Being Prepared – Cathe Smith

Being Prepared – Cathe Smith

There was a farmer and his wife, and they had a beautiful farm on the rolling prairie. There was the 80-ft hand dug well faced with local limestone, and the numerous outbuildings required for small self-sufficient farms in the early 1900s. There was the sheep pasture in the front of the house for the sheep, and the spreading Burr Oaks lining the ravine. There was the barn with foundation walls a foot thick and made from fieldstones, with its walls held up by eight-inch beams.

The house was a solid thing of cement blocks with a deep basement and lots of windows to let in the light. The farmer and his wife filled it with music from their record collection, and the wife decorated with crocheted pillowcases on the beds and anti-massacres on the chairs.

And the farmer and his wife loved to read; history books, how-to books, biographies, everything and anything that caught their fancy. They filled their house with love and books. Every room of their farmhouse had homemade bookcases filled with books. The farmer and his wife were known in the community as readers, and their friends would call upon them to settle bets or find information.

Eventually the farmer’s wife died, and the farmer cleaned out a few of her things from the house but kept the china and kept the 50th wedding anniversary plates they had been given. He kept her scarves, and the crocheted pillowcases, and kept her crafting books and magazines. In the fullness of time, the farmer himself died and the house, all of belongings of the farmer and his wife, the farm, and the farm land were inherited by a sister.

The sister did nothing with the farm or the house, and so the books sat on their shelves waiting. Eventually vandals and thieves broke in, looking for things to steal and wanting to cause mischief. The books were flipped through, because sometimes old people hid money in them, and then they were tossed on the floor. They knocked over furniture, looking for hidden things, and ripped out wiring from the walls.

Then came the kids looking for a place to party, they threw things around sometimes just to hear the noise something made when it was broken. They scattered old clothes around, and threw the silk scarves the farmer had kept onto the ground. The books on the floor became just another surface to stand on. Or try to burn.

In the quiet times, the animals came in looking for a place to shelter. Raccoons and opossums used the books as their litter box, and rodents used them as shelter. Birds nested in what was left of the light fixtures and vines grew along the ceilings. And underneath it all, the insects came in. The Dermestid beetles eating old paper and glue from the bindings, the book lice eating the mold and fungal spores, the caterpillars eating the rotting cellulose, and the centipedes and spiders that made their homes in such a rich hunting ground.

And with that first window broken, the damp came in. It settled into the books and helped mold and mildew grow. It warped covers, and destroyed bindings. It caused ink to run and colors to fade.

For 15 years the house stood, with its furnishings slowly going to ruin. There were those in the community that pleaded with the sister to sell the contents of the house and put the farm on the market. It was on the rolling prairie, the soil was good and the property was desirable. But the sister did nothing until her health was failing and she started disposing of her property to pay for her care.

By that time, the books were beyond saving. I shoveled first-edition military history books into a front-end loader along with biographies of interesting people, old crafting magazines, and early scientific farming books. And every load was dumped into the brush fire. I used a barn shovel to scoop up scattered books a foot deep in the house, and watched them all burn.

The almost physical pain watching those books burn caused in me was surprising. I was telling myself that the books were just things; just possessions and that I was being overly emotional, but books aren’t just things. Books are some of the longest lasting repositories of data storage we have, they are what help us remember what are, show us what we can be, and remind us of times when we should have known better.

And to watch someone’s book collection, and indeed 98 percent of their belongings put on the scrap heap, made it worse. No matter what a person believes about the afterlife, or if they believe in one at all, we all hope that the things we leave behind will make someone happy. We hope that the boxes of books your family sells at the auction will go to someone that will get some enjoyment out of their use, that the set of china you leave your niece will help her set up her house one day, that the set of old knives you leave your son will help him pay off the debts he never told you about.

So the lesson I learned that dreary day is this: It is not enough to have someone to leave your possessions to, you must leave them with instructions on how to dispose of it. Because if you don’t, whatever you hoped would happen, whatever joy you thought you’d left behind might all end up in smoke on a cold day in January.

87 responses to “Being Prepared – Cathe Smith

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Can’t “like” because that’s a sad story.

  2. In some ways I’ve got this same problem. As far as I can determine none of my family would do anything with my SF collection except sell it. I do have a very young great niece so who knows.

    • William O. B'Livion

      none of my family would do anything with my SF collection except sell

      At least if they sell it they get some money out of it, and someone else gets to read the books.

  3. A beautiful post. I’ve been in your shoes, and it is indeed heart-wrenching to toss out faded, unwanted things that were once someone’s treasure.

  4. Waaaahhh! 😦 Sniff, sniff.

    I just assume I will have to dispose of everything before my death, G-d willing. Among other things, it is easier to get rid of old copies of National Geographic than it is old academic journals, at least in my field(s).

