Third Place Writing – Features

Mary Glen Hatcher

Third Place
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
$1,500 Scholarship

The mysterious case of the missing desk, and a father’s love for his daughter

By Mary Glen Hatcher

CARRBORO, N.C. — It was moving day last June, and Betsy Bertram had just finished arranging the furniture in her new two-bedroom home in Carrboro when she realized something was missing.

She frantically circled the yard, then the house, then the yard again as her eyes welled with tears.

She couldn’t find it.

On the phone, her sister, Ella Dodson, predicted the worst.

“It was black walnut, that’s worth a lot,” Dodson said. “If someone saw you go inside, they probably just walked in your yard, grabbed it and went on their way.”

Bertram had trouble breathing.

She wished this were a nightmare she’d wake up from the next day and she’d find it there, sitting in her kitchen: the most beautiful writing desk she’d ever seen.

She’d run her hand over the rich, dark wood, carefully tracing the grain before glancing down at her favorite, hidden spot — a small inscription, written in a familiar cursive lettering:

To Betsy B.

Love, Your Daddy, Scott B.

“Betsy?” Dodson’s voice broke through the silence. “I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s coming back.”

Bertram gasped for words through her tears but found none.

It felt like she was losing her dad all over again.

‘I know what that is!’

When he’s not 30 feet up in the air, painting brick walls across town, Chapel Hill muralist Michael Brown is staring at the ground, scanning for all the curious and precious objects people leave behind.

“I just love finding things, fixing them up,” he said. “I’ve been a pack rat and a dumpster diver my whole life. It’s just who I am.”

He’s found arrowheads and Civil War bullets, leather gloves and plenty of wallets, and one Saturday morning, on the road to his home in Hillsborough, he saw something strange poking out of the bushes that jogged his memory.

After college, Brown spent a few years running a woodshop, teaching kids how to recognize and work with wood. It’s a skill that turned out to be pretty useless to him in the 35 years since, he said, until that day.

“Gosh, I know what that is!” Brown said, pulling his white pick-up to the side of the road.

It had only a few scratches from falling out of a vehicle or skidding across the pavement, he thought. Nothing a good sanding couldn’t fix.

Brown loaded it up and continued home, amazed that he’d just found a black walnut table, sitting in a ditch.

‘Taking the everyday and making it extraordinary’

Scott Bertram — Betsy’s and Ella’s father — built his life around simple things: family, food and the great outdoors.

He grew up on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina with a single mother and three siblings who instilled in him a love of gardening and baking, though he developed his own distaste for having to follow recipes.

He was a skilled woodsman, and shaped a plot of land in Efland, North Carolina, into his own green paradise after college, adding a pond, an art park, an arboretum and a trail system that connected the entire 200-acre neighborhood — trails that would eventually lead him to his wife, Audrey Townsend, when she moved into the log cabin next door.

Together, they built even more.

In 1988, they opened Townsend, Bertram & Company, an adventure outfitter in the heart of Carrboro, and in 1991, they began building a family with first, Betsy, and then Ella a few years later.

It was in fatherhood that he found his true calling. He wanted to be the best father he could be because of the one he never had. He embraced the life of a stay-at-home dad, filling his daughters’ days with love and wild adventures.

They built fairy houses, planned dance parties, baked his famous “Scott B” bread for new neighbors, wrote letters and stories, and went on many walks through the woods and to the pond, searching for wild mushrooms or flowers in bloom.

“Life with him became this sort of ever-evolving treasure hunt,” Betsy said. “He had this way of taking the everyday and making it extraordinary, looking at everything through the lens of a curious child, and that’s just who he was. That’s how he navigated the world.”

Bertram would take his daughters on urban adventures, too, scouting out curbsides and dumpsters that contained not trash, but endless possibilities — a firm believer in one man’s trash being another man’s treasure.

He’d use his reclaimed finds, along with the wood he cleared on his property, to fuel his voracious craftsmanship. He built fences and adorned them with tree stumps, crafted fixtures that decorated their Carrboro shop, and restored a condemned beach house in Beaufort, North Carolina, to its former glory using only roadside finds and the cedar from his own backyard.

For one of his last projects, he milled the tall, yellow pines that grew on his property, carefully sanding and fitting the box that would sit in his living room for almost a year.

It was his coffin.

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Desk

Back home, Michael Brown unloaded the new treasure from his truck, thinking about what it would become: a coffee table, a breakfast nook or maybe he’d try it out as a desk.

But as he flipped it over to walk it through the front door, he noticed a small, hidden message he hadn’t seen before:

To Betsy B.

Love, Your Daddy, Scott B.

This was not a treasure that had been left behind. This was a treasure that had been lost.

The inscription, the table, the precious wood — they all meant something to someone. It became Brown’s mission to find the owner.

