The Bearable Lightness of Letting Go
22 Jun, 2012 - Rebecca Martin
Undeterred by the cold and rainy weather, they came. Car after car, every passenger door flung open, each woman leaping out to scan the tables, hawk-eyed, grasping the best pillow or wine glass or ceramic on the table, throwing cash at us while diving back into the car and speeding on to the next driveway full of hopeful clutter. It was madness. It was bizarre. It was actually quite admirable. It was a yard sale.
I’ve known before that people “did yard sales.” My husband is one of them. But this level of commitment to finding the best of one man’s junk was something I’d never conceived. These people were professionals. Who says the sale begins at 8 a.m.? The sixty-something retirees know otherwise. The first mad rush started at 7:15 and ended thirty minutes later.
The morning continued with the less-vulturous hopefuls at 9 a.m. The folks who saw the roadside signs and turned in to take a look. The neighbors who came by to say hello. At 10:00, a more relaxed post-farmers-market crowd arrived, those who valued the pillows on their beds more than the best pillow on the table. I envied them. There was a college grad visiting town who had left her jacket in D.C. and picked up a fifty cent sweater for the chilly weekend at her old alma mater. There was a last-minute rush of women who pored through what was left while big, fat raindrops started to fall. We stuffed the remainder in boxes while they filled their arms at a reduced price, gleefully shouting, “This is the twenty-five-cent yard sale!” If only they knew I would have given it all to them for free at that point, if they’d simply take it, just take it away.
I had dreaded this sale all week. At 7 o’clock the morning of, I had peered out the window to a foreboding Saturday sky and three tables skillfully set in the front yard: bakeware, picnic basket, kitchen timer, cheap china angel. Apple peeler. Microwave. Clothes. This is not how I wanted to clear out the clutter of a very lived-in home. If I had it my way, it would all be in the hatch of the Honda Fit. I’d drop it at Goodwill and be back in the driveway with a fresh cup of Starbucks joe thirty minutes later, lickety-split.
But as it turned out, I loved it. I loved the yard sale. I loved every last rain-soaked minute.
It was not least for the characters. There was the man looking for antique furniture, unwilling to hear “We don’t have any for sale” and insisting we must. Did he actually want us to produce our own furniture for him to buy? He also wanted to know about guns. “You got some?” We did not go into the legality of selling firearms at yard sales. There was the friendly mountain couple who loved our daughter and chatted happily with her, though I couldn’t understand a word they said. And the moody teenagers who made off with armloads of 50-cent shirts and skirts, looking back over their shoulders as if we’d change our minds and charge them with thievery. Most satisfying was the woman renovating a new kitchen who needed a microwave for a mere two months. My old college dinosaur of a heating device? The perfect solution. She got a deal, and we had one less thing to load onto a moving truck.
What is it that drives people to drive hither and yon, searching out treasure amidst piles of someone else’s history? What is it that is so mutually happy about finding a steal on one end, and ridding the house of unnecessities on the other? Whatever it is, there was something shared and joyous that morning. Maybe it just so happened that only particularly nice (or interesting or funny) people came by. Or maybe it was the sheer community of it. Whatever it was, interacting with these folks was downright fun, and I say that from the depths of my introverted being.
My mother recently came to help me pack up a closet full of forgotten belongings. We tossed and recycled more than we boxed up for our impending move. The purge felt thoroughly good. This is the other side to that part of me that loves the sentimental home item. I am no packrat. In the back of the closet, I came across college-era letters signed in names I don’t recall. I may appreciate the meaningful family heirloom, but if I can’t picture the face of the friend who wrote me that letter back in college? In the trash bag it goes. I feel ten times lighter.
Still, after carefully culling the clothes I wear most days out of the clothes I’ll never wear again, I found it difficult at the yard sale not to explain the provenance of every wardrobe item to the teenagers, as they made off in gleeful banditry. They did get good deals, if I do say so myself. But they did not need to hear about the dress I wore on a memorable Charlottesville date with my husband five years ago, or the skirt I bought when I first moved to Chapel Hill. They needed to possess their new-found treasures, unweighted by story, as slates blank enough to be written with the tales of their own days . . . or else pass them on to the nearest friend or yard sale or trash can if they didn’t fit, after all.
Meaningful as these things are to me, it felt good to let them go. It feels good to let go and be who I am at this moment, moving on, encumbered only by the weight of bearable memories – and those, too, grow less and lighter, over time. The things the memories are attached to may stay, or they may not. Some I want to stick around more than others. And at this moment, watching people walking away from our yard with our old electronics in their arms and smiles on their faces, I think, “Our belongings could all go up in smoke.” I’d still be me.
Cleaning out the closet with my mom, I came across diaries that, in their time, had been very full of who I was. But now I flipped their pages, and I barely recognized myself. Or, more accurately, I recognized that I am still the best and most important of those old elements of myself. But the worst can go, and some of the memories, too. The journals go with them. I move forward from here. I feel very light, indeed.
Mid-morning, a white-haired lady appeared, tiny and casual in her loose jean skirt and baggy white blouse, careful and deliberate in her browsing. I understood her mountain-talk no better than I had the couple who jabbered with my daughter, but she wasn’t there to chat, anyway. She thumbed through the last of the clothes, all the while coming back to a peach-colored skirt, an almost-sheer number embroidered with silvery beads. I thought, for a few moments, that this was a gift, for a granddaughter, for a great-niece, perhaps. I had bought it during an unairconditioned Asheville summer years ago, haunting the cool library and movie theater as much as possible, and sweltering on miserably-hot sidewalks in between. That paper-thin skirt was my salvation. At the yard sale, the elderly lady held it up to her own waist, and suddenly I saw the new life this skirt was about to have. It was a beautiful vision: a bunchy old slip hanging beneath the hem while she watered the potted plants on her tumble-down deck.
But perhaps that is far too much to say about what is, really, just a piece of cloth. It’s the woman who mattered. I was happy to let her take the skirt, and the teens the rest of the clothes, and leave the memories behind with me. Even some of those will fade. Some already have. Some I’ve deliberately tossed. In the purging of my things, I found a surprisingly big space in some corner – or perhaps the very center – of my soul where people themselves seem to fit quite well. Less of this stuff, and less, even, of me. I watched, with some trepidation and a lot of peace, as the old woman climbed carefully into her enormous sedan and drove slowly away.