Estate Sale

The writer had grown accustomed to seeing her neighbor's porch light on. — Illustration by J. Ann Eldridge

I run through the tall grass to Cary’s house next door to get a number from the auctioneer. The path has not been used in a while. By the time I get to her kitchen door, dew soaks the cuffs of my jeans.  The lilac against the house has hardly any flowers. No one has tended it since Cary died three years ago at ninety-five. In two weeks her house will be sold.

Bare feet from the same two families have worn down the grass path connecting her house and mine for seventy-five years. Four generations have shared days that began with a morning swim and ended with a communal dinner under star-filled skies.

The connection began during the Depression. In 1937 my in-laws, Whit and Mary Griswold, bought the house we now live in. They were looking for a quiet summer retreat and found it here overlooking James Pond in West Tisbury. Cary and her husband, Bob Luckey, purchased the land next door a year later. There was no house on it, so they bought an old Cape from the Hough family up in Indian Hill, and had it flaked and moved by truck to Lambert’s Cove.

Eventually these two summer houses became year-round homes, and the path was used during the off-season too. Cary moved back to her house full time after the death of her second husband and lived alone with her dog, Tiga Pie. We moved into the family home for a year’s experiment of living on the Island full-time and never left.

Cary and I would meet often for a sandwich or an evening drink. We’d toast the winter quiet and look forward to the raucous summers when her son and his family arrived from New Haven. Before going to bed each night I’d look out our bathroom window to make sure Cary’s front door light was lit.

By 8:45 a.m., the field next door is full of cars. A line of people waits on Cary’s back porch. Many seem to be estate sale regulars. They’ve arrived with shopping bags and warm cups of coffee, and they greet one another casually. The familiar screech of the aluminum storm door announces the sale has begun and the first twenty of us are ushered in through the living room door. It feels odd walking into Cary’s living room with a group of strangers. The sight of her faded pink couch is comforting, but it has been moved to a new position and there is a price tag on it.

It is important to me to be here, but I have no idea what I am looking for. Maybe it is just to stand in these rooms one last time. Knickknacks crowd tables and most things look worn. People come in quickly and choose things in a hurry. I pick up an Indian basket, an old kerosene lamp, and a faded hooked rug mainly because I don’t know what to do with my hands.

I go into each room. The quilt on the upstairs bed is one of ours. Carried over one night for a sleepover, it remained. In the guesthouse is a pile of DVDs, and several belong to my daughter. There is more than one book with my name on the inside cover — summer trades. Overwhelmed by memories, I step into the yard and there are our old Labs lying under the lilac as they often used to do.

I carry the basket, lamp and rug along the path to home feeling empty-handed. I show them to my husband and he decides to have one last look, too. Twenty minutes later, he walks back across our yard carrying the chair Cary sat in at her kitchen table and seven cheap champagne glasses. When I put them in the dishwasher that evening I remember that I’d bought the glasses years ago as a birthday present for Cary’s daughter-in-law Ettie, a dear friend. There were eight then. Finally I’m laughing. Do I really imagine an object can contain those precious years of living side by side? They have vanished like the eighth glass. I can’t wait to call Ettie and tell her the story.

A few weeks later an orange-yellow half moon is setting over James Pond as I walk in to Cary’s yard. The grass is uncut and the peonies have not been picked. I peek in the window and see the house is utterly empty. No one is here but the three deer I startle, grazing by the pond shore, and a skunk rooting right where the new owners plan to put in a pool. No one will know if I sit here on the deck and watch the moon, but this house belongs to someone new now, and I’m trespassing. I turn on the unclipped path and head back home. Before going to bed, I catch myself looking out the bathroom window for the front door light next door. For now, it remains off.

Home Bird, Four Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard, with essays by Laura Wainwright and illustrations by J. Ann Eldridge, was published by Vineyard Stories in 2012. It is available at Bunch of Grapes, Cronig’s, Alleys, and other Vineyard locations.