The woman in line ahead of me asked the woman in line behind me a question: "Who owned this place?" I stepped aside so the answer could be conveyed: "A physician by the name of Emmett or Bennett or Barnett," came the response. The first woman exclaimed, "Oh! Well if it's Dr. Emmett, I'll be darned because he was my doctor!"
Inside the condo I saw that Dr. Emmett/Bennett/Barnett had a penchant for travel to exotic locales. He collected interesting artifacts from the South Seas, the Orient, Africa, and Australia. I grabbed a couple of inlaid mosaic tables that looked like they came from Morocco.
In the basement I saw a silver-plated bowl, very tarnished. Engraved on the side read the following inscription:
Dear Robert Emmett,
Dedication such as yours allows you to stand before kings.
This type of inscription is called "dedicatory". It is an old tradition where friends or colleagues exchanged mementos engraved with significant dates or sentiments. I don't know anyone who does this anymore.
Who was Carl? A grateful patient? A student? A partner?
I couldn't walk away from that bowl. Maybe because my father worked as a physician, I could not imagine allowing such a token of appreciation to be sold at an estate sale.
So I went in search of the woman who had been his patient. She was digging through a crate of athletic socks. "Look at this," I said, handing over the bowl. "Didn't you say you were his patient?" She stopped and looked at the bowl. "Yeah, he was a great doctor." "Do you want it?" I asked. "Nah," she said, "Kind of weird for me to have that, don't you think?" She returned to her digging. I wanted to say it was more weird for her to wash and wear Dr. Bennett's old socks.
I was a little upset. She should have honored him by taking that bowl home. Wouldn't he want her to have it, as opposed to me who has no connection to him at all?
But that is the morbid truth of estate sales. It is a very definitive ending. The contents of a person's life are spilled open for everyone to pick through. Who ironed their linens and who kept their knives sharpened and who dumped all their nails into one big jar without sorting them by size. These are the footnotes at the end of the story.
The bowl is now with me. At least temporarily, along with other engraved items like the wood bowls in these photos. I do not mind that the names on the silver plate are strange to me. Someone somewhere some time ago went to the trouble to express a sentiment in a very permanent way and just because the recipient is gone does not make that sentiment any less meaningful. I like to think of Dr. Emmett as he stands before kings for eternity.
If you enjoy estate sales, you might also like to learn a few tips and tricks: