I'm writing this from ground zero, my childhood home in Orange. To get through my job here, I need smelling salts and a bulldozer.

Eight months ago, my elderly parents moved out of the single-story ranch home they tended for years and into a home that tends to them. I have parachuted in from Florida, where I now live. I've taken a week off work to clear out the place and start fixing it up to sell.

I can tell right now that one week is not time enough to undo nearly half a century of living in one house. It's not time enough to sort through the mountains of memorabilia, the dishes and documents, linens and letters, crystal and cookware, photos and furniture, tools and trinkets.

So many piles

But it's what I've got. I arrive near midnight on a recent Saturday and sleep in my old room. A triangle from where my high school pennant once hung is ghosted into the faded yellow paint. I'm up early the next day. Boosted by the three-hour time difference from Florida, I charge in, trying not to fall into sinkholes of sentiment. I sort stuff into piles designated: toss, donate, sell, Craigslist, keep and unsure. The unsure pile grows faster than any other. I get derailed often, sucked in by such finds as the suitcase containing my mom's wedding dress.

Still, I steamroll along because the painters are coming Thursday, and everything has to be gone or in the garage by then. If you're ever frozen in a sad well of pity, just schedule painters.

As the sale pile grows, I know I have to hold a garage sale -- or estate sale, as the bigger ones are called. Since I won't be in town a full Saturday, the prime day for garage sales, I have to host the sale midweek. I worry that no one will come. Before I can change my mind, I post an ad for an estate sale -- "50 Years of Treasures" -- on Craigslist, Estatesales.com and the PennySaver online. My brother and sister-in-law arrive like angels to help sort. We stick signs around the neighborhood.

On Monday, I empty closets and cupboards and set up display tables with like items: purses, tchotchkes, china, vases, books, CDs, floral arrangements and figurines. We turn the 1,700-square-foot house into a boutique. I make a stab at pricing, but I really have no clue what much of this stuff is worth, if anything.

Get in line

I discover, among other stashed secrets, that my British mother has enough crocheted doilies, dresser scarves, embroidered hankies and linen tablecloths to cover the surface of the moon. The next morning, I'm up again at 5, putting price stickers on items -- $1, $5, $50, Make an Offer. I put "Not for Sale" Post-its on furniture I can't bear to sell, though know I should.

The two-day sale starts at 8 a.m. Tuesday. By 7 a.m., a line starts forming at the front door. Buyers are making a numbered list of who was first, second and so on. They know game rules; I don't. First come, first in, first dibs.

A steady stream of buyers, armed with magnifying glasses, penlights and laptops, turns more than half of the household contents into cash in two days and teaches me a lifetime of lessons about the world of secondhand sales. Here's some of what I learned:

Call it what you like. An estate sale implies that a whole household is on sale. It usually is held indoors. A garage, moving or yard sale implies that the person is cleaning house. A rummage sale invites people to dig for buried treasures.

The estate sale in progress at my parents’ home in Orange, Calif.
The estate sale in progress at my parents' home in Orange, Calif. (Marni Jameson)

Value is relative. Do not assume you can guess what shoppers will buy. A box of old rags, cans of rusty nails, an old meat grinder (to turn into a lamp), vintage postcards -- all sold. One couple bought the Clorox and a gallon jug of white vinegar.

Nothing is sacred. Expect to be invaded. Signs on doors that say "Don't Open" mean nothing. One shopper took the single bath towel I was using from the bathroom. Another asked how much for my blow dryer.

Which day? Weekend sales may attract more buyers, but midweek sales attract collectors, dealers and professional pickers, who buy and sell for a living and often shop during the workweek.

Some people have no class. One buyer picked up the pile of worn towels marked to sell for $1 each. She wanted the stack of roughly 15 towels for $5 to use in a rehabilitation center, she said. As my sister-in-law finalized the sale, she found that the customer had shoved a few more treasures inside the stack.

Some people have a lot of class. One collector pointed out that an all-white porcelain figurine I had priced at $5 was a first-issue Hummel, circa 1939-45. Based on the stamp, it was probably worth closer to $1,500. He suggested I reconsider the pricing.

Know your goal. It's easy to get caught up in pricing items based on how much you would have to buy them for, but when we kept our goal in mind -- clear the place out -- prices fell. Our win-win motto was: "The more you buy, the less things cost." When a shopper asked how much for a Lazy Susan filled with spices, I said $5. "And how much without the spices?" she asked. Answer: $8.

Don't do this to your children. Parents of adult children, please declutter now. Let go, pare down and lighten everyone's load.

Marni Jameson is the author of "House of Havoc" and "The House Always Wins" (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.