Emptying family home leads to reflection

January 11, 2003|By ROB KASPER

LAST WEEK I did a reverse covered-wagon. Like the settlers of old, I journeyed, along with my 22-year-old son, halfway across the country hauling a cargo of household goods. Unlike the covered-wagon crowd, we traveled west to east, from Kansas to Maryland. Instead of a horse-drawn wagon, we bounced along in a rented truck that rolled some 1,100 miles, mostly on Interstate 70.

Our two days as cross-country truckers - sitting up high behind the wheel, parking next to the big rigs in the rest stops - came at the end of a tumultuous time for our family.

I had gone to Kansas City to bury my younger brother, Mark, who died on New Year's Eve at the age of 51 of an apparent heart attack. A bachelor who battled diabetes, he had lived with our parents in the family's Kansas City-area home. My father died in 1998, and my mother passed away last July.

Now with our parents and Mark gone, the house was empty. After going through the all-too-familiar rituals of funeral and burial, my two remaining brothers and our wives sorted through the household goods, trying to figure out what to keep and what to give away.

It is a task, I suppose, that comes with middle age. I don't like it. I prefer other midlife duties, such as of worrying where your teen-ager is and giving advice to your college kid. But I did not have a choice. So I decided that rather than flying back to Baltimore, I was going to rent a truck, load it with family furniture and knickknacks and drive it back East.

The value of most of the items was more sentimental than monetary. For instance, my older brother who lives in Boston claimed a brass bucket, one that he used to polish as a kid. My other younger brother, who also lives in Kansas City and who can fix anything, wanted a 16-foot extension ladder. I took my late brother's favorite coat and an ancient pot that my mother used to prepare the Sunday afternoon pot roast. I also took a Ferris wheel-like contraption that my father used to store nuts and bolts on his workbench.

Then there were pieces of furniture, which were not exactly stunning examples of design, but had provided years of loyal service, and must, we felt, remain in the family.

My son and I loaded these pieces, and an assortment of other sentimental freight, in the rented truck, putting the heavy items up front, wedging and padding, making sure the load was tightly packed.

The next morning, we headed out, catching two days of surprisingly benign winter weather as we rolled through the brown fields of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. We spent the night in Indianapolis, then pushed through the flatlands of Ohio, eventually climbing into the mountains of West Virginia and Maryland, arriving in Baltimore in the thick of a Wednesday evening rush hour.

Along the way, we had spoken of many things, including our favorite memories of my late brother. My son remembered him as an indulgent uncle who delighted in staying up with his visiting nephews, watching the astonishingly wide array of late-night cable channels that he subscribed to. I recalled that he was a kind soul who let people move in line in front of him, which is what he had done at BWI airport, against my advice, as he returned to Kansas City after visiting us this Christmas.

We unloaded the truck in the dark, double-parked on a city street with the truck's flashers blinking. My 17-year-old son and Hugh, his muscular buddy, helped us carry the Kansas City cargo into its new Baltimore home.

In the bright sunlight of the next morning, I saw that some of the goods had had a rough trip. A clock that was supposed to chime will have to be taken to a repair shop to regain its voice. An end table is in need of some glue.

Eventually, they will be repaired and will be become part of our domestic landscape. We will see them daily and use them often. Most of all, they will remind us of those who have gone before us.

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