Her Mother's eBay Secret

After her mother died, Wall Street Journal writer Katherine Rosman discovered her hidden online life.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So back when we were still piloting THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, we were lucky enough to have a woman named Katherine Rosman on the show. We're going to replay our interview with her this Thanksgiving Day, a story about family, mothers and daughters in particular, and eBay. Here's the BPP's Luke Burbank.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

You know, one our producers, Ilya, forwarded me this article yesterday from the Wall Street Journal, which had one of the most kind of odd and gripping opening paragraphs I've ever read. I'll read it for you.

On September 17th, 2003, in a chaotic intensive care ward, just before being medically induced into a coma, my mother summoned all of her energy and whatever oxygen she could to make one request: take care of my eBay.

Katie Rosman wrote that article. She's here with us now to explain kind of what happened after that moment.

Hi, there.

Ms. KATHERINE ROSMAN (Writer, Wall Street Journal): Hi, how are you?

BURBANK: Good. Your mom did end up passing away, unfortunately. But a couple of years later, you decided to kind of go back through all of her eBay dealings, which were pretty extensive. What did you find out?

Ms. ROSMAN: Well, I started out by just wanting to learn about this glass collection that she had amassed in the last couple of years of her life. And in trying to figure out who I should be talking to to learn about the actual pieces of glass, I started going through her e-mail account, which my sister and I had saved, and her eBay account, which we also had saved.

And I found that she was very much a part of a community, and that there was one gentleman in particular that she was confiding in about dying, sometimes in ways that she wasn't confiding in her family. And we were very, very - we are a very close family, and we were intimately involved in the entire process of her illness.

MARTIN: So these are other eBayers, other people who were…

Ms. ROSMAN: Right.

MARTIN: …were involved with collecting glass, as your mom was.

Ms. ROSMAN: Right. Right.

BURBANK: What do you think it was about - in the article, you mentioned that when things would sort of go badly or where there would be a sad moment, your mom would grab her laptop and start looking at her glass on eBay. What do you think it was about this experience that was so kind of alluring to her?

Ms. ROSMAN: Well, as it's been explained to me by her friend, Karl(ph), who I've subsequently met with a couple of times, she told him that on eBay, she felt normal. She wasn't defined by this disease of lung cancer.

She wasn't limited by the disease. I think when you are very sick, it quickly takes over your persona. The first and only question is how do you feel?

MARTIN: How are you feeling?

Ms. ROSMAN: What did the doctors say? How was chemo? How's your breathing? And anything outside of that just fades away. And for a person - and judging from the mail I've gotten, my mom was not alone in this - it can be an isolating and painful experience to lose any normal intercourse with the world and just have everything be about the one thing you don't want to talk about.

BURBANK: What was her eBay online ID?

Ms. ROSMAN: Suzie Rosman.

MARTIN: So she straight up who she was?

Ms. ROSMAN: She was straight up who she was. Her…

MARTIN: No secret life. She wasn't pretending to be…

Ms. ROSMAN: No, no…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: No Wheel Dealer 2005.

Ms. ROSMAN: No. And I didn't find anything shocking or illicit in going through her e-mails. Though I did find, as you alluded to, I found that she, you know, right before a surgery, she picked a fight with this woman. Somebody had sold her a piece, and my mom had decided it was a fake and really just ripped into this woman. They had extensive back and forth. I took photos of the entire collection and asked somebody at the Corning Museum of Glass to consult with me. Unprompted, the curator pointed out that glass and said, I think that's the most valuable piece.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Oh, no.

Ms. ROSMAN: Which just made me really, really laugh. And I'd like to think my mom had enough of a sense of humor that she would have laughed about it, too.

BURBANK: You wrote about meeting up with this guy, Karl Balavia(ph) in New York.

Ms. ROSMAN: Balavia.

BURBANK: Balavia, who was kind of your - like, a guy who knew about glass, and so…

Ms. ROSMAN: He does.

BURBANK: …would kind of consult your mom on - you know, this is valuable and this - and they really had forged a relationship. He even went to church and lit candles for her.

