Wednesday, February 10, 2016

don't you forget about me

My wife sells stuff. All kinds of stuff. — toys, TV memorabilia, cookie cutters, vintage advertisements, clothing, household items. Like I said, all kinds of stuff. In order to sell stuff, she has to buy stuff. And she buys a lot of stuff. 

Recently, Mrs. P made arrangements through the internet to buy some guy's stuff. And buy it she did. She came home with a big box filled with stuff — mostly ephemera. "Ephemera," for the uninitiated, is a fancy word for "printed and paper collectibles." The box, a carton that previously held neatly packaged reams of copy paper, was overflowing with thick folded documents, dogeared squares of faded and yellowed cardboard and an assortment of printed advertisements that predated my parents. She plopped the box in an unobtrusive corner of the dining room with the promise to sort through it after dinner.

When we finished our dinner, Mrs. P cleared a spot on the kitchen table and we began to make some sort of order of the box's contents. We made neat little piles of colorful postcards here, stacks of vintage road maps there. From the bottom of the accumulation, Mrs. Pincus produced three folded portfolios, dark, but faded in color, each embossed with a hard-to-make-out, but official-looking seal. She opened the first one to reveal an elementary school diploma bearing the name of a student named Arthur. The second one was Arthur's high school diploma and the third was a commendation for Arthur for perfect scholastic attendance. Mrs. P examined the three documents closely, noting the name and location of the schools. We live just outside of Philadelphia and it seems Arthur got his education in the Chicago area in the 1940s.

Now, my spouse was on a mission. She took to Facebook, everyone's favorite go-to source for all things human and interconnected. First she posted a little blurb on the Facebook page maintained by the Chicago suburb that was Arthur's hometown. Next, she posted photos of Arthur's documents on a Philadelphia-based Facebook page that regularly features vintage images of the City of Brotherly Love.  Then, she sat back a waited.

Her wait was not long. Soon, she was flooded with replies, mostly from strangers commenting on how cool her find was. But, in the midst of those benign responses, she received a link to poor Arthur's obituary in a Fulton, Illinois newspaper. After getting over her momentary sorrow, she read the death notice and found the name of the mortuary that handled Arthur's funeral.

Always persistent, she found a phone number for the funeral home. Actually, there were three locations. She tried the first number. After two rings, a man with a deep, ominous voice with a slow, deliberate delivery answered.

"Hello." My wife pictured Lurch from The Addams Family on the other end of the phone line.

She explained the reason for her call, mentioning the diplomas and certificate, before asking the very out-of-the-ordinary question: if she could have access to contact information about next of kin. The man on the phone, once understanding that this call would not result in his business handling another funeral, lost interest in furthering the conversation.

"Write me a letter and I will put you in touch with family members, if I can.," he offered with no detectable emotion in his voice.

"A letter?," Mrs. P asked, "Can't you just give me that information now? Over the phone?"

He repeated, even more slowly, "Write me a letter."

My wife thanked him, hung up and immediately called the number for the funeral director's other location. A friendly woman answered the phone. She was much more receptive when Mrs. P related the story of Arthur and his school certificates. She told my wife the names and phone numbers of several nieces and nephews, as Arthur had never married and left this world childless. For the second time that evening, Mrs. P thanked a funeral director.

Still determined, Mrs. P left voice messages for a niece and nephew of Arthur's, one of whom lives in nearby New Jersey. The next day, our dinner was interrupted by a call from Arthur's niece. She was grateful for the contact and spoke briefly about her departed uncle. When asked if she would like the few earthly remnants of Arthur's existence we had discovered at the bottom of a box of maps and postcards, Arthur's niece politely passed.

A little later in the evening, Arthur's nephew called. A few pleasantries were exchanged. He told my wife that the woman claiming to be Arthur's niece is not actually related, thus creating a bit of family intrigue. The focus of the conversation was quickly rerouted when he then explained that Arthur served in the US Army and his battalion was in the first wave of troops at Okinawa or Iwo Jima or something to do with World War II. In reality, Mrs. P stopped listening when yet another of Arthur's relatives declined to be the caretaker of his precious records of academic achievement. Arthur's nephew was more interested in telling about his own preoccupation with US military history.

So, Mrs. P stared at poor Arthur's documents, turning them over and examining them again. "There's gotta be somebody who wants these things.," she lamented.

If you are the person who feels qualified and, maybe even obligated, to carry the torch for Arthur, your wish can come true here. You pay for shipping, of course.

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