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26 August 2010

Reduced to Stuff

I noticed first the empty porch, devoid of welcoming furniture. I walked into the charming white country cottage to its hollow foyer, lacking furnishings and breath. I understood what he meant about watching their life being dismantled, watching their stuff being divided up and sold, as if they were dead. He said nobody should have to sit back and observe while the end of their life is being managed, estate sales, auction houses, calls from siblings far away staking claims on what they want. Anything with monetary value had already been taken, sold, or spoken for. Nearly everything else was dissolved.
The house could use a coat of paint.
In the kitchen we emptied a pantry closet, throwing spices and bags of sugar away. We gathered some glass to try to sell, worthless, all of it, but not to his mother; these were her things. We looked at the blue and white plates from Cracker Barrel, the tea cups, the saucers, a full eight piece set, on display in the china cabinet, never used, maybe one plate was missing, yes, only 7 small plates, but eight of everything else, and one gravy boat. "We could sell these" she says of her plates and cups carefully displayed in the curio cabinet. "I paid $12 a plate."
Nobody will want this I thought. Nobody will want the glass platters or vases either, but I will take it all. I will send her money and tell her I sold it. Is she measuring her value by other people's desire for her stuff?
I wanted to leave. My stomach felt uneasy. I wanted to say, none of this means anything. Lets get the hell out of here and go eat. Let's celebrate life. Let's set the damn place on fire. Instead I carefully wrapped each piece of worthless glass and stacked it in the tote. I excitedly asked for a little maple basket, maybe I can put some fruit in it. I suggested she give a little candle holder to her granddaughter for her birthday tomorrow. I reveled in the new blender she gave me. The large hand painted plate will never be of much use in my kitchen, but happily, I accepted it. I couldn't finish quickly enough.
I walked around the skeleton of living space and photographed the few remaining pieces of furniture.
She was sitting in the foyer, next to the old fireplace, in a shabby wooden chair, vacant. I asked about the cabinet in the corner.
"Yes, sell it." she said.
"And what about the stuff inside it? Is that also for sale?" I inquired.
"Well" she said, "that doesn't really belong to me. It was here when we moved in." My confusion was not masked. The cabinet was hers, but the stuff in it, carefully displayed, was not. A large old book with a dark hard cover appealed to my curiosity.
"What is this?" I asked.
"Oh, that has a story!" she exclaimed. "The Atkinson's lived here." She continued. "Their grandson Tom went to Clemson, and that's a yearbook that was sent to all the families of men who died in the second world war."
"Can I open it? Can I touch the book?" I eagerly moved my hand toward the handle of the curio cabinet.
"And this other stuff?" I mused as I was reaching for the book. "Is it theirs also?"
"Oh yes, and there's more. I just didn't have the heart to get rid of it. We took care of his sister Henrietta. I offered it to the family but they didn't want any of it. So all these years I kept it on display in this cabinet."
"This is the most valuable thing you have." I said as I leafed through the pages of the old book. Loosely taped in the front was a letter to Mr. & Mrs. Atkinson from the Dean of Clemson expressing their deepest sympathy for the tragic loss of Thomas when his plane crashed while serving his country. Furthermore the letter said, this yearbook is so we never forget the price of war and we always strive for peace.
I held this book, scrolled through its pages, and thought, this is so much more than a book. This cabinet is a real reminder of humanity, the need to matter, the need to remember people and history.
The shelves had pictures, newspaper articles, and a little crystal clock. Time.
I lifted the little pile of newspaper clippings, yellow and frail. Tom Bass's obituary included very specific details of his plane crash. It ended with the details of his body being laid to rest in the family home, the very foyer I was standing in.
When I finished reading this aloud to Abbey, Grammy continued saying the story gets worse. She proceeded to tell me how the other son, TW was killed as a small child, a car backed over him. Then her dear friend Henrietta fell and broke both her hips, crippling her. She finished by saying she and Grumpy handled the affairs for her funeral when she passed.
Mr. Atkinson's obituary was included in the clippings, and pictures of Henrietta from the paper, who incidentally was very beautiful.

Name: Sgt. Thomas G. Bass, Jr.
Parents: Thomas Joseph & Lois Atkinson Bass
Date of Birth: September 14, 1920
Place of Birth: Latta, Dillon Co.SC
Date of Death: December 3, 1943
Place of Death: Salt Flats, New Mexico (plane crash)
Place of Burial: Latta Cemetery
Source and date of issue: The Dillon Herald, Dillon, SC, Thursday, December 9, 1943, page1, col. 6 and December 16, 1943, page 2, col. 3 & 4

5 years later Thomas Bass' mother died.

Name: Lois Bass
Parents: W. B. and Hernietta Gaddy Atkinson
Spouse: Thomas J. Bass (married 1917)
Date of Death: April 20, 1948
Place of Burial: Magnolia Cemetery
Source & date of issue: The Dillon Herald, Dillon, SC, Thursday, April 29, 1948, page 5, col. 2

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