Ms. ROSMAN: He did, which I only found out subsequently in meeting him at the end of the summer. And this was a guy who lives in Jersey City. My mom was in Tucson, Arizona. They never met. They spoke on the phone once, but they e-mailed back and forth several times a day, about six times a week, if not - I'm sorry, six days a week, if not every day. And they were really close, and a lot of the conversations were about glass. I think most of the conversations were about glass. But, in the end, he proved to - he provided for her a coping mechanism by talking to her about the glass, and in the end, was a really important person in her dying process.

MARTIN: I want to go back to something you said earlier. You talked about how eBay was a place where your mom wasn't Sick Suzie. She was just Suzie the glass curator, and she protected that. There was an opportunity for her to get some money back if she, perhaps, had told someone she was sick.

Ms. ROSMAN: Well, there was one incident where she accidentally bought a table. This big, huge, heavy, not glass…

STEWART: Pretty…

Ms. ROSMAN: …table. Yeah, that not in glass or elegant about this table, and she instantly told me and my sister when she was billed for it that the dealer had made a mistake, that there's something wrong with the computer machinery. She hadn't entered this bid. She doesn't know what they're talking about, called the guy every name in the book.

And then slowly she began to admit that maybe the oxycodone she was taking -because by now the cancer was through her bones, which is very painful - had caused her to place an errant bid. And my sister and I encouraged her. You know, go to eBay administration and tell them this. Tell them that you're taking pain medicine for cancer. Tell the dealer. And she refused.

And she told us at the time that eBay had a policy that if you basically were drunk bidding or bidding under the influence that they would rescind your privileges. Subsequently, I called eBay and they said that that was not, in fact, the case, that they have all sorts of mediation policies in place.

But my mom, really, even though it would have been to her benefit to explain the situation, just refused, refused to have let cancer enter that part of her world.

BURBANK: I was kind of wondering, you know, she talked about - she was sort of terrified of having her - having negative feedback.

Ms. ROSMAN: Yeah.

BURBANK: And then this is a woman who is very sick with cancer and it seemed like she's almost more worried about negative feedback on her eBay account.

Ms. ROSMAN: Well, as you pointed to in the beginning of the story, she literally was about to be medically induced into a coma from which we all were told she may never wake, and her parting words were take care of my eBay. She really was concerned about her reputation, and it was apparently a lifeline for her.

It was a sort of frustration for my sister and I that sometimes when we try to have a sentimental conversation or bring out a photo album, she just would hear none of it and would instantly retreat into the computer. But two years after my mom died, we understand it more, and I think we're glad that she found some of what she needed.

BURBANK: Have you left her account up? Does it still exist on eBay? Have you used it?

Ms. ROSMAN: It still exists. But we changed her password because we put her password in this story.

BURBANK: Oh, great.

STEWART: That's right. It's a meditation for her.

Ms. ROSMAN: Yes. SaTaNaMa.

BURBANK: Because she was really into yoga and Pilates.

Ms. ROSMAN: Yes. She was a Pilates instructor, and she was very spiritual, very into meditation and things of that nature.

BURBANK: So the account is there. Is it there as kind of a digital memorial to her?

Ms. ROSMAN: I guess so. That certainly wasn't the intention. It just the idea of taking down these two accounts. Just we're not prepared to accept it, and as my sister said in her eulogy to my mom at my mom's funeral, if anyone can figure out how to use the Internet from heaven, it would be my mom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROSMAN: So we want to make sure her tools are there for her.

BURBANK: She's out bidding the - on a…

Ms. ROSMAN: Yeah, yeah.

BURBANK: …on a punchbowl right now.

Ms. ROSMAN: Yes. She sure is.

BURBANK: What do you think - I mean, you obviously were really close to your mom, and then there was, again, all the stuff she was really into that you didn't know the full extent of. What do you think you learned about her here, you know, two years later through this stuff?

Ms. ROSMAN: Well, I learned that she was able to compartmentalize more than I had realized. I didn't realize to the extent that the eBay allowed her to shut off the cancer - mentally. I knew that she liked beautiful things and that she had great taste. But I didn't quite understand what an art this Venetian and Steuben glass is. And I also didn't know how important it was to her that my sister and I entertained a lot and beautifully. And that's what we believe the intention of the gift was to - I mean, this woman didn't drink and yet has 300 wine glasses in her house.

BURBANK: She had one of the - a vase I think it was, a kind of with your name on it, right?