  5. Thank you for telling this moving story; it touches on a key problem with the diadic relationship format in which a couple works hard and creates a respectable amount of capital that is then lost when they die. Heinlein laid out that most any form of marriage would work if it did two things: (1) create a way to acquire, use and pass on the capital that people need in order to retain control of their lives and (2) create a safe and secure context within which to raise children. The multi-generational format of the line family that Heinlein described in Harsh Mistress offers a way to do both and thereby escape the sad outcome OP describes.

    • Actually, it doesn’t. ‘Line families’ have been tried in real life, and failed miserably. The ‘diadic relationship format’ that you sneer at is the fundamental building block of human society for sound biological reasons: humans have a natural tendency to form strong pair-bonds through sexual congress, and do not have a tendency to form polymorphous group-bonds in the same way.

      • Have to agree. Two people in a relationship is hard enough – reasonably good sex needs to keep resetting the default to ‘Okay, I can stand to live with you.’

        I can’t imagine any group of people where hierarchy struggles don’t make it impossible. And under the same roof – not. Even two closely related women who love each other have trouble cooperating in a kitchen.

        There was a TV show with a Mormon family that had three wives (still going on?), and they were trying, but it was laughable – all the necessary infighting was right there. Even with each wife having her own house.

      • We must live in different worlds then. There are lots of very successful line families (Suzuki, Suntory, etc.); there’s even one in Japan that goes back 1,400 years, and if you include sectarians, there’s an Italian line family that goes back 1,600 years. I’m thinking of another, a mere two centuries old, with a reported annual revenue (2011) of $57 billion. I would agree that there’s more to life than longevity and wealth accumulation, but miserable failures? Hardly.

        • What on earth are you talking about? A family with an ‘annual revenue’ of $57 billion? So far as I know, there is only one family in the world with total assets that high. Name some names, or I’m not buying any of this.

          • Eh. Sounds Saudi to me. Might have something to do with one’s definition of “family,” mightn’t it?

            • The House of Saud, however, is not a ‘line family’ in the Heinlein sense, or anything like it.

              • I concur — but as the claim was put forth without evidentiary support, I couched my answer in the terms of a “family” known to have income on that scale with the implication that the claimant was employing just such an inappropriate definition to claim a “line” family.

                It certainly seems likely that any such existent true line family would be quite discreet about acknowledging its presence for fear of arousing enmity. Thus I surmise our claimant was exercising slothful thinking in contriving his assertion.

                It seemed more polite to suggest an alternate interpretation than a construction out of whole cloth.

          • Wiki tells us that Jardine’s, aka The Noble House, did $57b in 2011.
            Wiki says Suzuki did a paltry $26 bil by comparison,
            I’m not finding a wiki page that lists Suntory’s annual revenue. Hardly seem like miserable failures to me.

            • Neither entry offers support for the claim of line marriage.

              • This thread started with an article that talked about the incredible waste of capital that is commonly the result of the family line practice. I responded that line family practice is a way around this. The OC then asserted comprehensive knowledge of line families and dismissed my post by asserting–without a shred of evidence–that line families fail miserably in the real world. That assertion dismayed me in that there are thousands of examples of line families that have functioned for generations, and some that have prospered to a stunning degree. I even pointed out two of them by name; I didn’t refer to the Noble House by name, since anyone who knows anything about line family knows about Jardine; all I was attempting to do was to provide a reference for the revenue number I quoted. As to the wiki articles’ lack of bold type as to the line family connection, I’ll offer two Heinlein quotes from Harsh Mistress: “Our first purpose was not to be noticed.” pg 117, and “Where do you start explaining when a man’s words show there isn’t anything he understands about subject, instead is loaded with preconceptions that don’t fit facts and doesn’t even know he has?” – p163

                • Please stop trying to shift the burden of evidence– we’re still waiting for support of your rather extraordinary claim.

                  You made an assertion, tried to back it up but failed, and now claim that there are “thousands of examples,” but instead of offering them do the classic conspiracy theory proof of “they’re really effective, that’s why you can’t see them.”

                  This is a really, really bad place to try to bull through a challenge to a claim with nothing but sneers about “anybody who knows anything” type assertions, even if you enlist Heinlein quotes to do it.

                  • I’m quite happy to go into lots of detail regarding the history and current practice of the line family; I feel like I’m a guest here, and have to wonder if a comment thread on Sarah’s blog the right place to do that? If an extended conversation on the subject pleases Sarah, I’m all in, but it’s her call.
                    If you truly want to learn about line families, there’s lots of information on the web such as this article
                    As for the bait and switch, I’m feeling that too. I was asked to name names; I did but that wasn’t enough. I was asked to provide documentation for revenue levels, and did only to be dismissed because a wiki that documented financial levels didn’t delve into the organization’s history and personal arrangements. Again, people claiming comprehensive knowledge need to come to the discussion with at least a basic understanding of what they’re talking about and how it functions in the real world over time.

