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Tampa mariner watches life's objects drift away

TAMPA — The old ship's captain saw the people coming to his estate sale like pirates to plunder. He handed a painting to a friend.

"This one I didn't mean to leave here," he said. "Can you take it and hide it?"

Raymond Chase, who earned his living piloting corporate yachts, lived in this South Tampa house for more than 50 years. After his wife died last year, leaving him alone at 88, he put his place on the market and moved into an assisted living facility.

The house he left was a virtual maritime museum, stocked with beer glasses from Germany, porcelain plates from Holland and dozens of pictures of ships, painted from memory. Old sailing charts papered the walls and a railing taken from one of his ships formed a door handle to the back porch.

Now, in mid October, it was time for the inevitable estate sale, time to part with the artifacts of a long life. On this day Chase wore tinted spectacles, carefully ironed pants and black Velcro shoes. He drifted among the Saturday morning garage-sale hunters like a ghost looking over their shoulders.

One man found an old captain's hat and slipped it on for his daughter to laugh at. Chase saw the symbol of his career sold for $5, destined to become part of a little girl's costume.

"Life is funny," Chase said later. "We're dedicated to our profession, our family, and if anyone ever mentioned anything about old age it sounded like you were giving up.

"Then suddenly you get old."

• • •

His family had hired Nancy Gilligan to run the sale. She is the owner of Caring Transitions, a business she started this summer to help people shed unneeded things and move on. She had worked for about a month sorting and affixing price tags to Chase's belongings, buoying the captain's spirits by saluting him whenever he showed up.

Chase's son died several years ago, and Gilligan made sure to save his memorial programs and leave up the prize ribbons Chase had won for his paintings.

Gilligan, 65, has orange spiked hair, a sports car and an exuberant spirit. She downsized this summer from a five-bedroom home into a Wesley Chapel apartment near her grandchildren. After spending months cleaning out her parents' home, getting rid of her mother's teacup collection and her father's horse-racing forms, she foresaw her own future and wanted to do something about it while she was able.

"One thing I've realized," she said, "is all the things we collect for our children, our kids may not want them."

Her new apartment is uncluttered and spare, but her garage is full of boxes of things that she had no room for. Chase has the same problem. The stuff he kept is stacked on the chairs in his assisted living place.

"I understand the fear of letting go," Gilligan said. "We define ourselves by our things. 'Am I going to lose my identity if I get rid of this stuff?' "

• • •

As Gilligan rang up sales, Chase eyed what people bought. He expressed surprise that anyone wanted any of his things. But after they left, he asked Gilligan how much they had paid and often commented that it was too little.

He watched silently as people picked up his beer glasses. Each held sentimental value because he had sneaked them into his wife's purse at different stops on a European rail trip. Now, they were priced at $1 or less.

Most of the customers were seniors who seemed, to Chase, like ships taking on water — buying stuff when they ought to be shedding.

"They're not planning on the future," he said. "You have to plan for the future."

Gilligan asked Chase if he had made lunch plans back at his new home. It was noon, the time he had planned to go, but he was anchored to the couch.

He had no plans, he said.

And he couldn't leave.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Suggest an Encounter

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2924.

Tampa mariner watches life's objects drift away 11/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 3:06pm]
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