He posted a photo of the black walnut piece on Facebook with a caption:

“The Mysterious Case of the Missing Desk: There’s an inscription on the bottom, ‘To Betsy B. Love, Your Daddy, Scott B.’ Please write if anyone knows anything of this.”

Then, he waited.

‘There must be something else’

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men in the United States. When doctors detect the disease early, most men survive at least five years after the tumor is found, but when the disease has spread, that survival rate drops to 30 percent.

Doctors found Scott Bertram’s cancer during a routine physical in the fall of 2013. They told him he would die before Christmas.

Between hospital check-ups, experimental tests and sporadic emergency room visits, Bertram spent every minute he could with his family. He hiked in the mountains with his daughters, vacationed in the Bahamas with Townsend, and walked his beloved dogs to the pond twice a day.

He moved his bed to their screened-in porch, sleeping among the trees and stars each night, and greeting each sunrise with the songbirds.

He walked Ella down the aisle and danced all night to “We Are Family” with his new in-laws.

And when his treatments wouldn’t allow him to play in the dirt, climb trees, chase the wind or spend time with those he loved, he decided to stop them.

He died at sunrise in July 2017, under a sky of brilliant pink, four years after his initial diagnosis and just two months shy of his 30th wedding anniversary. He was 66 years old.

“To take somebody so young like that, it just really reinforced my belief that there must be something else,” Townsend said.

“Does somebody really just die? Are they really gone? I don’t know, but I think there must be some other mission for him.”

The desk

A few weeks before he died, Bertram recruited an old kitesurfing buddy, Louis Barnum, to take some wood off his hands. He was growing weaker and couldn’t do anything with a tree he had taken down in a neighbor’s yard.

“Let me pay you,” Barnum insisted. “That’s black walnut; it’s worth a lot.”

Instead, Bertram asked, how about making something for his eldest daughter, Betsy — the one Bertram saw so much of himself in?

As a young girl, she was always conjuring stories, writing letters to friends and family and keeping journals, just as he had, so they settled on crafting a writing desk — something that would encourage her to follow that passion.

Though he never saw the finished product, or the look on Betsy’s face when Barnum eventually surprised her with the gift she never knew existed, Bertram ensured a small part of him would be with her, always.

On the bottom, he left a message for the girl who first made him the person he always wanted to be: a father.

To Betsy B.

Love, Your Daddy, Scott B.

‘There’s only one Scott B in this town’

Two or three weeks went by with no answers to Michael Brown’s mystery. With only initials to guide him, Brown began to think his search for the desk’s owner was fruitless.

One afternoon, his wife was reciting the story to some friends over tea, when the mention of the inscription made one of them spill her cup.

“There’s only one ‘Scott B’ in this town!” she said. “The desk has to belong to one of the Bertram girls.”

The next day Brown visited the outfitters shop, Townsend, Bertram & Company, and left a message with the store clerk.

“Tell Betsy I found something of hers,” he said.

“I think I found her desk.”

‘Big ways and little ways’

On the night she lost the desk, and in the three weeks after, Betsy let herself return to the darkest depths of her grief.

In losing her father, she lost her best friend, her life’s compass. The one who always pointed out the joys and adventures of everyday life and helped her navigate the times when those were hard to find.

“I think that’s been one of the biggest challenges in losing him,” said Bertram, now 27. “I’m still figuring out how to continue to feel his guidance and energy in my life, and know he’s still directing it, in big ways and little ways.”

The day she pulled into the gravel driveway of Michael Brown’s house — tucked beneath a grove of tall pines, with a white pick-up truck just like her dad’s parked outside — she knew it was one of those “big ways.”

She threw her arms around him as he opened the door, thanking him for his generosity in finding and returning her most prized possession.

“It was no big deal to me,” Brown said. “I find all sorts of valuable things just by keeping my eyes peeled. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

When she saw the desk inside, it was like seeing it again for the first time.

She remembered running her hand over the cool, dark wood, brushing away tears as she read her father’s message that reached beyond the grave.

Now, running her hand across the desk, she traces the pattern of ridges, valleys and skid marks left by the pavement, and feels her dad even more.

“I think that was the universe and my dad being like, ‘Have more belief in our connection,’” she said. “Just because he’s not here doesn’t mean he’s not still working his magic.”

The desk now sits in the center of Bertram’s home and life — she reads, paints and, much to her mother’s chagrin, eats on it almost every day.

It’s through her writing that she feels the presence of her father and what she calls the “magic powers” of the desk.

It’s a connection that has given her life a new direction and inspired the creation of a book about all she’s learned: that the people and the things we love don’t belong to us, that all things in life are impermanent, but stay with us in the memories we hold and the stories we share.

And maybe, by telling and listening to those stories, she said, we can learn how to live, how to die, and how to find treasure along the way.


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