                    • You found this to be a good place to make the initial claim, to argue with someone who objected, to fail to support it, change the subject, and then to insult those who pointed out the failure.

                      Still waiting for you to support your initial claim, and telling people to go do research– and posting a link so others can make your argument for you is not supporting your claim.

                      If you’re worried about the format, I’d suggest replying to the initial response, directly below your initial claim of February 7, 2015 at 11:17 AM, and constructing your argument there.

                    • Let me get this straight. When asked to name names, I did, along with confirming links, but that’s not good enough. It’s clear that you’re not willing to take my word (fair enough) but you’re also not willing to take the word of others including even Heinlein. I didn’t send folks off to do research, although if they’re actually interested in the subject of the line family or the issue of preserving familial capital, I think they’d find it interesting. I did provide them with a link to a comprehensive article that describes the long and wide tradition of line families in Japan, but are you telling me that asking people to click on the link and read it is asking too much?

                    • No, when asked to support your claim you made allusions; later you linked to wiki to support an entirely different claim (which it didn’t even do a good job of), and yet later you linked to a news article on an entirely different subject– a system for fixing the rare failures in normal marriage.
                      (Adult adoption to get an appropriate heir is not a line marriage, and for that matter the article was incorrect that it was unknown– there’s a bloody trope about European flavored leadership Houses adopting adult cousins when it became clear they wouldn’t have a suitable heir.)

                      All the flailing around does is shift people who were going “this is questionable” over into the “wow, he’s just blustering, it’s all wind and noise” category.

                    • Foxfier => “No, when asked to support your claim you made allusions”
                      Thanks, that helps; I see your point.

                      Foxfier => “…later you linked to a news article on an entirely different subject– a system for fixing the rare failures in normal marriage.”

                      Such failures aren’t rare, they’re the norm, hence the saying “shirtsleves to shirtsleves in four generations” and what’s known in the business world as Idiot Heir Syndrome, problems which the line family concept addresses. Anyway, I thought that the point of the original post was to decry a heart-wretching failure in a “normal marriage.” Did I miss the point of the post?

                      But, perhaps the more important point here is that you’re switching the subject from “line family” to “line marriage.” They’re not the same thing. You’re correct that the linked article is not about line marriages; my responses and the article are about line families. Line families manage property by adopting individuals on the basis of merit, whereas family lines manage property on the basis of consanguity.

                      While “line family” and “line marriage” are newish verbal constructs, what they describe isn’t, just as polyamory is a new way to describe an old practice. (e.g.

                      And I’m dismayed at being mocked and discredited for quoting Heinlein on point. If Heinlein’s explicit statements on a subject aren’t respected here, have I’ve wandered into the wrong place?

                    • *crosses arms*

                      You have shown great skill at attacking those who dare question your still unsupported assertion.

                      That does absolutely nothing to support your claim.

                      Neither does randomly grabbing a tangent that you think will work for attack– by this time, it’s really obvious that you’ll throw a bunch of stuff out, hoping it will stick.

                      Not wasting my time on responding further until you can be bothered to support your initial claim.

                    • “Line Family”, in a group that has a majority of Heinlein readers, is automatically going to be translated into “Line Marriage”. Also, I doubt if the term, “Line Family” is even known well enough by people here, even though we have a highly diverse education set, to be dropping into the discussion without defining it.

                      Therefore, any responses you got were likely in reference to “Line Marriage”, and if you go back and read them from that point of view, they will make more sense.

                      Also, the likely difference in the families you’re referring to is that they make SURE that the heirs will continue the family business before they die, and if there are none, then they go find someone and make them part of the family. It’s rather a kind of hubris in that, really.

                    • He explicitly said The multi-generational format of the line family that Heinlein described in Harsh Mistress offers a way to do both and thereby escape the sad outcome OP describes.

                      He then made allusions, and finally linked to, plain old families that have adoption when the heirs aren’t suited.

                      Perhaps he got confused, but it wasn’t any of the three or so others that have been in the conversation.

                    • I missed the original Heinlein reference. Sounds like a bait and switch at this point.

                    • I had to go double-check that I hadn’t conflated it in, but he was very careful to specify he meant “line marriage” such as in Heinlein, and followed it up by repeated appeals to authority.

                    • You’ve quoted me as specifying that I “meant ‘line marriage’ ” Please cite the post where I did that. I don’t recall using the term “line marriage” in these posts other than in an effort to elaborate the difference between the concept of a line family and a line marriage. It’s one thing to damn me for what I said, but damning me for what you all think I said seems out of line.

                    • When you use the example of being like that shown in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, then that’s what your phrase means. If you did NOT use that equivalency, then things would be different.

                    • Shocking though you find it, not even Heinlein is here so sainted as to have his every utterance accepted uncritically. For example, in spite of Heinlein’s endorsement of our third president, I deem Jefferson a moral coward of the first order.

                      Further, Heinlein was prone to issuing provocative statements with which he did not personally agree, just to see the reactions.

                      And of course, there remains the minor point of there being a technical term for those who mistake views expressed by characters for the personal opinions of the author.

                      It is possible you are correct in your assessment of there being effective and long-lasting line families, but nothing you have thus far presented directly supports the assertion. Such arguments you have proffered are, when germane, not substantive and when substantive they are not germane.

                    • A local fan swears there are four functioning line marriages in local fandom. I once asked at a panel and member hands were raised. Shrug. I don’t know. I suspect it might work for SOME people. Practically anything works for some people for some time. OTOH I’m not in any way convinced it is ideal for all humans, much less a majority of them.

                    • “It’s clear that you’re not willing to take my word (fair enough) but you’re also not willing to take the word of others including even Heinlein.”

                      Somehow taking the word of a guy who was married four(?) times and divorced all but the last time on how to have a successful marriage seems like not such a bright idea.

                    • says three times, but you do have a point. OTOH, his third marriage lasted forty years, which is no small accomplishment. It suggests to me that he learned a good deal from his first two marriages.

                    • I see you are now being disingenius enough to claim that you weren’t talking about “line marriages” but some different definition you cooked up for “line families” even though everybody else was talking about line marriages (and that is what is present in your original example of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). And asking for proof that “line marriages” are a miserable failure in the real world is like asking for proof that breathing oxygen is necessary to survival. It is a WELL known fact, in fact it is SO obvious that examples are actually hard to come by (at least ones that would be documented or anyone else would know about) on something that obvious and well known the burden of proof does de facto rest on the person who disagrees.

                    • “I see you are now being disingenius enough to claim that you weren’t talking about “line marriages” but some different definition you cooked up for “line families” ”

                      Line family isn’t my term. For more information on it you might want to check out the Line-Family website:

                      Harsh Mistress was written fifty years ago. Since then the nomenclature for all sorts of intimate relationships has evolved, and this may be a case in point. For those who care, the difference between a line marriage and a line family lies primarily in whether it involves intergenerational sexual relationships. Another difference involves an explicit tradition of handing off the family assets from one generation to the next generation in line. If you’re interested in a dramatic presentation of that process, check out the opening scene of Clavell’s Noble House. There’s also a mini-series of that name that featured the Noble House’s headquarters in Hong Kong.

                      In support of your argument, I see that the Group Marriage wiki seems to use the terms interchangably. Perhaps it’s time to suggest an update : )

                    • You, however, were the one to use “line family” in context with Heinlein. I have, in fact, heard of line families before. But since they don’t appear in Heinlein, no one would think they meant anything but line marriages.

    • Note, the problem here is that it went to a sister who didn’t care about what they’d built.

      If it had gone to kids who at least cared enough to go “my parents loved this, I will try to do right by it even if I don’t share that love,” it would work.

      A sister with a sense of duty would make it work, or even just a friend they could have willed the books to– or a group in the community.
      Sadly, folks aren’t always able to know ahead of time if the person they’re entrusting their belongings to will actually take the responsibility, or instead drop the ball.

      • Professor Badness

        That’s why my Mother started bequeathing items now, before her health starts failing.
        I (the son who did not backbite) was able to snipe the good kitchens items from my sisters (who were nothing but critical and negative to my Mother). This included her professional grade roasting pan from the 40’s. They don’t make them like that anymore.
        *Maniacal laughter as I head for the kitchen to defrost a roast.*

        • Daaaang. I’ve got a bad case of roaster envy, Prof.

          • Professor Badness

            My grandmother was working for a family on Nob Hill in San Fransisco back in the day. When she left, the roaster and a couple of other kitchen items may have gone with her.

  6. I saved a Victorian era platform rocker from the house.
    Not because I need another Victorian era platform rocker, but because I just couldn’t watch it burn.

  7. so sad, that the relatives didn’t even go through and box things up for the Salvation Army.

