Heir today, gone tomorrow

  • Thursday, March 27, 2014

Stonewall Jackson PROVIDED

Don and I have been talking about going off the grid in the next year and a half. Big land, tiny-ish house, haven't determined location yet.

We have Googled everything on the planet. When I say tiny-ish, the “ish” is my two-hundred-square-foot extension of tiny. The addition was implemented after a few small panic attacks.

Part mermaid, I want a claw foot tub, so the bathroom would have to be bigger than any of the tiny houses we saw. I also need a studio of sorts, outback office – a place where my muse can find me. And Don needs a shed. Oh, and windows; windows everywhere – skylights.

The outside is going to be as important as the home. Think camping – you spend all of your time enjoying the surroundings, campfires and lightning bugs and then retire to the tent or camper to relax and sleep.

What to keep, what to get rid of? Stuff isn't nearly as important as time and the reduction of performance pressures. I wish we had thought of this years ago. And surely I should have. You see. I accidentally fell upon a trade that validates the thoughts we are pondering today. It started with a few minutes of spare time and a venture into a Goodwill store 15 years ago.

Let's just say that first visit paid off. Goodwill, Salvation Army, resale store's, yard sales and church bazaars yielded caches of treasures and paid many a Brabham bill when sold on eBay.

A lot of these treasures are my own now. I remember talking to my oldest daughter about the heirlooms in our home. She replied, “I would never know the difference in what was a true family heirloom and what came from Goodwill.” I understand her confusion, I had 18th and 19th century cabinet photos of people I claimed as adopted family.

The biggest and best sale? I was at Goodwill in Winston-Salem when a lady came out with a buggy of donated items. She began putting small gold-framed photos on the shelf. As I walked up she dropped one, it shattered across the floor. While I helped her pick up the shards, I noticed the image was actually in the glass. What are these?

A trip to Barnes and Nobles, a few cups of coffee, a cushy arm chair (which they used to provide) and antique reference books yielded my answers. These gold-gilded frames were called ambrotypes. My lot consisted of a little girl, measuring 2 x 2.5 (considered a ninth plate) and two ambro's of a man in distressed comparative condition between the time span of the two photos. One measured 3.25 and 4.25 (quarter plate) the next was a half plate measuring 4.25 x 5.5. The gentleman was a confederate soldier. The ambrotypes were colored with an eerie gradient exposure.

The smaller ambrotype depicted the soldier (when I say this, note that I still don't know what the stars and buttons signified in rank) with an amused, confident half grin. He looked healthy and had excellent posture.

In the larger ambrotype, the soldier still held himself with confident composure, but was gaunt and had obviously lost, at guess, about 20 pounds. The uniform was impeccable. He didn't appear to have gained anymore ranking than he had on his collar before. But – he had lost an arm. He sat with his knees crossed and his good hand over the empty sleeve. His eyes still haunt me. Steely light gray. His cheeks in both pictures were high and prominent but were colored rosy in the pic which belied the condition of the man taken. He looked ill and tired.

These were the early days of eBay and Google, I believe 2001 was when I found these. Even though information was available to search, it was much more limited than today. I had no idea what I had and truthfully still don't.

At that moment I knew that I had ambrotypes and they were confederate and I was probably going to triple the 12 bucks I spent on the lot of them. I went all out and started the bid at $100 for the three on EBay around 4 o'clock on Friday afternoon. I popped popcorn and settled in for a movie. As I headed to bed for the night, the phone rang.

I answered the cordless. The male voice asked me if I would be willing to negotiate an offsite bid for the ambro's. I told him I thought I would let the auction run it's course. An hour later I received another call and sleepily answered it.

“Would you consider selling offline?” he asked.

“No,” I answered and groggily headed to the computer to see what was going on. I jiggled the mouse and went to eBay. The Ambrotypes had more than 50 bids. It was at $700 and my email inbox was full of request; “How many stars are on his collar? Can you zoom in on the buttons?” I went to bed and took the phone off the hook.

The next morning I put the phone on the hook and made coffee. It immediately started ringing. I was under the impression that my contact information was not available through eBay and to this day don't know how they all got it.

After a continuous barrage of requests, I took the phone off the hook again. The bid online was now $1,000. Later in the day, I lifted the receiver to make a call when it began beeping. I clicked over, thinking it was the person I just tried to call.

A gentleman calmly asked me if I would allow him to make me an offer, stating, “I will drive down and pay you cash this evening.”

I asked what his offer was. He replied “$4,400.” I accepted. I suggested that he schedule to leave the next morning because of the terrible weather conditions that evening. The entire seaboard was getting impaled with torrential rains. He dismissed the idea of a delayed departure and said he was leaving immediately. I calmly asked, “Who is he?” He wouldn't offer the identity of the man in the ambrotypes, feigning research. He did explain what he thought would suffice me. “The larger the ambrotype the more affluent the subject was, because of the depravation of war there wasn't a lot of money for the frivolity of a photograph. So therein lies the importance of these ambrotypes.”

“Are you going to re-sell these,” I asked.

He emphatically stated, “No.” He offered that he was the largest collector of civil war artifacts on the East Coast and one of the 10 in the country.

$4,400 was doled out on the kitchen counter. After gingerly wrapping the ambrotypes in bubble wrap, he placed them in a case, thanked me and walked out the door.

I bought a riding lawnmower and a shed with the money. I was quite happy with the find and the payoff, but I have a sneaky feeling he was happier.

Several years passed. I was waiting in an insurance office while the agent was with another client. Bored, I started browsing his books, Civil War enthusiast he was.

I flipped the pages and froze cold on a page. There were the steely gray eyes of my photograph. I searched the name below in the caption. “Stonewall Jackson.” Ok... understand again. I lived in mid-North Carolina. Although one of the states that succeeded, it was neutrally so. Civil War history was not nearly as prevalent in N.C. as it is in S.C. Not all restaurants had the battle pics of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall over the booths. I'm being funny here, not sacrilegious, this is my feeble attempt to explain why I wouldn't have recognized Stonewall Jackson.

I went home and told Don that I thought I had found out who the guy in the ambrotype was. I Googled Stonewall Jackson and we both agreed that he looked astoundingly like the guy in the ambrotypes.

But – there is this HUGE problem. My pic had depicted a sick, ranked officer without an arm, even though it appears the limp sleeve contains one. If this were Jackson, it would have been the only pic of him ever without his arm. Which he lost to friendly fire eight days before he died (his arm is buried separately from his body).

All I have for testimony is my family, who saw the listing and Don who held the ambrotypes with me. I have tried to contact eBay for archives, which apparently weren't available at that time. My floppy disc with photo's for listing have long since been discarded.

This week I tried once again to search for eBay archives, there were no records of my closed account. I starting Googling the “what if's” online. All of the research ended late one evening when Don nudged me on the computer. “It's not our story anymore, it's his.” Let's just say that I learned a lot from the ghost of possessions that I brought home over those five years.

And contrary to popular belief, piddlin' is not always leisure time.

Visit Renae Brabham's website at www.renaebrabham.com.

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