June 1, 2013, 7 A.M.
The gym looks like Christmas morning. Piles of gleaming offerings are arranged just so on long tables: a labyrinth of delights sectioned into home wares (a Crock-Pot, a fondue set, enough glassware to stock a restaurant), electronics (bongo drums, acoustic guitars, a Nintendo game cube), sporting equipment (Rollerblades, a NordicTrack, a putting green, several life jackets) and more. One section is devoted entirely to wicker baskets, another to holiday wreaths. The air is thick with expectation. Dozens of volunteers in red shirts man the bake sale, the coffee stand, the face-painting tent. A few shoppers are already scouring the tables, taking advantage of an early bird deal that gives them first crack at the sale for a $20 donation. Outside, in the tented furniture section, it's cool but blindingly bright, the sun teeing up for a 90 degree showing later on.
Bates can't decide if she's stressed or relieved that she didn't find a line of shoppers camped outside when she arrived at 5:20 this morning. But before she can fret, here's Walsh, who flew in last night from Los Angeles; surveying the parking lot of strollers arranged on the lawn and the henna tattoo station and the folks from Stonyfield handing out free yogurt snacks and the large pizza oven from the Flatbread Company that will soon dispatch mushroom and caramelized onion pies, he is momentarily speechless. "You have done everything fantastically," Walsh assures Bates, sensing her distress. "Now leave it to the gods. Your only job is to enjoy this."
Soon Walsh, having canvassed the room for some eye-catching items, is hoisting himself onto a table for a spontaneous live auction; first, an ornate porcelain teapot he claims was Queen Victoria's—"donated," he swears, "by my good friend the Queen." "Do I have two dollars?" he cries, as shoppers look up from their tables. "Five? Come on, every cent goes to Aidan's Playground!" When the bidding hits $35, Walsh trills, "If you're really good looking, I'll kiss you on the lips, too!"
The room dissolves into laughter.
"You're bidding against yourself, madam," Walsh says dryly to a bespectacled blonde named Cathy Lane, who is literally bouncing with excitement. "Going once..." he calls out, and then, good-naturedly, "Pucker up!" (Lane will proclaim her purchase "absolutely worth it!")
By 9 A.M., people are streaming through the doors as a DJ pumps "Love Is a Battlefield." Volunteers help shoppers haul garbage bags full of clothing and boxes stuffed with books and toys and kitchen gadgets to their cars. Westford resident Carol McCollem heads outside with her son's girlfriend, Cassi Vaughan, who is brandishing a new clothing steamer. ("Ten bucks!" says McCollem approvingly.) Nearby, Michelle Palmquist, who drove down from Rhode Island because "my aunt is friends with somebody who's friends with Kristi," is balancing a big green stapler on a few Suite Life of Zack & Cody DVDs; she's just bid $9 on a wicker dolphin figurine that Walsh is auctioning from the stage. ("A designer piece signed by Martha Stewart!" he cries, lying shamelessly. "It's wicked!") Wendy Turcotte, a gregarious brunette in flip-flops and cargo shorts, and her husband, Ryan, in a Celtics jersey, comb through home goods with their Chihuahua, seeking items to auction on eBay. ("We hide the money from our six daughters and use it to go out to dinner," Wendy explains.) Although many shoppers don't know Bates or the Mallio family, everyone is swept up in the bargains, the homemade baked goods, the Pat Benatar blasting from the speakers and the atmosphere of good cheer. Bates walks by, looking stunned, and reports that the officer on police detail spontaneously donated $40, after which another stranger walked up and handed her a check for $500. Meanwhile, "There's a lot of stuff still here," she observes, "but a lot less!" Walsh dutifully works the room, helping to move more of it: "This comes with a baby!" he crows to a bevy of young women (one pregnant) inspecting a Pack 'n Play.
Finally, just before 2 P.M., Delaney takes to the stage, with a booming, throaty voice, to instruct volunteers to "Go, go, go! Put the leftovers in boxes! Then we can go swimming!" The 1-800-GOT-JUNK? men begin carting leftover items out the door, many bound for charity. Cashiers will soon report that almost $16,000 has been brought in before expenses. And in a couple of days, Bates will receive another check—on her doorstep, from the anonymous trustees of a local family foundation—for $10,000. The gesture will bring Bates to tears—and, with today's haul, allow her to start planning a fall groundbreaking for the playground. But for now, surrounded by her family and tireless friends, Bates seems quietly happy, if a bit weary. She says she hopes to create a place for her family to remember her smiley, adventurous blond nephew and "not feel sad." "At one time, bringing up his name was a point of sorrow for Matt and Sara, or at least that's what I felt, so I kept my distance," Bates says. "But talking about the playground has helped me talk about Aidan, and not just his death but his life."
A slight figure in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball hat appears: Matt Mallio. He moves slowly, visibly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people he's never met who have come to help memorialize his young son. "Knowing the community stepped forward and is doing this for us—" he begins, choking up. "I haven't felt this good in about a year."
By 3 P.M., the volunteers have removed all traces of the sale; Lora Carr, Bates's straight-talking sister, has returned to Bates's house to clean it as a surprise, and the gym is quiet. "I need a shower and a beer," Bates says, flushed, her sandy-haired daughter hanging off her. But Walsh isn't quite ready to let her go. "All this stuff," he says, uncharacteristically serious, "was more than just clutter. It has the power to subtly transform how a community thinks and operates. We're not just building a playground; we're helping create a higher level of selflessness. Today will have ripple effects."
Flash-forward a few weeks and Bates is getting more sleep, though her stress dreams haven't abated: "Each night I dream that I forgot to organize some aspect of the event," she reports in an e-mail. By August, she's busy meeting with town officials and securing permits for the playground. She's glad she did the sale—would do it again in a heartbeat. But she often thinks back to the moment after it was all over, when she took her kids for ice cream and noticed a poster advertising a fund-raiser for a local couple who had been hurt in a car accident. "It just hit me," Bates says, "that what we did today was so great and fantastic, and I feel so good about helping Matt and Sara—but there are causes everywhere you look. There is so much more to do."
To learn more about Aidan's Playground or to donate to the cause, visit CastleInTheTrees.org.
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