It Is Not About the Stuff

“Mommy, wanna play Kings and Queens?” It’s my older son asking in his five-year-old speak if I want to play his version of chess. Which I don’t. I will anyway, however, because in the end it’s not folding the laundry that’s important. It’s my little guy. And the chess set is my reminder.

The wood inlay set came from an estate auction a few years ago, found when I was rifling through a blue storage tub full of board games looking for bargains. The tub and I were on the front lawn of a house in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb—a house I’d never been to before, belonging to a family whose story I didn’t know, beyond their curious decision to dissolve their assets through an on-site auction, opening their home to strangers like me so we could search through their belongings for hidden treasures at rock bottom prices. Like the aforementioned chess set that cost me three bucks.

The newspaper ad promised “Cars, Tools, Furniture, Clothing, etc.,” and along with it, “Real Estate,” which consisted of a three-story house with a backyard that included a swing set for the kids and an oversized shed for Mr. Mysterious and his lawn tractor.

Arriving early to survey the scene, I spied three cars in the driveway along with several boxes on the lawn filled with random utensils, mismatched plates, and bric-a-brac. Slipping around back, I saw garages and sheds full of tools and outdoor paraphernalia. Stepping into the rear of the house through the kitchen door, I found furniture on every floor, with each of the “4+ bedrooms” housing a full- or queen-size bed, a night table or two, dressers, bureaus, and armoires. Throughout the house were end tables and coffee tables, kitchen chairs and desk chairs, floor lamps and table lamps, and all of it—everything you could see—was for sale.

As I looked around, however, it seemed increasingly odd that all of it was for sale, that everything was up for bid, especially since it appeared the family didn’t take anything with them. For example: the kitchen cabinets were stocked with bags of rice, boxes of baking soda and cans of beef broth. And those dressers, bureaus and armoires were full of socks and underwear, suits and dresses. Even the jewelry collection appeared complete.

Back outside, the auction began on the front yard. The bid-caller was auctioning those randomly-filled boxes when, in my periphery, a brightly colored bouquet of silk flowers caught my eye. Like something a magician would pull out of his hat, they protruded from a shrub by the front of the house—gauche for a neighborhood like this, but I was too engrossed in the auctioneer’s chatter to give it much thought.

The vehicles were next—a Honda accord, a Toyota Camry, a Ford van—items for which I had no budget. I took this time to scope out the basement. In my experience, it’s those tucked away corners of a property where the real deals are. That’s where you find those hidden treasures you can get for a steal, like the Shop-Vac I bid on later and took home for a cool five dollars.

Near the Shop-Vac was a cardboard box with gold trophy heads poking out, and next to that, more of those blue storage tubs. I peeked inside hoping to rescue some long-forgotten stamp collection or maybe rare coins. Instead I found family photos. In a photo that appeared to be from the 1980s was the man I presumed to be Mr. Mysterious, about 45 years old. And there he was again, this time with Mrs. Mysterious, posing with smiles. Another taken in the backyard (I recognized the shed). The tub was full of images of every day moments; glimpses into this family’s private life, all captured for posterity, and all, it seemed, left behind.

The laundry area was under the basement stairs where bottles of detergent and cleaning supplies sat on a shelf. That’s right: bottles. Plural. Like someone stocked up at a buy-one-get-one sale and expected to be around for a while to use up all of that Tide and Mr. Clean. Nearby, the spare fridge was still running, keeping tilapia filets frozen for some future meal.

Now the auctioneer was inside, too. I tracked him to a third floor bedroom where, on one of the double beds, was a cross-stitch marking the birth of the Mysterious’ son. Like the family photos, it seemed odd this keepsake had been abandoned, with its embroidered pink and blue clown happily presenting the boy’s name and his birthday in 1987.  Again I lamented for the family at having deserted such a memento.

Then I found a second cross-stitch, nearly identical to the first, differing in name but not date! The Mysterious Family had been blessed with twin boys.

