The man from the suitcase was buried three times. First in 1995 at Woodlawn Cemetery, surrounded by his loving wife, Juanita, his extended family, and his remaining friends and colleagues. It’s a beautiful spot; I’ve shed my own tears there.
I don’t know who presided over his next burial, who selected the much smaller coffin he occupied for a year after Juanita was put to rest by his side, but I presided over his first exhumation.
On a Sunday in 2005, dressed in unfamiliar church clothes, I was busy avoiding my in-laws in the musty stalls of a Franklin antique mall. I’d perfected this technique in the department stores of my childhood, learning to simultaneously keep track of my captors while ear-marking trinkets they might be persuaded to buy once I surrendered the chase. 18 years later, I was still dressed according to someone else’s rules, but at least was in control of the pocket book.
That day, I was in the market for an old suitcase – there was an empty space under a side table in our new house that was begging for some vintage flair. My husband had a penchant for old-fashioned things, and at the time, I had a penchant for him. I tugged a candidate out from a stack of cases – a brown valise that looked to be about the right size.
When I popped the brass clasps, I discovered a trove of letters, photos, and souvenirs.
I didn’t know at the time, but my relationship with the man who owned these artifacts would outlast my marriage, four houses, and three jobs, although it was 10 years before I finally sat down and found out his name.
Once I had his name, I was hooked. I spent my evenings and weekends with the man and his family. I learned their faces by developing over 300 negatives. I learned their birthdays by digging through every census. I walked the hallways of John and Juanita’s first house and placed flowers on their grave.
I spent 8 months lost in their intriguing story until an exciting (real) job opportunity came along. A dream job, which ended up not only ruling my 9 to 5 but demanded any extra time and energy I had lying around. As the weeks went on, my ‘case-files’ were pushed further and further down the dining room table to make room for more pressing work. Eventually, a little ashamed, I scooped up the remains and banished them to the spare room, the place in my house where things go to be forgotten.
That was a little over a year ago.
I’m typing these words 1777 miles away from Nashville – my family relocated to the desert in June. Our relocation is temporary, so we only brought what we felt was critical: records, books, and dogs. For the first time in 12 years, my man from the suitcase didn’t make the cut. When the dust had finally settled on our new Ikea furniture, I realized how much I missed his steady, unassuming company. So when we took a quick trip back to Nashville to visit dearly-missed friends, I snuck one back with me in my carry on.
I don’t know if John Paul Jones ever visited Las Vegas when he was alive, but he’s here now. It’s time to crack open the suitcase again and see what we find.
Next up – Sifting Through the Ashes – Re-building the Man from the Suitcase’s Military Records.