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Jeff Whitten: The Ring
editor's notes

My mother, who used to wear rings on just about every finger, only wears one now.

It’s no ordinary ring, and instead looks like the handle of silverware, bent to encircle a finger. It belonged to my youngest sister, Lee, who’s birthday is April 22. That’s today.

In a different world, Lee would be celebrating her 53rd birthday. In the one we live in, she’s forever 17, the age she was in 1985 when she was murdered in Columbia, S.C.

And yes, that single act took an awful toll on all of us, but it was most terrible for my father and mother, who sacrificed and lived and fought for us kids from the time we were born. I don’t know a lot, but I know no better parents were ever put on this earth than those two, who were married for 59 years before my father passed away.

They were country kids when they met in the Upstate of South Carolina, and they saw the world and built a life together.

Seeing that single ring on my mother’s finger at lunch in Midway the other day again made me lonesome for something I can’t quite nail down. I am not much of a ponderer of such dreadful things as the unnatural loss of loved ones and am not equipped to write about things that broke my heart. I just wonder, often, what Lee would be today were she alive.

I don’t know that she was the smartest of us three kids, since my sister Kay was a Governor’s Honor student in South Carolina and had scholarship offers for academics lined up all over the place – and why Kay chose Clemson I’ll never know, either, since we were a Gamecock family all the way.

I know Lee was smart, and beautiful, like our mother, but school wasn’t her thing because she was a rebel from the word go. Not a fake one, either.

From the time Lee was old enough to think for herself – in her case, that was pretty early on – she fought rules and restrictions and spent much of her time on earth getting into increasingly serious trouble.

I think this was in large part because she was so intelligent and didn’t suffer being told what to do gladly, but also because, as my father said, she had a wild spirit that shoved a lifetime full of living into her abbreviated years.

There were some felonies committed along the way, some quite serious, but by the time she was 17 Lee started to straighten out her life and decided she wanted to work with animals somehow, taking care of them.

That’s what killed her, in a sense. She got a job at an animal clinic in Columbia and met a co-worker named James Donald Fossick. And on a May day in 1985, Fossick took Lee’s life by battering her head with a concrete urn.

I had just graduated Army basic training on Fort Sill in Oklahoma and was getting ready to move on to the next round of training when I got news Lee had been killed, and was sent home numb to a funeral.

It was perhaps the first time I literally felt broken down with grief. But I remember taking editorial license with a line from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and asking it be used somehow at her funeral.

In the play, it is Juliet speaking of Romeo. I changed “he” to “she,” so it read like this: “When she shall die, Take her and cut her out in little stars, And she will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

I have always loved Shakespeare for that line.

Lee’s been gone now for 36 years, and Mom wears only her ring and keeps Lee’s portrait lit by a small light that for decades now has made sure shadows never again darken her 17-year-old girl’s smile.

Whitten is editor of the Bryan County News.

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