Grief: Uh oh, another estate sale

  • This 70-year-old kitty was recently purchased at an estate sale.

    This 70-year-old kitty was recently purchased at an estate sale. Courtesy of Susan Anderson-Khleif

Posted11/16/2019 7:00 AM

I had "sworn off" estate sales -- because I always find and buy items I like and can use, but do not really need. So much for that resolution because I went to one this last weekend with my friend Mary.

An interesting aspect of going to an estate sale is the house itself -- little, big, historical and unusual houses are all interesting to me, and it's also interesting to see how people lived and what they collected over the years.


Once I went to a house, not far away, that was the home of a Chicago publisher where he and his wife hosted many famous authors over the years. It is a big rambling house on a side road, very un-showy and out of the way. It's off a route I often take to get around the area, yet I had never thought of turning down there. The widow had died and they were just selling everything. I got a darling little yellow ceramic kitty her son told me was a gift to him as a child 70 years ago.

Another house was a sweet 1930s bungalow, right in one of those old neighborhoods in West Dundee. The elderly couple was moving to Florida. It was a slice of local history. Cute and perfectly preserved, with very small rooms by today's standards. This house was filled with beautiful old wooden furniture.

Another time I went to an estate sale near me where a couple raised six children in a four-bedroom, 1960s-style home. I found some items I still use today. On their dining room table was a whole set of eight clear glass dishes. I wanted the small bowls and small plates.

Turns out the sale was being run by the eldest daughter, now elderly herself, and a couple other siblings. As I went to pay, I said to the woman helping me, "I need these for my cats." (Oops, wrong thing to say.) She just smiled and said, "Don't mention that to Janice," pointing to the woman who was collecting the money near the door. I just said, "My lips are sealed." I looked around some more and found several other pretty kitchen items to buy.

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Later the nice woman, who had helped me with the glass dishes, helped carry my purchases to my car. And on the way, I said to her, "This is one of the most heart-wrenching sales I've ever attended." She said, "Why?" I said, "Because they clearly lived here many, many years." So she told me the story -- she was another of the daughters, had been raised her whole life in that house, one of the six children. It was the first house built in the neighborhood. The glass dishes were used for breakfast every morning. She described how the neighborhood was once very rural, the house surrounded by a forest, a happy place to grow up.

For this recent sale, the house was in a beautiful, wooded neighborhood on a very big property. The huge house was clearly built in the 1970s, easily to tell from the inside decor. Shag carpet was everywhere -- red in the sunken living room, and blue shag, beignets or green in other rooms. It was a lovely time warp, frozen in time. The story is that the wife had died young and the widower raised three young children on his own in this house. He clearly kept everything just the same. But he had recently died himself, so belongings no longer wanted were being sold.

I got a huge collection of never-used cloth dinner table napkins at an incredible bargain. And I got a nice old set of carving knives in their own original wooden storage box. Quite an experience. I'm glad we went.

So the house itself is often the draw for me. And these sales have taken me into nearby neighborhoods I didn't even know existed.

I'm a collector and I can often find little objects to add to my collections -- cat figurines, folk art roosters, cookbooks, various holiday decorations, even gifts. I have a rule to myself -- do not buy anything unless I have a use for it and a place for it. One can only absorb so many objects!


So the point is: Going to estate sales is another way to stay part of everyday life in the community, and even learn more about your own area. For me, this is very helpful in managing long-term grief. It's a fascinating and engaging activity.

Estate sales are a type of a hobby. And hobbies help us stay curious, cheer us, allow us to enjoy the day and not be so sad. It's true that many estate sales are held because someone has passed away and the family, after taking what they wish, is selling the rest of the contents of the house. But it is also a way to help by giving a new home to someone's pretty possessions. And I didn't use those glass bowls and plates for my kitties; I use them for myself.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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