How I Accidentally Inherited A Stranger's Entire Home

Photographed by Erica Gannett.
We'd been apartment-hunting for a month with no success. The holidays were looming; we'd reached the point when you start to consider whether living in your car or on a friend's couch is a viable option. Needless to say, my then-boyfriend and I were more than a bit desperate when we walked into the Greenpoint apartment we'd soon be calling home — and I immediately knew that it was the one.

But as with any reasonably priced New York apartment, there was a catch — and this one was a doozy. The former tenant, Helen, had died and left behind all of her possessions. Her only next-of-kin was a daughter-in-law who had no interest in coming to collect any of her belongings. The landlord refused to deal with the furnished apartment — and with rent so cheap, we couldn't argue.

That's how we basically inherited a thrift store. Walking inside felt like stepping onto the set of All In The Family meets a "Life In The Fifties" exhibit. Despite the fact that I had my own stuff, I couldn't bear to just throw all of hers away. Our mugs co-habit; our family pictures are mixed on the fridge. It's definitely strange, but Helen's things are a part of the apartment — part of a history that's not mine to erase. (Though I drew the line and finally threw out her 1995 tax forms.)

Four years later, our things live together amicably — click through if you don't believe me.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
On the first night we moved in, there were two things that had to go. The mattress and then a calendar that had big X’s over each day that led up to the last day that Helen was alive. The X's were drawn with a shaky hand and it was painful to look at.

The next few months were weird. Every minute we weren’t sanding or painting was another minute we were living in a geriatric microcosm. We painted everything white, but left some of the wallpaper as an homage to the past. Discovering Helen's life was like an archaeological dig, each box revealed something new about her (what prescriptions she took, her dislike of her daughter-in-law, etc.). And in the process, I inevitably found a unique kinship with her.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Here is a snapshot of the original kitchen with Helen's husband and son. The clock is in the same place, with the fridge underneath.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
I didn’t have siblings or pets, so my stuffed animals became my peers. When I was six, we went to Disney World and the maid tossed my Pooh Bear out with the dirty sheets. The hotel gift shop was out of Pooh Bears, so they gave me a Piglet instead. I hate him still.

My relationship with objects has always been tenuous. I used to be the person who held onto things because I felt guilty throwing them out, but I’m working on becoming a person who collects things that represent the person I want to be.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Going through Helen’s things was like one of those local news stories where someone goes to build a strip mall but then they find mastodon bones and the whole project is on hold while each artifact is excavated and documented. It didn’t matter that I smelled like mothballs and I had to wear work boots to go from my bed to my bathroom and was drinking coffee out of a "Helen" mug from the Kennedy Space Center.

The saddest and most fascinating thing to me was when I went through the sympathy cards that she received when her husband died in 1997 and when her son passed in 2005. She kept all of them neatly organized in a box in her closet.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
I feel like I know Helen, but I really don’t. All I can tell from going through her things is that she was organized, efficient, and wasn’t overly sentimental.

The only time Helen looked thoroughly miserable was at her son’s wedding. In every single picture, she looked like she had indigestion.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
When we moved in, there were four wig boxes, but only three actually had wigs in them; the fourth was empty. I later noticed the handwriting on each box which read "#4 choice for burial, #3 choice..." and so on. Of course, the empty box was number 1. I'm guessing she got her wish!
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Helen kept one sole item of her husband’s, a dirty, well-worn baseball cap that hung on the back of the door. He was a sanitation worker, and I picture him walking in after a long day of work and hanging his hat on the hook.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
My parakeet, Bentley, who was found roaming the city streets.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
I couldn’t get rid of Helen’s good dishes, not because they were pretty or even nice, but because they were obviously special to her and I’d imagine her crying over her nice things being thrown out or given away.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
The mugs and the decorative plates all go with a series of vacation photos. When Helen went to Cape Canaveral, she came back with a "Helen" mug and a Florida plate. I love drinking out of them and was disappointed to discover that most museums don't carry "Helen" merchandise these days.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
The tchotchkes split in my apartment has, for the first time, started to tip in my favor. I constantly have to remind myself that it isn’t normal to live with a stranger’s belongings.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Whenever someone would come by the apartment in the first year, I’d make them take something. Someone would gravitate towards something and maybe ask a question about it, so that’s what I’d give away. "This potato magnet is so real!" "It’s yours!"

My favorite thing about the apartment is the light. When the sun rises and sets, the rays shine perfectly through one side and out the other — and, I'm reminded how lucky I am to live here. Ironically, Helen had so many layers of curtains and blinds that she probably never saw the sun shine through.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Whenever I catch someone looking at the various crap on my shelves, I like to play a game called "Is It Mine, Or Helen's?" People will point at something that obviously belonged to an old woman, like my "Play-Yourself Bridge Game" and I'll laugh because I bought it from a Salvation Army in Queens.

Someone else might notice the '80s tape player and say something like “God, you’re such a hipster." I roll my eyes because it belonged to Helen.
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Photographed by Erica Gannett.
When I first moved in, I had a really difficult time coming to terms with the idea of Helen all by herself for the last years of her life. It was only when a friend of mine pointed out that she looked so happy in her photos that I began to realize that she did have good memories to look back on.

I tell myself that in old age, she might have been reflecting fondly on her past instead of focusing on the present with anxiety. I believe in mediums and spirits and I've never felt a negative presence in the apartment. If I was totally off-base about who I perceive Helen to be, I would expect her to haunt the apartment, since that's what I would do if I were in her shoes.
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