, I wrote it down. A painting here, a tchotchke there. Then, it was printed and notarized to stand out amongst the recently acquired dog decor and teacup-shaped wall clocks that would likely one day go the way of Goodwill at best, a landfill at worse.
I put my phone down and look around me at the oak shelves still filled with knickknacks from our recent move. A mismatched china bowl. A Fostoria candy dish with a chipped inner edge. A pair of wooden bookends I bought at an antique store on Day 2 of my honeymoon. Maybe they’ll last far beyond me, an unexpected treasure left behind for those who shared a lifetime of memories with me. But the single stained teacups, the old pewter jewelry box with the bent leg, the yellowed linen tablecloths my mother first served on when she married my father half a century ago? They will likely go the way of the old Polaroids in lot 436, reduced to a series of digits and codes, offered up to the highest bidder.
I click “bid” on the lot and note the auction date in my calendar. Shouldn’t all our lifetimes be worth at least a dollar?