A Heritage Lost

I spent most of last week with my old friend Psycho Dish, down at his parents’ house in the eastern suburbs of Philadelphia, just across the New Jersey state line. His dad passed away a couple of weeks before Christmas, at 86 years old. He’d had a heart attack in the middle of November, and everyone thought he’d never leave the hospital alive, but he fought his way back to the point that the doctors had agreed to let him leave. As they discharged him, they cautioned the family that he could pass at any time, and they were letting him go so he could have perhaps a few more weeks with them during the holidays and die at home, which at that point was all that he wanted. And a month later, after a chance to enjoy some last simple pleasures and say his proper goodbyes to everyone, that’s what he did.

His wife had already been gone a few years and all of his children had households of their own, so the plan on this first warm week of spring was that all of the children, along with a few spouses and older grandchildren, were to come together at the house to clear it out before it got professionally cleaned and then sold. Pads of Post-It notes of various colors were given to all the family members, who were to use them to tag whatever items they wanted. Anything left unclaimed after the week was over would be offered to the Salvation Army, and anything that they wouldn’t take would be left for the cleaners to dispose of. I was the only one there not related by blood or marriage, but it was a big task and any help was welcome. Family members showed up in clusters over the first couple of days of the week. We got there in the second wave, after a fair amount of stuff had already been claimed, though fortunately nothing that Psycho Dish really had his eye on. After all the requisite greetings (and in my case, introductions) were over, Psycho Dish took the pad of blue Post-Its that had been set aside for him and started a room-by-room sweep, tagging everything he intended to take with him. I was sent to the master bedroom and given the task of taking boxes down from the shelves from the closet – many of which had been up there for as long as anyone could remember – and making an inventory of what was in them.

It’s amazing how much someone accumulates over the course of a long life, and every little thing tells a piece of their story. I had only met Psycho Dish’s dad a couple of times before he passed, but, in a sense, I got to know him better during that week than I ever had while he was living.

The first thing that had to be done was clearing the closet of all of his clothes. I had only just started when I came across an important part of his story – his fire department uniforms. He had been an electrical engineer by trade, but when he moved to what was then a small but rapidly-growing suburban town in the mid-1950s, he discovered that it had no fire department, or really any emergency services at all beyond a handful of bored police officers. He could have done what so many who move to small towns nowadays do – agitate for taxes to be raised and for the government to solve the problem for him. Instead, he decided that he was going to be a part of the solution himself. He gathered a group of like-minded men from around the town, and together they founded a volunteer fire department. The first fire station was an old barn, and the first fire engine a used model bought from Philadelphia and paid for mostly with donations from the townspeople. All of the volunteers had full-time jobs, but they all dedicated tremendous amounts of their free time toward the benefit of their neighbors and their community. He had served in the department for 50 years, until advanced age meant he could no longer do so, and continued being involved with them, showing up in his Class A’s to all of their ceremonial events, to the day he died.

I called Psycho Dish’s sister Janet, who was executrix of the will, into the bedroom and asked her what to do with them. After a pause, she replied: “I’ll call the department and see if they want them back. Maybe they can do something with them.”

Leaving the uniforms in place, I continued taking clothes out of the closet, pulling them off of their hangers and bagging them in big white trash bags for their trip to the Salvation Army. It wasn’t long, however, before I found another item that deserved a better fate. It was a windbreaker, covered in patches with the names, designations, and images of perhaps a couple of dozen Navy ships. Here too was a part of his story. He had been born in the California of Steinbeck novels during the depths of the Great Depression, worked his way through high school while war raged across the sea, maintained impeccable grades, ended up with a full-ride scholarship to UC Berkeley’s engineering school, and graduated with the Class of ’55. It was the height of the Cold War, and smart engineers were greatly in demand by the defense industry. RCA hired him straight out of college and moved him to a research facility near the Philadelphia Navy Yards. He worked on radio transmitters and radars for a few years, but his crowning achievement was his work on the AEGIS system, a tightly integrated radar and weapons package that makes the modern warships that have it basically invulnerable to the kind of aerial attacks that devastated the WWII Navy. So critical was his work on the project that whenever a newly-built AEGIS ship went out for sea trials, he would be among the civilian engineers brought aboard to troubleshoot problems. Each patch was a gift from the captain of the ship he had sailed with, and there were a lot of them there. While radicalism and protest overtook his alma mater, he remained a moderate Kennedy Democrat, holding on to the mindset of an age in which patriotism was assumed to cut across party lines. There was never any question for him that helping to defend his country by working for the Military-Industrial Complex was morally right. As far as he was concerned, that’s just what any patriotic American would do.

