Garage sales can be very personal experiences. Oftentimes, in addition to goods being sold, there are stories to be told. And so it was, on a recent Saturday morning when I arrived at a home where all its contents were being offered at bargain prices.
I was examining some books that were on display in the driveway when a gracious hostess informed me that there were many more inside the house. I eagerly accepted her invitation. But when I entered the house, I sensed the melancholy emptiness that one feels when a place of residence is divested of its vitality and reduced to furniture bearing price tags and boxes begging to be taken away. It was a shell. I played a few notes on the old upright and imagined moments when music and gaiety may have filled the house. I tried to imagine what it might have been like when the house was a home.
A cursory examination of the books led me to believe (correctly, as I was later informed) that the former occupant, now 81 years of age and in a nursing home, was a Catholic nurse. She had struggled, as I was also told, with Alzheimer’s disease. When she suffered a stroke, it became necessary to place her in a nursing home. Her husband died mowing the lawn 23 years ago. There were no children. Life can be hard.
"She was a wonderful person," said her sole surviving relative, a first cousin. "I feel guilty," he added. "I feel as though we are stealing her things." The occasion, though a garage sale, had a funereal quality, a time for reflection and final evaluation. I tried to be consoling: "I don’t think she needs all these things where she is. Besides, she doesn’t have any room for them. You are giving something better to her than mere possessions can, your care. Personal care is now the most important gift you can give her."
Garage sales can also be providential. I purchased The World of Bruegel, thanked my hosts and went on my way. Pieter Bruegel (c 1525-1569) is one of the great artists of his century. The morality of the Medieval Period still had a strong hold on the minds and hearts of Bruegel and his Netherlands compatriots. Many of his artworks are based on Biblical parables.
I opened the back cover of the book and found his famous etching, "The Alchemist." This extraordinary work of art tells a moral tale in graphic realism. The alchemist is preoccupied with attempting, as did many alchemists of his time, the transmutation of base metals to gold or silver. He places his last coin in a melting pot. Meanwhile, his wife rummages in vain for a coin in an empty purse. Three children search for food in an empty larder. Off to the side sits a scholar who points to two words that are printed in a large tome. They represent one of the great puns in the history of art: Alghe Mist (an obvious play on "Alchemist"). Bruegel’s Flemish readers would have understood these words as signifying "All is Rubbish" as well as "All is Lost" (similar to the German, Alles Mist).
By an ingenious time-travel technique, Bruegel depicts, in the upper left-hand corner, the consequences of wasting one’s time as an alchemist while neglecting one’s family: the sad fate of the entire family going to the poorhouse.
Excessive concern for money, for possessions, is a vanity that comes at a terrible price. I thought once again of the garage sale and the wonderful lady who is now oblivious to material possessions and critically in need of human care. Bruegel’s etching is a negative reinforcement of the primacy of care and the vanity of an inordinate preoccupation with worldly things.
Without care, everything is lost. This, in a way, was the subplot of the garage sale and the theme of Pieter Bruegel’s "The Alchemist." One dutiful cousin ensured that care would prevent everything’s being lost. His octogenarian counterpart now resides in a safe place. He should not feel guilty. We come into the world and make our exit as paupers. What enriches our lives is the care we give and the care we receive. This is a lesson so universal that it is retold even at garage sales.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow of HLI America, an Initiative of Human Life International. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell. Some of his recent writings may be found at HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum.