a peek inside the fishbowl

17 Apr, 2018

The stories of our stuff

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

We did something a little different this past weekend. Mark and I went to an estate sale down the street from us.

I have walked past this place a million times but I never knew the owner. All I really knew about the occupant was that it was an older gentleman who was fastidious about his yard and driveway. When we saw him he was almost always using a leaf blower to clean the dust off his driveway or snow off his car. He wasn’t close enough to our house to be considered a neighbour, but if I loosen my definition of “neighbour” a bit, I have to admit he was one and that I should have gotten to know him.

When we saw the for sale sign pop up we realized we hadn’t seen him around for a while. The cars were still parked beside his house but the driveway wasn’t cleared, which was unusual.

I wasn’t sure happened to William, known as Bill to his friends, but I overheard someone at the estate sale mention downsizing. Well, I decided to look it up, and this is what I found:

Larwill, William “Bill”
Dec. 16, 1927 – Jan. 26, 2015

Passed quietly at the Civic Hospital on Monday, January 26, 2015, moving on to join his wife Rejeanne who passed January 29, 2009. He will be remembered by his four children Ernie, Jim, Anita and Allan as well as his three grandsons and partners Kent, Alastair (Georgia), Mackenzie (Lyndsay) including his 2 great-grandchildren Carmyn-Rejeanne and Ronan. Special thanks to his longtime friend Dr. Barrett Adams for being there at the end. Friends may call at the Westboro Chapel of Tubman Funeral Homes, 403 Richmond Rd. (at Roosevelt) on Sunday, February 1, 2015 from 2 to 5 p.m. Interment Beechwood Cemetery.

William passed away in 2015, but someone had definitely been living there, albeit quietly.

For this post I decided to flip through the house history that we commissioned Dave Allston, a local historian, to compile for us awhile back. (I wrote about it here, if you’re curious.) I was fairly certain that I’d read something about the house at some point. I had! According to Dave’s research, the home was built in 1915 by Ernest G. Larwill, a 38-year-old carpenter and farm machinery dealer. This would have been William’s father. I can only presume that William lived there his entire life and that until very recently, at least one of his children did too. Whoever it was, they barely changed a thing inside. In fact, stepping into the home on that windy Saturday morning was not unlike stepping into a time machine.

This was the crowd that was waiting to get in the estate sale when we arrived a few minutes before the appointed time:

The Estate Sale: just before doors opened at 8 a.m.

The sale was surprisingly well-organized. The estate sale staffers handed out numbered tickets and at 8 a.m., let the first 35 people in. As people left, more people were allowed inside.

This is what caught my eye as we waited for our turn. I was tempted to buy one of these vintage bikes, but in the end I decided it would cost too much to fix it up:

The Estate Sale: Vintage bikes

We found out that William had had a business repairing lawn mowers and other small engines. This explained the dozens of mowers of various shapes and sizes in the shed and wheeled out on to the driveway.

The Estate Sale: Hardware from a bygone era

When our numbers were finally called, we stepped inside a time machine (figuratively, of course). It was a sensory overload: the wallpaper, the paneling, the carpeting, the floors. Heavy brown furniture contrasted with delicate knickknacks. I felt like I was walking straight into someone else’s memories, or a dream. Does that make any sense?

Mark took a deep breath and told me that it smelled exactly like his grandmother’s house.

The Estate Sale: the sofa

The Estate Sale: Classic books

The house was very unusual inside in terms of its configuration but I’m assuming that it’s fairly typical of homes of this age. The rooms are small, very much separated, and there are many of them. I never quite knew where I was and I was constantly disoriented. What made it even more confusing was a large three storey addition off the back. I took this photo on my first visit, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see the same spot when I went back later in the afternoon.

The Estate Sale: the uniform

There were all kinds of built-in cabinets and drawers. There was a laundry chute on the second floor and a hidden space behind a mirror in the front hall. I wondered why we hadn’t planned more hidey holes in our reno.

From what I saw, doors and door knobs were original. So were the light switches, and the inspirational messages:

The Estate Sale: Pussywillow wallpaper, and old light switch, and an inspirational quote

At one point I walked upstairs and was enveloped in toasty warmth. I touched the radiator – they were all painted gold – it was working! I haven’t seen one of these for about 20 years. I will say, radiator heating is lovely and it left me with a warm hug in a way that conventional heating doesn’t.

The Estate Sale: Old heat, doorknob

In contrast, the basement was drafty and cold; stuffed to the rafters with shelves of machine parts, tools, and everything imaginable. There were lots of things one didn’t expect either, including multiple wringer washers. Mark saw an icebox that I had somehow missed. And in case you don’t know what an icebox is, it’s the precursor of the refrigerator. It’s a special wooden cabinet that people filled with blocks of ice (delivered to the home for this purpose) and used to store perishable food.

The bedrooms were a wonder. Who slept here? Who had the view of our street?

The Estate Sale: photo and bed

The Estate Sale: who's teddy is in the upstairs bedrooom?

The closets still had clothes in them. Most of the drawers were full. You never knew what you were going to find when you opened one:

The Estate Sale: Vanity dresser drawer

It was strange, looking through someone else’s belongings. It occurred to me that this is the most voyeuristic thing you can probably do.

The Estate Sale: the things we keep

The kitchen still had full sets of cutlery, drinking glasses, and coffee mugs. There was a box of crackers stuffed in the back of a cabinet. The fancy dishes made me a little sad. Clearly, these were very special to someone, once.

The Estate Sale: the good dishes

China tea cups and souvenirs from travels decorated inset shelving; cookie jars and tins lined the tops of cabinets.

William wasn’t a hoarder, but it was pretty clear he didn’t like to throw things away, either. The attic was a trove of stuff: boxes of newspapers, magazines, Christmas ornaments. There was a velvet-covered lampshade, ancient trunks, a birdcage, an old bassinet.

The Estate Sale: Bassinet in the Attic

The Estate Sale: The Jan 30 edition of the Ottawa Citizen

In the living room, I opened a cabinet to find an old box for a wire fox terrier toy. I got excited about it for a moment (we have a fox terrier after all!) but the box was full of postcards, letters, and family photos. I closed it without looking; it felt too invasive. Inside another cabinet was a basket of dog things: a leash, a collar, a brush. My neighbour recalled a dog but it’s been years, if not decades.

There were endless files, ledgers, pens, paperclips, in William’s home office. I wondered about a calendar that was nailed to the wall and dated back to 1988. Who kept it, and why? (Although I suppose the same can be said for every single item in the entire house.)

The Estate Sale: wall calendar and a step back in time

Many items looked like they’d just been used and put down for a moment, waiting for their owner’s return:

The Estate Sale: the office

The Estate Sale: Office Shelf

I don’t know if I should be sharing this, but William stapled a Christmas card to the wall in his office. The greeting written inside is so lovely. Clearly, it meant a lot to him. There is a lesson to be learned here, perhaps.

The Estate Sale: the Christmas card he kept

We browsed, we gawked, and bought vintage coat hangers (yes, really):

The Estate Sale: our only purchase

… and went home. I went back later in the afternoon to take another turn around the place and see what I may have missed. There was plenty, some of which I described above.

The estate sale took place for most of the day, between 8 and 4. There were cars lining our street all day long.

I asked one of the staffers hired to work this sale if he knew what happens to unsold stuff, because at 3:30 it was clear that was still a lot left. I happened to be staring down at a dozen boxes of some kind of engine part but my thoughts were on the pile of Popular Science magazines dating back to the 60s. Oh, it goes back to the family, he said. They decide.

I haven’t been to many estate sales, as I’m sure you can tell. The whole experience was very new to me and it’s been weighing on me a bit. Some of the things in William’s possession may have had value in the eyes of collectors, but the truth is that the value of our possessions lies mostly entirely in our memories of them.

Imagine, for a moment, a silk scarf that William’s wife, Rejeanne, wrapped around her hair on their first date, or the tea cup they bought during their honeymoon to London. These things are more than just a scarf and a tea cup. They probably aren’t worth much to a collector, but to the bride and groom, they are priceless. But once the memory keeper is gone and the stories are lost, that same scarf and tea cup are only as valuable as the materials they are made out of, and that might not be much.

We are only the stories we tell, aren’t we? If the stories live on, we live on.

It makes me wonder about our own possessions. How much of what we own right now will end up in the dumpster? (Related to this, of course, is the decluttering trend aptly titled Swedish Death Cleaning. You can read a bit more about that here.) What things do we own are special to us, and why? Do our kids remember that the wine glasses with the grape motif were handpainted by friends of ours and given to us as an engagement gift? Will they remember who made the box of baby clothes in the basement? (Hint: It’s grandma.) And does this all matter anyway? We are, after all, just tiny grains in the great sands of time.

5 Responses to "The stories of our stuff"

1 | Lynn

April 18th, 2018 at 7:12 am


Perhaps this could inspire a series of posts about Special Things – the history and what makes them precious. Going to give this some thought! Thanks for a lovely post.

2 | Molly

April 19th, 2018 at 6:59 am


A great read, Andrea! I have been to a few estate sales – they can be fascinating.

I am far from a minimalist but I am always trimming the amount of stuff in our house. It is the story that is most impoartanr, not the actual thing.

I have a couple of bins filled with keepsakes that I don’t have the nerve to part with – the kids and I get into them from time to time and it is always a great couple of hours going down memory lane.

Besides these bins, if I can’t frame it, use it (my grandmother’s good dishes and silver which I love!!) or add it to a collection on a book shelf, I really consider why I need it and if it shoiuld go.

My Mom is young but she is purging a bunch of stuff right now – she has acquired a lot over the years – have to admit, I am pretty happy I won’t be stuck doing it myself.

3 | Jen_nifer

April 27th, 2018 at 3:30 pm


Great post! I love the pictures you shared.

I recently finished reading the Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, and am going back to The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up that I started last year. There are great points to ponder in both.

4 | andrea tomkins

April 28th, 2018 at 9:58 am


Thanks guys. I have been considering a series of posts connecting THINGS with their stories but then again, I already do that here sometimes. I will think on it a bit more.

Jen_nifer: I have a copy of Life-changing Magic but barely cracked the spine! Maybe it’s the inspiration I need? Not sure. I do love my stuff though. I’m not quite a hoarder but far from minimalist…

5 | a peek inside the fishbowl » Blog Archive The things we keep - a peek inside the fishbowl

July 16th, 2018 at 4:43 pm


[…] seen the entire contents of someone’s house up for grabs. It’s an odd experience. The first estate sale was also in Westboro and it was like stepping back in time. This one was a little more low-key, […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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