I found Psycho Dish and handed the jacket to him. He gave it a sad look, then told me to put it aside and we’d figure out what to do with it later. With that done, I started hauling bags of clothes out to the car for their trip to the donation bin. I’d only gotten a couple of them loaded before Psycho Dish found me in the bedroom and told me he’d rounded up some help.

This came in the form of his son, who had just shown up. He lived full-time with his Aunt Janet, but hadn’t arrived with her. He’d held off a couple of days and ended up driving down with his cousin Brie, who had to wait until her week of Spring Break started before she could join us. He wasn’t in college himself, though, nor was he doing much of anything else with his life. One Christmas when he was 10 or 11, Psycho Dish had given him a Pokémon game and a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards, and that had pretty much sealed his fate. Now he was 23, had washed out of college permanently after multiple tries, and had recently quit the latest in a series of low-paying food service jobs flipping burgers or making cappuccino. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the intelligence to make more of himself; he just didn’t have the ambition for it. What he made was enough to pay the pittance rent his aunt asked of him, buy whatever cheap food he needed to supplement what he ate at work, and buy Pokémon DLC or Magic cards – which was all he really asked for in life. Hanging from a strap around his neck was a plastic case with a sticker of a female anime character on it. In the spirit of polite small talk, I asked him what it was.

“It’s my Switch!”

A young woman’s voice interjected loudly, “He never put the damn thing down once the whole trip!” It was Brie, who was looking through a bookshelf in the hallway just beyond the bedroom door. I hadn’t met her before, but with her short, bright green hair and large nose ring, she made quite a first impression. More ambitious than him, she was in the final semester of a Women’s Studies degree at a school in Massachusetts.

Shaking her head slightly as she stared at the bookshelf, she continued, “Not even when I stopped for a piss break.”

Wanting the conversation to go in a different direction, I pointed at the sticker on the case and asked, “Who’s that?”

“That’s Cynthia! She’s my waifu!”

“Your waifu?”

“Yeah, she’s the best Pokémon master! Nobody can beat her!”

Brie broke back into the conversation in a tone of annoyance mixed with exasperation. “Waifus aren’t real, and they’re a totally unrealistic vision of womanhood!”

“She’s real enough for me” he grumbled, with a manner that made me sure this wasn’t the first time they’d had that conversation.

And in fact, she was real enough for him. Neither Psycho Dish nor anyone else in the family could find any evidence that he’d ever been on a date or kissed a girl or even had a crush on a female of the 3D variety. It wasn’t that he was fat or ugly. Psycho Dish had married and divorced a Chinese girl, and his son was the sole lasting product of their union. Biracial children often look very much one race or very much the other, and he bore the unmistakable features of his mother’s East Asian side of the family. He grew up to be thin, a bit slight, and not very tall, but by no means would he be unattractive to the opposite sex. And he wasn’t gay, either – he’d made that clear enough through his objections a few years earlier when his mother got caught up in the zeitgeist of the age and made a clumsy attempt at trannying him up for attention – one that fortunately came late enough in his development that he was able to successfully resist it. No, it was simply that, as with school and work, he couldn’t find a way to get interested enough in women, or anything other than his games, to seriously pursue them.

For a fleeting second, I wondered how many plastic water bottles he had gone through in his life and what a blood test might reveal about his testosterone levels, but then turned my mind back to the task at hand. I had him take a couple of the smaller bags of clothes out to the car, then gave charge of him back to his father and drove off to make the donation on my own.

When I returned to the house, I spotted a man and woman coming back down the driveway toward me, having apparently just talked to Janet, who was still standing by the front door.

“Who were they?”, I asked.

In an almost-disgusted tone, she answered “Flippers.”

“Huh?”

“House flippers, like you see on TV. They just bought a house down the street and they figured out what we were doing here somehow. I guess it’s their business to know things like that. Anyhow, they made me an offer on the house. It’s lowball, but they said they’ll take it as-is, which would save us a lot of trouble. They said they could make it into a lovely little starter home for a young couple.”

