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'90s FAMILY : Sorting the Past : Estate sales can be poignant reminders of a family's history. Yet they can also signal the passing of the torch to the next generation.

June 28, 1995|LAURA HENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My elderly neighbor Bessie cackled cheerfully and resembled the witch in "The Wizard of Oz," but in reality she was as sweet as they come. She passed away last year at the age of 99.

At the estate sale there were poignant reminders of a long life. Among the jumble of possessions were old family photographs, her wedding dress and trinkets in a faded, pink, heart-shaped Whitman's chocolate box. They were tantalizing clues to a woman I never knew well.

An estate sale may be a way to memorialize one who has passed on or to mark the transition to a retirement or nursing home. But it represents much more to a family: It is a rite of passage.

"Estate sales are one of those modern rituals of transition," explained USC gerontology professor Vern Bengtson. "They signify the passing of the torch to another generation."

It is traditionally the matriarch of the family who is the Kinkeeper, Bengtson said. The matriarch holds the clan together, organizing holidays and making sure family members stay in contact with one another.

"And the estate sale more than the funeral is a symbol of that responsibility being passed on to the next generation," said Bengtson, who studies the succession of generations.

When a loved one dies or moves away, shock waves ripple through a family. When the moment comes to dispose of a lifetime of possessions, extended as well as immediate family members often get involved, showing up to reminisce and solidify relationships as they gather to organize the estate sale.

Or the sale may signal the beginning of family turmoil. Unresolved issues surface in arguments over what is sold and if so for how much? And who gets what items that are not sold? Dr. Carlfred Broderick, a colleague of Bengtson, recalled how three of his aunts bickered over one tea cup.

For others, the sale means coming to terms with the loss of a parent. It was that way for Phyllis Gottlieb of Los Angeles. For Gottlieb, 64, the family's estate sale was marked both by a sense of transition and one of finality. After her 88-year-old father passed away she emptied a house in which her family had lived for 50 years and where she had grown up.

"My father had lived a long life in that house," she said of the two-story Hollywood home. "It had a collection of a lifetime and a lot of memories. There was a sense of closure."

Ending too were years of caring for elderly in-laws and parents. Free to explore possibilities, she began a new phase in her life.

Losing a parent was more of a trauma than a release for Roderick Johnston, a 55-year-old plumber from Northridge. According to his wife, Rosalyn, when her mother-in-law died a few years ago, Roderick went to his mother's house every day for several weeks with the intention of clearing it out. Instead, he would end up sitting for hours, brooding, Rosalyn said. "I'd go over there and see he had done nothing," she said.

His mother, Rosalyn added, had a strong hold on her son, and when she died he held onto her through her possessions. "When those were sold, part of him left with them." The items held memories of his childhood, his adolescence, his young adulthood. And after the sale, precious memories seemed to go the way of the more tangible items.

Which is why family members should not be in too much of a hurry to get rid of their entire legacy at sale time.

According to Sheryl Roberts, a chaplain at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center who works with grieving family members, one of the most wrenching experiences a widow or widower can have is disposing of the beloved's personal effects. For some it can take six weeks to accomplish the task; for others, a year. Roberts says everyone is different and family members should not hurry the process. "I think we rob them of healing time if we rush them too soon," she said.

Some people like a companion when they go through the procedure, because they cannot be sure of how they will react to the rush of memories that will surely follow. It can be frightening. Others like this to be quiet, private time.

Roberts added that keeping special mementos of a family member who has passed on is a balm for the wounded psyche. Even if we had a poor relationship with the person, "we grow even in the most difficult times."

Roberts gets comfort from clutching her father's golf sweater. "When I'm holding it, I feel like he is giving me a hug," she said. "I can touch him, smell him and feel him close to my heart."

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Ease the Load of a Difficult Task

The following suggestions made by gerontologists and estate planners can make the difficult task of disposing of an estate much easier:

* Be emotionally prepared for an estate sale. Take time out--six months if necessary--to heal emotional wounds before holding the sale.

* Hire an independent licensed appraiser or do some independent research to establish the value of an estate before selling items to an antique dealer.

* Work with reputable estate sales specialists. Ask friends for referrals.

* When working with an estate sales specialist, know exactly what you want to keep and what you want to sell. There is nothing worse than seller's remorse over a loved one's legacy.

* Make a will for your heirs and specify who gets what. Losing a loved one is hard enough without having to agonize or fight over the personal effects that are left behind.

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