Before Carole A left the “monotony” of Southwest Florida weather to return to the Chicago area where she was born and had lived most of her life, she asked my father if we would take in a few boxes and store them in our machinery warehouse until she picked them up. Within a few days UPS delivered a total of 26 white “file storage” boxes (sometimes called “Bankers Boxes”) to the warehouse. The boxes were piled on a large double axle cart awaiting Carol A’s arrival. The anticipated rendezvous never occurred. For though Carole A returned to Chicagoland, she almost immediately became very sick and was hospitalized; the diagnosis—end stage lung cancer. She died within a few weeks.
After more than six years of waiting for Carole A’s son to claim the boxes the task has fallen to me to deal with them as we prepare to vacate the machinery warehouse. I’m thinking that the contents of the boxes probably belongs mostly in the dumpster but maybe there are some items I should take to Goodwill or save for her son in the unlikely event we can track him down again. With my Swiss army knife drawn, I tackle the tape on the first box.
The tape on the box is consistent with the Carole I once knew; applied quickly, haphazardly, and in great abundance. The tape job may not be stylish but it is effective—getting the top off the box requires quite a bit of effort. And I’m not sure the effort is worthwhile. The box yields a bible in a wooden box plus some paperback self-help books, two damaged ceramic statues of elephants, a rather nice tall Virgin Mary statue wrapped in a towel apparently for protection, unfortunately the haloed head has broken off in transit. The box includes a couple of oversize t-shirts and lots of business cards proclaiming, “Carole ‘A’” and listing the real estate brokerages with which she was affiliated.
Our long time shop supervisor, now retired but moonlighting for a few hours a week as his place of employment for fifty years finally closes, comes over and decides to go to work opening boxes. After attacking the layers of sticky tape and dusty cardboard for several minutes with a dull box cutter, he finally manages to open a couple of boxes. One yields several old sweat shirts and the other a number of pairs of shoes and boots. In disgust he says to me, “why don’t we just stack these boxes in the dumpster—they’re so damned hard to open and you know this stuff’s just gonna be all junk.” I demur telling him that I’ll open them. He heads home (probably with a stop at a favored local “watering hole”) and I continue. It’s just me and Carole’s memory in a big industrial structure full of production metalworking machinery that needs rebuilding. The building is old with lots of windows and skylights so there is plenty of natural if somewhat muted light. Various furnaces drone on then flick off keeping the place around 40 degrees.
I slit open some more boxes. More clothes for relaxation; loose fitting and large. I wonder if Carole gained some weight since the days I knew her. Then there is a little collection of Christmas stuff, more paperback books and lots of purses and handbags that will be great for Goodwill. I first met Carole when I started working in the machinery business as a high school junior. She was what was then called a secretary. She could write in shorthand faster than ordinary people could speak and even more incredibly, she could actually type finish quality documents as a person spoke normally. I was 16 years old; she was 32 and the mother of a 10-year-old. She and her child shared an apartment with her mother. Carole loved to talk especially about politics, religion, and general gossip. She was hardworking, dedicated to her son, and very attached to her church.
I am getting almost adroit at opening the boxes. There is a space just under the lid which becomes the target for the knife so I end up cutting mostly layers of tape and very little of the cardboard. The flow of items continues: well used hair dryers and heated curlers, a hot pot, all shapes of paper containers, a like new little blue clock, lots of oversize loose fitting clothes, a National Geographic coffee table book on elephants, theology/philosophy books by Jacque Maritain and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and lots of feel good pop psychology by Leo Buscaglia. Not long after I got to know Carole she went to work on helping me gain admittance to my dream college, the University of Notre Dame. That was typical Carole—fired up in pursuit of an impossible cause that really wouldn’t benefit her in the slightest.
Her efforts were huge and brassy beyond belief. With her sometimes infectious enthusiasm she got her friendly very well -connected parish priest to get three other very prominent clerics to write letters of recommendation on my behalf. Whether her efforts were responsible we’ll never know for sure; but I ended up in one of the most selective colleges in the country. And so while I can’t say that Carole was a saint or that I never had serious disagreements with her, she will always occupy a very special spot in my psyche.
As I continue the great unpacking, I think about Carole. By the time I returned from college all full of business school knowledge and youthful vim and vigor, Carole had probably worked for the company for 10 years. She worked well enough with my father, his partner, and me, but with everyone else there was always some kind of issue or conflict brewing. Still we were productive and profitable. She drove out a kind of all-around-guy who did sales, managed projects in the shop, handled shipping, and did the company’s books.
My sister joined the company as the bookkeeper and cost analyst. Carole had a hard time with that. She didn’t like working with women and she felt cheated that the job didn’t go to her despite her lack of accounting knowledge. I thought Carole was pretty good with customers and I encouraged her to learn more about the machinery, but my father was firmly rooted in that Don Draper pre-contemporary era where women could work hard—just not have any significant power or salary and in truth there were very few women in the industry in those days. So Carole secretly began studying to obtain a real estate broker’s license. I figured what she was up to and I remember the day she learned she passed the test; she wouldn’t reveal what she achieved but she was very happy. So it was no big surprise when she blew some slight or disagreement into a big deal and quit. I empty at least three boxes filled with real estate books, manuals and test materials from both Illinois and Florida into the dumpster. There are parts of listings, contracts, and memorabilia from some of her successful transactions.
And beyond more purses, shoes, and oversized clothes, there are all kinds of books on sales, self motivation, and religion. When I worked with Carole she was a liberal Democrat. From conversations through the years I knew she had veered politically rightward. I chuckle as I unpack books by Limbaugh and O’Reilly and religious tomes by Rick Warren and other conservative pastors. There are a couple of books on food and then there are loads of VHS tapes; a couple on nature themes but mostly Sopranos episodes she probably recorded.
In one of the last boxes I come across a special newspaper section on Hurricane Charley, a category 4 storm that smashed SW Florida in 2004 not long after Carole had moved there. Carole found the whole thing pretty traumatic; the damage, the heat, the initially slow pace of recovery, the algae growing in her soaked carpets all the while with no way to generate income. As I look around at the piles for Goodwill, the dumpster, additional consideration, and all these ugly oversize clothes, plus dirty cardboard and too much tape now in all kinds of random messy shapes strewn everywhere, I get the feeling of a natural disaster.
Fortunately, there is not much in the way of personal memorabilia. There are a few death notices and prayer cards, a single black and white photo of Carole, maybe from high school, a few pieces of inexpensive jewelry. I take about 45 minutes to get the Goodwill items packed, the cardboard ready for recycling and the balance in the dumpster. I keep a little set of handy tools, a tall pretty vase, the little blue radio and book on elephants.
In the overall, I don’t suppose that Carole was dealt the greatest hand. Still she sought to better herself—and at a time when many are settling back she undertook the great adventure of seeking her fortune in Florida. Of course her timing wasn’t the best between general economic malaise, a hurricane, and local overbuilding and speculation. I admire her spunk and her guts. And as we mop the tables with her old towels, arrange flowers in her pretty vase, and enjoy the convenience of her little blue clock in Acorn Hall, I hope a little bit of her spirit will be present helping us to fearlessly embrace a very scary future.