She took a long look back into the living room before continuing.

“A starter home? My dad lived in this house 60 years. He raised four kids here. He carried his bride through the front door and they stayed here till the day she died, right in that bedroom you’re cleaning, and then to the day he died here on the front porch. Whatever happened to moving into a place, making it your own, getting to know your neighbors, becoming a part of your community? If I sell it to them, they’ll flip it, then five years from now whoever buys it will flip it to someone else, and they’ll flip it to someone else a few years after that. Nobody puts down roots anymore. Nobody takes pride in where they are. They just wait for the day when they can flip what they’ve got and buy a bigger house with a bigger garage where they can park a bigger car.”

She took a breath, then in a resigned tone said, “Well, I told them I’d think about their offer, and I will.”

Saying nothing else, she went inside, and I followed close behind.

Back in the bedroom, I started taking boxes down from the top shelves in the now much-cleaner closet. The first box, a small one, contained his and his wife’s passports, and a couple of envelopes full of assorted foreign currency. He’d built a fine career with RCA’s defense division, but after the Cold War ended and contracts started drying up during the Clinton years, they’d offered him a pension buyout and he’d retired a few years early. It wasn’t quite as much as one might think, but through some careful investing, he’d managed to build it into a healthy retirement fund. For almost 20 years afterward, until his wife got her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, they’d lived the American Dream in its golden years – doting on grandchildren, gardening, dance classes (with an AARP discount, of course), and travel – all manner of “bucket list” places in summer, and ten-day all-expenses-paid cruises to warmer climes in winter. A quick look through the envelopes revealed Euros, pre-Euro currencies from maybe a half-dozen countries on the continent, Japanese yen, Hong Kong dollars, Turkish lira, Mexican pesos, Korean won, Thai baht, and Egyptian pounds, among others. They’d sure gotten around. Good for them. I put the box aside.

The next box revealed an Audubon Society guide to birds of the northeast and an older, but respectably prosumer-level, set of Nikon binoculars in a very nice nylon case. A fine choice for birdwatching… and also for assessing accuracy in the type of long-distance target shooting I’d lately been doing. When Psycho Dish came by the bedroom to see how the trip to the Salvation Army had gone, I handed him the case and in a quiet voice said, “Hey, do me a favor… tag this for me.” He gave me a sly smile, replied “Sure thing, dude”, and slapped a blue Post-It on it. Thus was I remunerated for my day’s labors.

The third box was indeed the charm, and this was where I began to strike paydirt. Here lay the first part of stamp and coin collections, both presumably quite valuable, and both claimed by Psycho Dish’s youngest sister Chrissy before her father’s body was cold. Box after box contained binders that held proof sets, foreign stamps, old half-dollars, canceled envelopes, and authentication papers. I decided to find Janet so I could report my success.

I discovered her in the kitchen, sitting at the table with Psycho Dish, his son, and Brie, in the midst of a conversation.

“…and I was able to talk them into taking the uniforms back, but they said they weren’t sure they’d ever be able to make use of them.” Janet said, as she stared down into a cup of coffee with a sad look, “In fact, they said that the mayor and the council have been thinking of replacing the volunteer department with a full-time professional one. The town has grown a lot over the years and, well… people don’t volunteer for things like that as much as they used to. I guess the pace of life is faster, and we all don’t have as much time for it anymore.”

“What about the awards?”, Psycho Dish asked.

The awards he had received over his lifetime covered an entire wall of the hallway – lacquered wood plaques with brass plates that had his name and one of his many accomplishments listed on them, mostly bearing the engraved shield of the fire department shield or the visage of a fireman, interspersed with a few from his church or the Navy or RCA. Each one was a monument to decades worth of patriotism, hard work, civic involvement, and community-mindedness.

“No, they’re too personalized”, Janet answered. “They can take his name tags off the uniforms pretty easy, but the awards are different. They couldn’t do anything with them.”

There was a short silence, which she broke without being asked.

“If there were only one or two, I’d take them myself. But there’s so many… I just don’t have the room.”

I knew – they all knew – that everyone there had been thinking the same thing. After an awkward moment, Brie offered them an honorable out.