  8. I don’t have any natural heirs, so if I die without a testament what I own will go to the government. Which would probably mean the material possession will be destroyed, since I don’t own anything of great value. I have been trying to figure something for the books and the china, and a few pieces of furniture. Maybe some sort of charity organization, the things may not be of great value, but I do have lots of pieces which are somewhat collectible – like a couple of pieces of furniture that is close to a hundred years of age, some china well over 50 years and made by one of our better known and older Finnish manufacturer – or at least quite pretty and useful, and the books… I think the only one which sells now for something would be Fogg’s Terraforming, but I do have a collection of textbooks which would make a lot of budding writers looking for material and sources happy (fantasy perhaps more than SF writers, especially since a lot of the science books will be out of date in a few decades, or just few years, but still). Biggest problem would be finding the right organization for the books. Most of them are in English, which makes this a lot harder here.

    And then there are the copyrights.

    • And that almost did happen with my father’s old home farm. His two sisters – one a spinster with, maybe, schizophrenia (although it started when she was already almost past her middle age so not sure, similar symptoms though, family mostly just called it her ‘problem’), other a childless widow – lived there last. The spinster aunt had lived there most of her life, keeping house and the cattle for the original owner, their unmarried oldest brother (I think she may have owned some of the cattle, but I’m not sure, there used to be at most ten milk cows, and they sold the bull calves for meat), and in the end she owned the house itself, and the widowed aunt moved there to look after her when she started to become unable to look after herself.

      And when they both became unable to live by themselves they did get a place in the local old age home. Which meant the house and what was in it was left to stand by itself. Neighbor’s boys did break in, and destroy things, but were found out and made to repair some of the damage (helps that one of the nearest neighbors was a police who knew the boys, and didn’t need any special detective skills to figure out who were the perpetrators. Plus, self-interest probably played into this, they did live right next to HIS house too…).

      Both aunts died within a couple of years after leaving the house, so some things inside were still salvageable. The one with her faculties more or less intact would have allowed rescuing the things while they were still alive, but the owner didn’t and of course nobody wanted to do anything without her permission.

      The biggest loss: all of my family’s old papers, letters and photographs (aunt never threw anything away, so there had been stuff like letters and post cards from close to a hundred years ago, I used to look at them when I was a child and visited). Part of the fault goes to my cousins who started the clean up before father and I could visit, they hadn’t bothered to sort through the mess of papers but had just burned everything. Who knows, something might still have been saved. I would have wanted to see, my father also, and who knows, some of their own children – or grandchildren when they get older – might have gotten interested at some point.

  9. A small dose of depressing to kick off the Saturday…

    Solid point, though.

  10. Not cool. My mom knows that when she dies, we’ll take care of her possessions thusly: Things that each of her kids and grandkids want will be distributed to them, and everything else will be sold to people who want those things, excepting those things donated to charity. Just leaving the stuff alone until it rots away? That’s tragic and wrong, and we’re too thrifty for that.

    • One of the biggest WTFs with this: didn’t that inheritor even realize that she may have lost quite a nice sum of money by leaving all those things to rot? First edition books, old handcrafted stuff, old furniture and china… there would have been buyers. Throwing money away like that is just plain stupid. My own aunt maybe did something similar, but at least she had the excuse of having gotten quite insane during her last couple of years.

      • People tried to convince her to rent out the house and the land. She refused to. I don’t know why, none of the people I was working with that day knew the exact reasons either.

        • She probably felt that she needed to go through it all and never felt up to beginning the huge task. Had she rented it, she’d have had to go through it all. (If there’s one thing I understand it’s procrastination.)

    • Tragic and wrong– yeah, that covers it.

      The old saw about how possessions have a claim on you is true– it’s not as strong as for an animal, much less a person, but there is a responsibility to ownership.

      The little girl that got my first car looked at me like I was crazy when I pointed out every flaw I could think of for why she wouldn’t want it, and explained that I wanted it to go to someone who would treat it right.
      Her dad got it, though.
      That car took good care of me. Last time I saw it in the valley, it was in good shape, too– it’s gone, now, so I guess she took it to college instead of selling it when she left. Not bad for something I got at a great price because there weren’t any guys interested in a purple car.

      • There are some interesting heirloom pieces in there, like the model of the USS Constitution made from the original plans. (See, my Nana’s father* was in charge of clearing out the Naval Academy basement before they had a museum, and he had a friend who built model ships…) That one is going to my brother, because he wants it most… but believe me, if we didn’t want it, there are cousins that would drive across the country to claim it. There’s also some pre-ban ivory pieces that we’re conflicted about, and things picked up from various places during my dad’s service… you know, *things*. I get his sword**, though.

        *My Nana is not my biological grandmother. It’s complicated.
        **Not a military service sword, just a cavalry sword my mom gave him.

  11. I made my father ispose of his working library before he passed (he was done with it) because I have no idea what to do with a collection of 18th century scientific manuscripts, some of them original, some of them xeroxed.

    My neice will probably be delighted with most of my library, and what she doesn’t want can go to the friends of the library sale.

    That said, I’ve burned my share of ruined books in my time, amd it always feels a little wromg, even when it’s a paperback edition of Payton Place, that nobidy wants even without the mold.

    • I’ve had to burn ruined books and belongings twice in my life: After termites got to our library during a summer when we weren’t at home, and after the 2009 floodings of Typhoon Ketsana.

      After that, my hubby greatly understands my general panic and mindset about securing our stuff as much as possible, as well as my insistence that we have a pantry of supplies and food ‘just in case’. The ‘just in case’ includes trivial things such as ‘too tired to cook let’s warm up a couple of cans of ravioli’ to ‘stretching meals on a shoestring budget.’

  12. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I’m most likely going to be disposing of someone’s assets, who has an eclectic collection of material. The New Yorker and New York Times stuff is going in the rubbish. I’ve promised to, and will find a home for anything with value that I don’t want.

    I was disappointed to hear that they’d bought something that sounded nice, then sat on it for years without taking care of it, and then had to throw it out. Even with mold, I might’ve been able to get it digitized if it were really valuable.

    • Suggestion:
      if you’re in a place where Craig’s list is an option, put up something like “getting rid of magazines, papers and books collected by recently dead person. Anything not gone by end of day is being recycled. Donations welcome but not required.”

  13. Well, I’m covered. I have no conceivable heirs, and no possessions worth preserving. There are only the books that I write, of which copies will be in many other people’s hands before I die – or else they are not worth preserving. A book that nobody ever wanted to read is no loss if destroyed.

  14. Just remember, most states have limits on the “instructions” you can leave to your heirs. Or put another way, if you give Nephew Methhead the fine china that’s been in the family for years with clear instructions to give it to the local historical society, in some states he can sell it for his next fix with nary a tussle.

    This reminds me I need to sit down and be explicit in where the books go. I have some ideas, especially now that I know the local National Guard Museum accepts military book donations, but this definitely makes me want to have that meeting sooner rather than later.

    • Perhaps it would be good to designate an executor/personal rep who, for a reasonable fee, would carry out your instructions on part of the estate before distributing the remnant.

  15. Professor Badness

    Truly a sad story. But I thank you for sharing it.
    I’ve mentioned before that I work in a used book store, so I deal with this all the time. Grandma/Grandpa just died, and the family is cleaning out the house/storage unit.
    I love and hate when this happens. I hate the huge boxes of old magazines and readers digest condensed books. Those are worthless.
    I love the boxes of old treasures and keepsakes. Those aren’t generally worth much either, but they are beautiful.
    Customers do get offended when they learn the old book they’ve brought in isn’t worth much. But the advent of the internet has allowed booksellers to find a wider market, and so the idea of rarity has decreased. It is a little sad.
    Alas, we only buy what we can sell, so we have to pass on a lot of beautiful old volumes.
    It often hurts when I have to say “no” to these beautiful volumes.

    • I have a small business, currently in abeyance, buying books at yard sales and selling them on Amazon. I once went to a sale being held by a man who was selling off old books on music theory for his wife, who was overseas. One of the books I checked was selling for more than $300 on Amazon. I brought it firmly to his attention and strongly suggested that he call his wife and check.

      Good thing, too. It was a volume she had by her mentor of several years, and signed too. She had put it on that shelf by mistake, in the chaos of packing.

      I’ve had a couple more like that. I just don’t want to be some family’s “If only we’d known” story. I get plenty buying books for $.50 that will sell for $3.

      • Thank you for doing that.

        My mom once went to a new widow’s garage sale– her husband had dropped dead, not that old, they were late sixties maybe. Very active kind of guy, had about half a ton of tools.

        She had a $20 sign on the five foot tall tool rolling name-brand toolbox, which was full of tools. And that wasn’t the worst.

        She’d apparently put out ads for the sale, and my mom just happened to show up an hour before it was supposed to start and the new widow gave her permission to start shopping early. Was just enough time for her to figure out that this wasn’t right, get the story and talk the lady into letting her re-price the stuff.

        Mom still grumbles that she should’ve bought the chainsaws (two for twenty) first, but she also obviously cherishes that when she went back when it was supposed to be over to make sure she hadn’t messed it up, the lady started crying because she’d thought she’d maybe get a few hundred dollars out of it, and instead she was only outside still because one person had to go get a better vehicle to haul up what they’d bought.

        Twice blessed, indeed.

        About the biggest thing I’ve ever done was insist on leaving my name and number at a community garage sale, and paying twice what they asked, for a five by three by three crate full of plastic little kids’ blocks. (Those ones that are $20 for a plastic bag that’s about 1x1x0.5 when they’re new.) They were selling it for five dollars— I thought it was five dollars per plastic bag, which still would’ve been a deal. They never did call, so I hope that the grandma whose grandbabies had outgrown them really did want to get rid of them that badly. My kids adore them.

