The Dallas Morning News
WHAT’S LEFT BEHIND
Photography book documents the ordinary, odd, heartbreaking items at estate sales
There’s a compelling if morbid vanity in imagining your own funeral: the tears and tributes, the loving accolades, the fond anecdotes. There’s a reassurance that when it’s over, your life will have had meaning.
You do not ponder your estate sale. Why would you? A lifetime’s accumulated possessions reduced to stray crumbs; the brutal liquidation of your belongings to so much pocket change.
It’s the funeral’s negative image: impersonal, commercial, briskly unsentimental. We might want to think our family and friends will claim all our leftovers as treasured mementos, but few of us travel so lightly.
Norm Diamond has examined hundreds of lives through their postmortem possessions, the contents of attics and closets and bureau drawers ruthlessly turned out and assembled for quick sale. In his second career as an art photographer, he spent a year touring Dallas estate sales.
The result is a deeply affecting collection of photographs, What Is Left Behind — Stories From
Estate Sales, the title of his book, to be formally released in May.
The objects he captured are ordinary, odd, heartbreaking or sometimes a combination thereof. They represent an intimacy that Diamond consciously denied himself during a 30-odd-year career as an interventional radiologist at Baylor University Medical Center.
“When you are around very sick people day in and day out, your worldview is definitely darker,” Diamond said. After he retired in 2012, he said, the camera allowed
him to begin examining the emotions that doctors of his era were trained to shut out.
Every photo poses its own fill-inthe-blank story: Who was this person? What did this object mean to him or her? Why didn’t someone want to keep it?
We are awash in stuff. We derive comfort and security from our own belongings, but that comfort doesn’t readily transfer.
“Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff ” was the headline of a recent article on the public-media website Next Avenue.
“Many boomers and Gen X’ers charged with disposing of the family heirlooms, it seems, are unprepared for the reality and unwilling to face it,” wrote financial blogger Richard Eisenberg. “Nobody wants the prized possessions of your parents — not even you or your kids.”
I can relate. When my husband’s mother died in 2014, she left a threebedroom home in Oak Cliff that suddenly, to our eyes, seemed full to bursting with items we didn’t know what to do with: clothes and sheets and garden tools and costume jewelry and board games and bakeware and a collection of dozens (possibly hundreds) of Santa Claus figurines.
She had prized the latter. There were Waterford Santas, Limoges Santas, Santas from the dime store, Santas with and without reindeer and sleighs and bulging bags of toys. We all chose a Santa or two, and the rest were liquidated in an estate sale that would have broken our hearts to witness.
Some of Diamond’s photos capture similar collections: vinyl records, decades worth of old Playboy magazines, souvenir golf pencils, fishing flies. One shows a closet shelf piled two-deep with Western-style hats above a neat row of budget-minded men’s cologne bottles: “Stetsons and Old Spice.”
“I had a thousand patients who probably could have fit that bill,” he said.
Other photographs document the inevitable decline of age. A pair of crutches lies crossed on a bare mattress; a stiff plastic body brace with grimy Velcro tapes is going for $15. A narrow hospital bed, no longer needed by its former owner, seeks a budgetminded buyer who might need one now.
An ancient hand-hooked rug, with the anachronistic hippie legend “God bless our Pad,” hangs above a blue plastic bedside toilet.
If it seems to exasperated adults that their aging parents never throw anything away, they may be on to something. A 2016 story in the real estate section of The New York Times cited experts who say that as we grow older, what is euphemistically called “divestment” grows more difficult.
“It’s also a very emotional task,” David Ekerdt, a sociologist and gerontologist
at the University of Kansas, told the Times. “It’s hard to quantify the attachment one has to certain possessions.”
The likelihood that people will have an easy time relinquishing their accumulated possessions (stuff, junk), he added, steadily decreases after age 50.
It’s a complex challenge so widespread that a new profession has emerged: “Senior movers” who specialize in helping elderly clients downsize in anticipation of moving to smaller houses or retirement homes. On its website, the National Association of Senior Move Managers touts its “ability to successfully manage transition trauma ... through the downsizing and relocation process” that can be “overwhelming for the entire family.”
At an estate sale, of course, there’s a no-nonsense absence of such sensitivity. The previous owner is gone, probably dead, and the object is to liquidate What Is Left Behind as expeditiously as possible.
Sales involve their own unique rules of engagement: “No children,” “Cash only,” “You disturb the peace — we call the police.” It makes one marvel at the universal allure of a potential bargain.
Diamond estimates that during his year of investigation, he attended five to 10 estate sales every week. They ranged from carefully curated disposals of household valuables in the Park Cities to what sale agents term “diggers’ delights” — homes long abandoned or previously occupied by hoarders. Buyers are instructed to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes, and to bring their own flashlights.
Many sales, he said, struck him with the multilayered overtones of a Swedish movie.
“There were multiple things going on,” he said, with buyers ranging from sharp-eyed collectors to desperately poor shoppers looking for cut-rate deals on household goods like dishes or sheets. Some, he mused, seemed like curiosity seekers who just wanted a look at the exposed interior of someone else’s life.
“I love the humor and the irony of the things I saw,” Diamond said. “But it’s the poignancy that really affected me.”
After studying the book, the photograph I cannot get out of my head is titled “Dear Frank.”
Diamond found it in a pile of old correspondence next to a handwritten sign that read “Antique letters — $1 each.”
“A couple of them contained angry messages from an estranged wife to her husband, demanding money in one, and that he meet her at a train station with their children in another,” wrote Diamond in the book’s end notes.
This particular letter, written in a spiky turn-of-the-century hand by a woman in Colorado Springs to a man in Denver, is a century old, dated June 16, 1917.
Its desperation and pathos are timeless.
Dear Frank: Why didn’t you write to me as you promised. Don’t you like me any more and are your intentions still good? Please write and let me know Dear. No doubt you disrespect me now, after I went to that room with you, but I done it because I liked you. That isn’t all you wanted was it Frank?
Did Frank write back? Were his intentions good, or was what happened in that room all, in fact, he wanted?
I keep weaving elaborate scenarios, in which the young woman met the charming Frank while visiting friends or vacationing at a summer camp. Frank — handsome, earnest, persuasive — professed his love, maybe held out a vague future in which they would be married.
So she went with him to that room. And later, back at home, she fought a rising panic as the days passed with no letter, no word at all from Frank.
She would not, in 1917, have known the expression. But from Frank, there was nothing but radio silence.
Still, Diamond found happy memories as well, evidence of family life and the accumulating contentment of passing time: wedding pictures, birth announcements, a present commemorating a silver anniversary.
A box of old home movies document family milestones: “California vacation 1959,” “Xmas party at Fannies,” “When we drained the Pool.”
And there are toys, once owned by children now grown old: G.I. Joe, an ancient electric train track mounted on plywood embellished by crude drawings of houses and trees. The latter, Diamond says, is “the only item I regretted not buying” — it wouldn’t fit in his car.
I like to think there will be eager new owners for my overflowing houseful of possessions — books, vintage dishes, Mexican folk art, houseplants, old postcards. More likely, my cherished nieces will ask the same maddening question as all those other survivors: “Why did Aunt Jay keep all this stuff ?”
At the very least, maybe the stuff will have a story to tell.
But trying to tease out the stories behind these strangers’ objects is probably a futile exercise: one-third archaeology and two-thirds fantasy. Diamond’s photographs carry an emotion that transcends explanation.
The conclusion is inescapable: We are, at least in part, what we own.
We yearn to leave legacies and memories. But in hard, impersonal terms, this is what we really leave. Just all that stuff.