“If nobody can think of anything else to do with them, I know someone who’d take them. One of my friends at school is a fine arts major. She mentioned once that people in her department look for old plaques like that in thrift stores all the time. They strip the brass off them and use the wood as display bases for art projects – y’know, like small sculptures and such. I mean, at least it’d be for education, and it’s better than…” she cast a dramatic glance at the kitchen garbage can “…the alternative.”

Janet suddenly looked a bit less burdened. “Well, your great-grandmother was an artist, and your grandfather was a great believer in education…”

If anyone was going to object, they would have then. None of them did. I said nothing, as I was not a member of the family and it was not my place to. But my own experiences in graduate school meant that I knew what had been coming from fine arts departments lately. I could not restrain myself from imagining an award presented in recognition of long and hazardous service as a first responder for the people of the community stripped to become the base of a two-foot-tall sculpture of a vagina.

“Yes, dear” Janet continued, “why don’t you go ahead and give your friend a call?”

“Sure thing”, Brie replied, and with this left the room to start dialing.

With that issue solved, Janet turned her attention to me. “And what have you been up to?”, she asked cheerfully.

“I found the coins and stamps. There’s a whole lot of them.”

Here Psycho Dish broke into the conversation: “So, remind me why we’re just letting Chrissy walk off with those? I mean, dad didn’t specifically leave them to her, and you’re executrix of the will. You don’t have to let her claim all the valuable stuff.”

A faint smile came to Janet’s lips. “I thought about saying something to her about it, but then I did a little research. The truth is, stamp collecting has absolutely collapsed as a hobby over the past couple of decades. Young people just aren’t into it at all.”

I glanced over at Psycho Dish’s son, whose nose was buried in his Switch, spending a few precious moments of his break from clearing out the garage with Cynthia. Maybe if they put Pikachu on a postage stamp he’d be interested, but not otherwise.

“Stamp collections that would have been worth thousands of dollars back in the 80s or 90s are now just about worth the paper they’re printed on. There’s simply no demand anymore. And coin collecting is only mildly better. Unless they’re really rare or made out of some kind of precious metal, they’re basically worth face value at this point. Even at that, silver dollars and the like generally won’t bring in much beyond their melt value. The bottom line is that the whole collection isn’t worth anywhere near as much as Chris thinks it is, so it just isn’t worth fighting her over.”

She continued, “Besides which, Chris didn’t read the will very carefully. It specifically says that if any of us decide to sell off something from the estate instead of keeping it, the proceeds are subject to the same conditions as his cash and investments – the profits get split equally between all four children, except for 10% that gets held back and donated to First United Presbyterian.”

A last tithing to his place of worship of 60 years – a respectable, middle-class, mainline protestant congregation in which he had risen to National Assembly Elder for his synod. And they certainly needed the money; declining attendance had hit them hard, made worse by splits over social issues that threatened to tear not just the congregation, but the entire Presbyterian Church in half. The Presbyterian church building just down the block from my own residence has a rainbow flag hung over the main entrance. First United didn’t have one yet, but now that the old generation was passing…

“I’m hungry” the son interjected. “When are we eating?”

He had a point. It was nearly 5:30 in the evening, and we had been working all day. There was nothing wrong with quitting now, having a good meal and a long sleep, and then coming back in the morning. The kitchen was a shambles, with pots and dishes and utensils taken out of cabinets, tagged, and put in boxes. After a short discussion, it was decided that everyone should fend for themselves when it came to finding their evening meal. Psycho Dish decided that we deserved a steak dinner, so he, his son, and I put on our jackets and headed out to the car for a trip to the local steakhouse.

As we pulled away, I took a long look backward. There was a man’s whole life; a life that exemplified the 20th century American Dream, and not only in its material aspects. Yes, there was the suburban house with the white picket fence. But there was also the patriotism that was reflexive without being showy, the civic pride and dedication to a high-trust community, the solid marriage and family life, the emphasis on education and hard work, even the middle-class hobbies like birdwatching and stamp collecting. All relics of a disappearing era along a path we will certainly only tread once; of a bygone America that now exists only in fading memory. It was nice while it lasted, but I suppose that nothing in this world lasts forever.

It was a good dinner. Steaks and beers and being free of our melancholy task for the night lightened our moods and loosened our tongues. Before long, Psycho Dish and I were deep in conversation about everything in the world.

But not his son, who somehow managed to eat his entire supper with one hand while playing Pokémon on his Switch with the other.

He never put the damn thing down once the whole time.

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