        Anybody else got Good Deed stories?

      • Congratulations on exercising “high principles” and thus saving that man an unfortunate scene with his wife.

        Christmas nears, and art dealer Bernard (Alan Cumming) is having the worst day of his life: his lover leaves him, and his conniving boss, Charles (Rowan Atkinson), fires him for having high principles. Bernard’s luck takes an upswing, though, when he finds an old lamp and out pops Josephus (Lenny Henry), a hip genie. After the initial culture shock, Bernard and Josephus quickly bond. But when Bernard wishes for the “Mona Lisa,” these unlikely pals find themselves pursued by the police.

        A delightful Christmas story, made before anybody in America had heard of Cummings or Atkinson.

        In the end, the profit from such a “bargain” is of far less value than your good conscience.

  16. It is a sad story…but to cheer ourselves up, think of the times when you saved a brand from the burning, so to speak… I rescued three volumes of the New Practical Reference Library (of five, vols. 1 and 3 had vanished). It’s sort of a mini-encyclopedia, from 1915. Marbled edges, half-leather binding, and a charming outlook on life. Winston Churchill gets one paragraph, on account of him just being named First Lord of the Admiralty 😉 They were in my ancient shed/garage, circa 1930. Unfortunately I could not save the early aircraft engine maintenance guides–they were a mass of mold. As in, waving at me and turning into peat. I also salvaged and repaired a Victorian illustrated wonder-guide for children (the engraving of the crocodile was…barely recognizable) and gave it as a wedding gift to friends who loved Victoriana.

    • That reminds me. I salvaged a bunch of radial engine and magneto books from TSTI when they were dumpstered. Now I have to find a new home for them, since I’m not in that field anymore and the local restoration folks don’t want them. I did toss the 194[?] instrument test study guides, though. 1) Mold and dust and 2) someone had gone through (like in the 1970s?) and “corrected” some of the material. *eyeroll*

      • Check on Amazon; selling there is fairly easy, especially if you have ISBN numbers. And if they are several hundred offers starting at one penny, you know it’s a glut.

  17. overgrownhobbit

    I don’t want to ever have the sort of infighting that occurs when relatives squabble over “who gets what” (My comment when mom asked, what I wanted was: you and Dad.) but I do get all the books in the will. Because I won’t necessarily keep them all, if other family members want one or another, but they won’t get tossed or burned either.

    Some of these stories are ones my grandmother read to my mom, who read them to me, and then I read them to my little girl. They’re not just things.

    • There are some books in the family’s shared summer house that I have a sentimental attachment to. First editions of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER and THE INNOCENTS ABROAD, to name two. But they aren’t exactly rare, and they’ve spent a century of winters in an unheated house on the coast near Cape Cod. They aren’t really in readable condition anymore, though I supposed the pages could be rebound.

  18. You know, the waste strikes me even worse now that I’m remembering what happened to a high school classmate of mine recently—basically, she’s lost everything due to toxic mold (or, more accurately, from the toxic gases that the mold puts out.) We live in a dry climate, so the fact that the house was ill-built enough to have walls that are perpetually damp is crazy… and of course it’s a small-time builder with no assets. And insurance doesn’t cover it.

    She can’t take anything lest she spread the infection to a new location, and honestly, I’d think the best use for the house would be to use it as a firefighter training aid, if you could do it safely.

    Oh man. I *hate* wasteful people, when there are folk who lose things for no good cause…

    • There was once a time when kids treasures, such as libraries or precious toys, were routinely lost to fire after the kid (hopefully) survived smallpox, measles or other such illness.

      It is a shame to lose things from neglect, but there are sadder ways to see them go.

    • I mentioned the 2009 floods above… and yeah, my heart bleeds for your friend. Holy crap the mold. I could NOT go downstairs for extended periods of time for months afterward because of the mold giving me allergic reactions the same way I react to house dust. My skin itches just remembering it. We were lucky – with the help of my in-laws and friends online we rebuilt the wooden walls of the ground floor, and an excepionally dry hot season helped at one point.

  19. I’ve done at least two estates like this — including the one where first editions of classic SF monthlys were used as *packing material*….

  20. antimacassar not anti massacre?

  21. I’m passing off my books and comics to a friend who owns a bookstore. It’s only fair, as I bought a lot of them from his mother who started the business. Besides he lets me come in and “borrow” what I call “white noise for the eyes and brain books(which I get back to him after I’m finished).