Crossing the front lawn, with an igloo cooler in one hand and a barstool in the other, I glanced at an unsold bin of household goods in the grass, my eye catching a commemorative plate that read, “My First Communion,” engraved with the name of one of the sons. I slowed as disparate images and details of the day came together in my mind. Like a Magic Eye puzzle, perceived chaos transformed into a clear image, telling the sad story, not of things that were carelessly left behind, but of a family that had built a life filled with love, a life tragically cut short.I traveled with him as the auctioneer worked his way through the house. I added a coffee table and a pineapple-shaped lamp to my growing list of deals. Eventually it was time to pony up. While waiting to pay I noticed the door jamb in the kitchen was covered with dozens of marks and dates indicating the heights of the two boys and of “mom” and “dad.” I was eager to take home my new-to-me possessions to escape the vicarious feelings of loss I was having for the family.

“My god,” I thought, standing by the driveway. “This is the house where the boy killed his twin brother and their parents.” I was certain of it. It had happened only months before and had been all over the news. The way it was reported, on a Saturday in March, 2011, a young man of 23 years, who lived at the property I was now departing, used a sword to kill his twin brother and their parents. In their home. Surrounded by their stuff. Some of which was now mine. And that young man was now serving three mandatory life sentences behind bars.

This explained the framed diplomas, the unexpired coupons, and, sadly, the half-used bottle of hand soap. The magician’s flowers confirmed it, lovingly left to honor the deceased, like a makeshift roadside memorial.

Suddenly I wasn’t so thrilled with my bargains. I felt nauseated. Had mother read to son under the pineapple lamp? Had father and son (which son?) played board games on my “new” coffee table? And at what point in the recent past—and for what purpose—had that Shop-Vac been used?

The idea of furnishing my home with these possessions now felt dangerous, like they might be contagious with madness and mayhem. Maybe those fears rose in me because, like Mr. and Mrs. Mysterious, I, too, live in a Philadelphia suburb with manicured lawns sporting purple and white petunias in the front yard and swings in the back. I, too, have an oversized shed where my husband keeps his lawn tractor. I, too, have two boys, preschool age, like those boys were years ago. Maybe when they were little the Mysterious Brothers liked to run around the yard, giggling, with milk moustaches and banana stuck to their eyebrow, just like my sons.

It was all a little too relatable. And yet no mother wants to blame the child. I can understand why that boy’s mother probably didn’t believe he was capable of what he was doing, even while he was doing it.

I spoke with a friend about my unwitting participation in the aftermath of this triple murder. I wondered what I was going to do with my adulterated possessions. She was pragmatic. “Shit happens,” she said. “Not to be heartless, but it’s the story of some other family. It’s not your story and it’s not your family. And the stuff you picked up is just stuff. It’s not them, and it’s not suddenly going to become you.”

She was right, of course. The sordid past of some coffee table was not the cause of the horrible decisions made that day. Stuff is “just stuff.” It gets left behind, lost, broken. It does nothing more than exist. Conflicts arise not from stuff but from people. Because, unlike stuff, there is mystery around people. They have emotions. They do more than just exist.

Now that I’ve been to that house, I have an idea about who used to live there. I know their story—or at least part of it. I know the parents loved their sons from the minute they were born and they celebrated their accomplishments throughout their lives. I know they filled their lives with opportunity and indulgence when and where they could. And I know that in a fleeting moment one of those sons made a tragic decision that ended it all.

I also know their stuff had nothing to do with it.

So now I’m going to focus on my sons—love and celebrate them and give them as many opportunities as I can. And at this moment I’m going to play Kings and Queens with my older boy over this nice wood inlay chess set I picked up at auction.

Editor’s Note:  In August 2014, Joseph McAndrew Jr. of Upper Merion, was found guilty of three counts of first degree murder, but mentally ill, in the deaths of his mother, Susan, his father Joseph, and his twin brother, James.  He attacked them with an 18-inch sword. All three were found in the kitchen with multiple wounds. The murders occurred March 5, 2011 in the family’s Gulph Mills home.

When a person is found guilty but mentally ill, they are sentenced to prison, but evaluated to determine if they should be sent instead to a mental health facility for treatment.  When and if that person’s mental illness is deemed to be under control, he must serve the balance of any sentence in prison.

Estelle Wynn is a creative non-fiction writer whose work has been published in Main Line Ticket, Island View, and Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber. Previously an urban dweller, she now resides in a 100-year-old farmhouse in a suburb of Philadelphia with her husband and two young sons.