Ms. ROSMAN: Well, what happened was in going through her e-mail and her PayPal receipts, I found one receipt that was earmarked. It was the only one that she had added any intention to and that she had written into a Katie's vase and saved it as that. And I had this vase. It was never one of the prettier things in my mind that she had sent me. And I just stuck it in a cup shelf in my kitchen and pretty much forgotten about it.

But seeing it in her e-mail, I then looked at the date of the purchase and the date was the date that she was official diagnosed with lung cancer. And it was very powerful for me to know that on this awful, awful, horrible day, she saw something and said that's for Katie. And it was an incredible, wonderful realization for me. And obviously, that vase has catapulted down…

STEWART: Yes.

Ms. ROSMAN: …into the family room. And it was - it just was a wonderful project for me and it's brought me a lot of comfort.

BURBANK: Well, we're going to put a link to your article on our blog, THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. Also you can check it out on The Wall Street Journal. I'm sure it's on your Web site as well. Katie Rosman of The Wall Street Journal, thank you so much for coming by.

Ms. ROSMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

STEWART: What a wonderful story.

Ms. ROSMAN: Thank you.

BURBANK: Yes.

STEWART: Really beautifully written as well.

Ms. ROSMAN: Thank you for having me. I appreciate that.

BURBANK: We appreciate it. Yeah, you need to read the story, believe me.

MARTIN: That was Luke Burbank and Alison Stewart interviewing Katherine Rosman of The Wall Street Journal. It's a story about family relationships, which is appropriate on this Thanksgiving Day. And also appropriate is to talk about shopping.

PESCA: Well, I - when I come in the morning at 5:30, I saw the executive producer Sharon. She saw a couple of guys standing or sitting, camping outside the Best Buy.

MARTIN: Hardcore, hardcore these guys.

PESCA: I just thought…

MARTIN: Waiting for the sales.

PESCA: I talked to a fellow named Michael. I think he's on the phone. Hey.

TRISHA McKINNEY: Hey. Actually, this is Trisha.

PESCA: Hey, Trisha.

McKINNEY: Your editor…

PESCA: Yes.

McKINNEY: …standing next to - Michael's actually in his tent sleeping.

PESCA: Michael is sleeping in the tent. Who's on line? Describe the line out there outside the Best Buy.

McKINNEY: Well, it's still two guys. One sitting in a chair, that's Rick Terry(ph). I'm going to pass him the phone in one second.

PESCA: Okay.

McKINNEY: The other guy, Michael, sleeping. But I just saw next to Rick some chains on the ground. We're trying to get to the bottom of that mystery. Here's Rick.

PESCA: We got all the breaking news. Hey, Rick?

Mr. RICK TERRY: How are you doing, Mike?

PESCA: So it's just the two of you guys at the Best Buy, right?

Mr. TERRY: Yes. It's just the two of us.

PESCA: But the Best Buy doesn't open until tomorrow.

Mr. TERRY: Tomorrow at 5 a.m.

PESCA: Oh, it's 5 a.m. Do you…

Mr. TERRY: Yes.

PESCA: Now, here is my theory. Until someone comes - so you're first on line and Michael is right next to you. He's second on line, right?

Mr. TERRY: Yeah. We're one and one. One and two.

PESCA: Okay. So but your existence is justified by Michael because you could say hey, thank God, I got here early. I got a guy behind me. Until someone else comes, Michael's got to feel like why am I wasting my time here or no?

Mr. TERRY: Ah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TERRY: Or until I go in the tent that's behind me, I'll feel like why am I here.

PESCA: Okay. You just switch places. Oh, what are you - any specific items you got your eye on for the big sale at 5 a.m. on Friday?

Mr. TERRY: I need a laptop and I need a television.

PESCA: And do you have any plans to get any turkey stuffing or actually anything to eat today?

MARTIN: Yeah, are you going to celebrate Thanksgiving or is this all about the sales, Rick?

Mr. TERRY: Well, it's all about the sales right now but if anybody wants me to buy them anything here, that's the requirement. They have to bring me some food.

PESCA: Okay. So it's a barter system. Well, thanks a lot, Rick. And good luck to you.

Mr. TERRY: All right, thank you.

MARTIN: Stay with us. Coming up on the BPP, if you need a little whistle as you work on those Thanksgiving side dishes, we'll play you a little Swedish pop from Peter Bjorn and John. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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