  22. Meredith Dixon

    While I am certain it was intensely painful having to burn all those books, there is, as far as I can tell, no longer anyone who is willing to take a chance on selling post-1914 twentieth century books. Or, at least (since I have still seen such books in used bookstores here and there) there is no bookseller in the U.S. who is willing to buy such books from the general public.

    Now that I read almost everything in .mobi or .epub (partly for the convenience, but mostly due to vision problems), I’ve tried to look into selling many of my books. The results have been extremely discouraging.

    Fifteen years ago, I was able to sell books I no longer wanted online myself, on Half or Amazon or Alibris or Biblio, for a dollar or so each after online sellers’ fees and shipping. When the penny sellers came in, the market for that tanked; my sales went from a high of 65 books in 2000 to half that by 2002 or so, and so on down. I still sell on Biblio but I’ve been averaging one book sale a year.

    Last summer, I made a determined effort. I decided to sort out all the books that might be worth selling online and make a real effort to sell them (photo of actual book, etc.), and then sort out the remaining VG or better books and sell them to brick-and-mortar dealers, even though that might mean driving hundreds of miles (I live deep in the country).

    I didn’t find enough books that might be worth selling online to make it worth adding them to my listings on Biblio. There aren’t many used books that sell for enough these days that I’ll end up with a dollar in my pocket after postage and Biblio’s fees (not of course counting the original price of the book, and for less than that it’s not worth the gas to take the book to the post office.

    I found that none of the brick-and-mortar bookstores I knew of that sold used books had any interest in buying books from me, only in selling them to me — unless I had originally bought them from them; some were willing to take their own books back. Unfortunately that was a very small category; I have usually bought used books online.

    Then I found that no brick-and-mortar sellers who advertise online will buy ordinary books these days, even in VG+ or Fine condition, unless they are new enough to have the revised ISBN system, the one implemented in 2007. (i.e., they have an ISBN that starts with 9). That in itself lets out my entire collection, barring perhaps a dozen books. Antiquarian booksellers will still buy pre-1914 rag-paper collectible books, but I don’t have many of those and they’re not the ones I’m looking to sell at this time.

    I even went to the trouble of listing about a hundred paperbacks and posting titles and authors to a mailing list for readers of genre fiction. I asked yard-sale prices plus actual postage, and I sold one of the books for a quarter. That was it. On the whole I would rather not do that again; it wasn’t worth my time in making the list and it didn’t pay for the gas to get to the post office, though the book did, I hope, go to a good home.

    So, basically, I’m stuck with an outbuilding full of thousands of well-kept 20th-century volumes. My husband and I are childless and I figure at this point my heirs can deal with them. I hope they won’t deal with them as the OP’s sister did, but I’ve done what I can.

    • One option is to sort the books by genre and sell them by the box on ebay. If the books aren’t sorted by genre, many buyers won’t look at them (or they will never come up in their search perameters) and obviously some genres do much better than others. Harlequin Romance for example are a glut on the market, and you may be lucky to get three or four bucks for a box of fifty, on the other hand you may get a seventy-five bucks for forty mil-SF paperbacks. Yes, they are still garage sale prices, but if you are just interested in getting rid of large numbers at once, and making your current expenses (not what you spent on the book) back, plus enough to buy lunch of the Value Menu, it is one way to actually move numbers of books.

  23. Meredith Dixon

    I should add that I know of at least one store that will take mass-market paperbacks in exchange for store credit to be used to buy more mass-market paperbacks, but since the print of mass market paperbacks is too small for me to read comfortably, that doesn’t do me much good.

  24. Sorting someone’s stuff is so daunting. People put it off and put it off. They think they ought to do something, make sure important things are kept, so they put it off. I know people who have had jobs doing estate sales and I know there are companies who do estate sales. Give important things away before you die. Then hire someone to do an estate sale, pay them out of the proceeds, and *don’t look* at what they know they can’t sell and what goes in the dumpster.

    Also, it might be worth knowing what local clubs (ham radio, machining, shop items, woodworking, computer stuff… in the case of my husband’s things) might be willing to come out and take special categories of stuff if they’re told it’s a donation and they can hold their own sale to raise money with it. They’re sure to know what is worth anything, and you can support the club or hobby, and those who eventually buy it will probably appreciate it more than relatives, unless you’ve got someone with actual interest.

  25. Amazing story, Mrs Hoyt.

    (But burr oak is not capitalized, any more than maple, beech or oak.)

    • Mrs. Hoyt didn’t write this. Also, if you go hunting for typos on my blog you WILL find them. I am not paid to do this (yes, there are subscriptions, but they don’t pay the rates of my fiction) so — it’s free, don’t complain.

    • I spend my days dealing with scientific names, and sometimes the grammatical rules for them slip over when I use common names.