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A Life in a Box

Last time out, I wrote about the letters and messages I’ve left around for my kids for when I’ve moved on. Those letters represent a conscious decision on my part to communicate with various folks posthumously. Writing about them brought to mind something from my late teens and early twenties.

Back then, I had limited funds for entertainment and an inexpensive way to spend a Friday night was to go to the local auction house. If I recall correctly, you paid a couple of dollars to get a paddle to take part in any and all of the auctions that evening. If you wanted to simply watch, there was no charge and there were snacks and drinks available to purchase. Things started slow, with empty chairs outnumbering butts in seats early on, but as the evening progressed, the place filled up, with many folks lining the walls, not wanting to miss out on the excitement.

You can be forgiven if, upon reading the phrase auction house, images of elegant antique furniture and fine works of art with a documented provenance going back hundreds of years, popped into your head. Those types of things were sold, but the vast majority of them were offered directly, at fixed prices, and didn’t make an appearance at the Friday night extravaganzas.

Auction offerings were largely made up of mid-to-low end items - used recliners, chipped Formica dining tables, a piano missing some keys, but the thing that I and, I suspect, many others, went for was the opportunity to get a life in a box.

That isn’t what they were officially called, but that was what I always considered them. The left-behinds of someone’s life in one or more cardboard boxes, with bidding generally starting at one dollar. To work up the crowd’s enthusiasm, the auctioneer would pull an item out, hold it up to give at least a vague glimpse of it to those at the back edges of the room, make up a description on the fly if it wasn’t self-evident as to what the item was, then rattle off the names or descriptions of a couple of other things also tucked in that same box  - a lunchbox, a small glass vase, a poster, etc. They were supposed to be representative of what you would get, but it was always a crap shoot, with much of the contents being a mystery and not necessarily remotely similar to the announced items. You made your bid based on the one or two items and hoped for the best. At times, bidding got as high as ten or twenty dollars, depending on the suspected value of the box’s contents. More often than not, though, the selling price would not be much more than that starting buck bid.

And yes, I did indeed purchase a few at various times. Back then, it was a combination of hoping to find something to stretch my non-existent budget (a working toaster, fry pan, a book) and, no question, a bit of morbid curiosity about the obviously non-utilitarian things that someone thought important enough to keep right to the end. Tchotchkes, postcards, an occasional letter. You get the idea.

The stories those items might have told. About the life of the person who clung to them through thick and thin, their experiences, and the people that were part of their lives. Sad in a way, if you focused too much on a person’s entire existence being distilled into a handful of random pieces, shoved into a disposable box. I always hoped that the really important stuff never made its way to the Friday night auctions but had been gathered up by family and friends and, even if tucked away in their own boxes and attics after a time, helped keep the memory of the one that was gone alive.

It’s the sharing of stories of those who go before us that make up the most tangible intangibles at the end of our time.

When my mother moved on, there were many boxes of things to go through, although thankfully we had sorted through much of it together ahead of time. Granted, there were some things that even she couldn’t remember why she had, but for most of them, she had a story. Late 1800s photos that prompted her to start rattling off branches of the family I didn’t know existed. A decades-old letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that got her to admit that

admit that when I, just out of high school, announced I was moving to Meditante, a Nevada commune run by Rolling Thunder, a self-described medicine man, she had dug in to it to see if it was on the up and up (spoiler, it wasn’t, but I never made it there anyway). A card from a Greenwich Village coffeehouse circa 1950s/1960s that reminded her of seeing both Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in the Village during their formative years.

Some of what she had tucked away I kept, some I didn’t. But I have hung on to all the stories and memories she shared.

And yes, I have my own boxes (more than my ever-patient wife would prefer) which include items from my mother, some of which, in turn, came down to her through the generations. Will my left-behinds end up at a Friday night fire-sale auction? Damned if I know. But I will, and have already started, passing along memories and stories to my kids while I still can.

Because while the boxes might only be worth a buck, there is no price to be put on the history.


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Apr 22

I love this post, Mike! I love the idea, though sad, of someone's life being distilled into a box. And thank god your mother looked up the Rolling Thunder charlatan!

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