Most of us find it difficult to grieve the passing of a loved one. When our parents die it can be especially difficult, leaving us with regrets, guilt and other unresolved feelings. We expect it. But what about their stuff? The tangible objects our parents have accumulated over a lifetime? What happens to all of it? Community Voices Producer Mark Babb visited with Everything But the House, an online estate auction company in Cincinnati, as they sorted through the possessions of a recently deceased couple, to try to find out what we leave behind and what it says about us.
Bob Fries lost his parents recently. They died ten days apart from each other. I spoke with Bob at his parents’ home in an affluent neighborhood in Cincinnati.
“My dad couldn’t take very good pictures I don’t think… a lot of out of focus stuff, but there are little gems everywhere,” Bob says.
The house has just been sold and its new owners want to take possession in a few weeks. The house is an impressive, if a bit weathered, colonial from the early 1900’s. The bushes are overgrown and a pool in the back is covered by a plastic tarp held down with bags of sand.
In the driveway I meet Brian Graves, co-owner of Everything But The House - the company that’s going to inventory, photograph and auction off the contents of the house. We come into the house through a garage, into a lower level family room. In it we find a cluttered mess of furniture and boxes. A large banker’s box lid full of prescription bottles sits on a TV tray next to a bookcase. I ask Brian to show me around. As he does, he sizes up potential for the auction, “You can see that this is a family that was here for a long period of time. I have period antiques from new England, 18th Century Chippendale six-drawer chests. At the same time I’m looking at bow-back Windsors. One room adjacent we have a circa-1860 Empire crotch-mahogany bookcase.”
Brian and his co-owner Jackie Denny started Everything But The House in 2007, and their business has grown steadily in the last five years. Brian tells me that most people are completely overwhelmed by the prospect of sorting through their relative’s stuff. They have to get rid of things but they still have attachments that make it hard to let go.
When the auction is ready, there’s often a day when potential bidders can walk through the house and inspect the items. Sometimes it’s best that the family’s not there.
“The family member sitting at the front door in a chair sizing up everybody that walks in is a difficult scenario for them and for everyone coming in interested in buying,” Brian says, “It can become very personal and very emotional.”
Brian believes in the auction process because he says you never know what significance people will place on a particular item. He tells me the story of a ladybug refrigerator magnet, “…plastic, faded, nothing that interesting. I even questioned why one of my crew leaders cataloged it on its own. At the end of the day, that ladybug magnet sold for 65 dollars,” Brian says, “The person that bought it had a similar one when they were a kid, they hung their homework on it. They wanted to be able to show their kids.”
From the kitchen we climb up a set of stairs to the attic. On the wall in the steep staircase there’s a large painted portrait of what was probably one of the couple’s grandchildren. A boy, maybe about ten, was pictured sitting casually on a front porch swing. The portrait wasn’t tagged to be kept by the heirs, which seemed sort of sad. I wonder what will become of it.
“Typically something like this, it’s a portrait, it’s a family member, it’s obviously dated 1982. Well accomplished, the person that did it did a great job, but of course it’s a very personal item,” Brian says.
“Is this going to hit the website?” I ask him.
“I’d say it will. It’s an original painting; someone put a heck of a lot of work into it. Let’s let the public decide.”
At the top of the stairs Brian turns on a light to reveal an enormous expanse of clutter: stacks of old National Geographic magazines, old electronics, old pennants, and dozens of open boxes of what looks to be junk.
“So, of course, this is the last thing you see when you’re on the appointment with the client,” Brian says.
I ask him why he thinks we buy and hang on to so much stuff.
“I think it’s a redirection of an interest and a passion,” he tell me, “its something to keep ourselves busy, and it’s not knowing when to stop. The hardest thing for us to do is walk into some of those situations where someone has spent their life’s fortune buying things that they don’t need.”
Brian says, “People are attached to objects. America is the accumulation nation. People have a hard time giving things up. It’s definitely the exception when you have that person who has no attachment to anything.”
Bob Fries seems like the exception. He’s downstairs thumbing through his father’s old blurry photographs. He’s not interested in keeping much of his parent’s stuff except a couple of small items like this one that belonged to his father.
“Yeah, like that little newspaper stand… silver newspaper stand. While you’re eating breakfast you put the newspaper in it and it stands up in front of you. That was part of the memory of his life, his childhood, even his father read off of that thing,” Bob says, “It’s got a little bent up now, it’s a little older than it used to be, but it’s just part of something I remember and I’m fond of it.”
Bob has a sense of ease about this transition in his life. As we talk he becomes more and more interesting. He starts asking me about my recording equipment and I learn that Bob has spent the last forty years working on TV, music, and film productions. He made a famous film called “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones,” in collaboration with the band. Before that, he spent five years in New York making Avant Guard films for John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
“At that point I was editing this huge amount of film, frame by frame by frame by frame,” Bob says, “Yoko would say ‘Do this,’ and then she’d go away. Anyway it was great. I lived at the hotel. We lived there for six months doing this stuff. The film was Imagine.”
As Bob told me the stories of his work and the people he’d gotten to know, the weight of the situation seemed to lift. It at least became clear that his parents had left behind more than old furniture and magazines.