Unpossessed Possessions

Feast of St Nestor the Martyr of Thessaloniki

Possessions.jpgMY SISTER, brother and I have gone through the process of sorting through our parents’ home preparing for an estate sale before selling the house. Our father died five years ago and our mother is now in a skilled nursing center.

After living in the same home for more than 60 years, my parents had accumulated many things, including furniture, dishes, clothing, documents, letters, and mementos.

We have learned several things during this process, which we began to think of as an adventure in the past and a lesson for the present.

As we worked through the closets and drawers and cabinets we would pause to examine what we found. My mother had saved many of the letters my father had sent her during his World War II service—after reading a few we decided they were too personal and private—and they reminded us that our parents were once young and in love. We read letters from our grandmother, reminding my mother to start preparing the springerle cookies and offering a hint of what to do if you don’t have any anise oil (create your own by steeping anise in hot oil), recounting arrivals and departures, errands and events. We found a letter my late brother-in-law wrote to everyone but my sister, telling about his adventures at college and reminding me to behave so I could grow up and be as wonderful as my mother and older sister (he was a charmer!).

These letters reminded us of a time before cheap long distance, texting, instant messaging, and skyping, when people sat down and wrote to each other, sometimes conveying sad news (one of my aunts wrote to report on her husband’s ill health and another about how her cancer had spread), offering consolation and sympathy, or just describing daily activities.

Our goals were to keep the personal items out of the sale and to select things we didn’t want to sell, but overall to make sure we had a successful estate sale since the funds would go to pay our mother’s skilled nursing facility bills. We boxed up many items, rented a storage locker, and interviewed estate sale professionals.

Then the estate sale workers sorted and priced the items, bringing in tables and rearranging the furniture for the flow of the sale. We checked on their progress in the evening when they were gone. During the sale we watched as people came out with plastic bags of their purchases. We watched to see if the furniture sold. When the sale was over, we saw how much was left and arranged to have it donated—after we went through it one more time.

What we discovered resonates with the great truths of the Christian faith, that this world is passing, it is not our true home; treasures are more evanescent than we think—even items we thought were so precious meant nothing. The sterling silverware, etched crystal, and French porcelain that we thought so essentially excellent because of their qualities of beauty and elegance are out of style today. People use paper plates and plastic ware, they said, so we didn’t get the price we thought these fineries deserved, and the china cabinet that held them did not sell.

We debated among the three of us what this meant—should we never own and enjoy nice things? Should we each go home and eliminate all the extras in our cabinets, closets, drawers, and bookshelves? (I know: books?) Must we embrace holy poverty?

Instead I suggested we must be poor in spirit, detached from these treasures and pleasures even as we enjoy their goodness. I do not want to be the poor fool who builds new storehouses for wealth and goods and thinks himself secure (Luke 12:16-21). In a way, we thought our parents’ possessions were a source of security, hoping for a great return in their investment, but we were proven wrong.

It was a humbling and necessary reminder.


Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers (and at Eighth Day Books). She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com

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