This is the second in a series of stories that were edited out of my memoir 99 Girdles on the Wall. It’s still good stuff! If you are dealing with aging parents, may you feel less alone as you read it.
After my father’s death, my brother Alex and I hired an attorney to help us sort out a dubious piece of legal work that my parents had set up. They had been under the impression that they had a Trust. They had used, at my mother’s insistence, a “Christian” lawyer—this being the only qualification that meant anything to her. The lawyer had gone both out of business and out of state and the Trust had all kinds of problems.
The new attorney was a mismatch from the first. Mrs. Pilson was our mother’s, not our family’s attorney, a distinction we didn’t fully appreciate when we hired her. We thought it was the best choice given the level of distrust between my brother and me. Mrs. Pilson was solicitous of Mary and had private sessions with her, sessions that gnawed at Alex. He was suspicious of what was happening to our inheritance in those sessions. I felt reassured that with this arrangement at least he wasn’t the one diddling me out of my share.
Before the private sessions the four of us met together in Mrs. Pilson’s office. These sessions were uncomfortable at best. Mrs. Pilson talked down to us.
“Now you both love your mother and want the best for her, so let’s all pull together here.”
Alex and I peered at her through the prisms of our perceptions and both of us got stuck at the word love. Our family was complicated; I’m not sure we knew what love meant. We wanted The Best for all of us but there was a lot of contention over what that was, too.
Mrs. Pilson treated us as if our mother was the only one grieving. I deeply resented this.
“Your mother just lost her husband!” she said when Alex and I slid into an ancient feud of one sort or another.
“We just lost our father,” I said. “Who the hell do you think you are talking to?”
Mrs. Pilson took everything our mother said at face value. In a discussion about her check writing activity that was siphoning off her pension and social security, she told Mrs. Pilson she had stopped writing checks. When confronted with her check register and check carbons, my mother said someone else was writing those checks and that she would call the bank about it on Monday. Mrs. Pilson embarked on a Serious Conversation with our mother about this, impressing on her the need to budget her contributions. Then she turned to us and announced that she felt that Mary understood.
We stared at her incredulously. Was she serious? Mary had completely snowed her.
“Mom is probably asking her for stamps right now so she can mail the checks in her purse,” Alex said as we waited in the car for Mary to come out of her private session. This struck us both as so absurdly funny that we were still laughing when our mother joined us and asked if we were talking about her.
Except for a brief dip into shock right after my father died, my mother wasn’t any different than she had ever been. She had always been unreasonable and had always needed to be right no matter how ridiculous the righteousness she was embracing. Everything my mother did was an attempt to neutralize the anxiety which accelerated and decelerated according to her own strange wiring. If you were to accuse her of having brown eyes –which she had—she would deny it because she would be responding to the threat implicit in your tone.
She played people. She told them what they wanted to hear privately and denied it when it suited other purposes. She formed attachments with one by pitting him against another. She had always done this. I had always seen her with a child’s eyes and had tried to align myself with her. Now I saw that she was really quite disturbed.
My father had absorbed my mother’s craziness just as my mother had lived with his drinking. The two of them managed to live their secret lives, never missing a day of work. They were active in church and in the world outside the house. The only casualties were my brother and me. With my father gone, my mother was displaying to the world the woman we had always known.
* * * * *
I lobbied hard for the POA since I lived several hundred miles closer to our mother, was going to be doing all the work, and was better than Alex with red tape. No one listened to me. Alex, especially, was like a dragon on his gold with that POA. He wanted the piece of paper. He didn’t want the responsibility, the work or the headaches that went with it. In fact, he didn’t even realize there was work, responsibility and headaches. I thought it was reasonable that I have the power that I needed to get things done. No one else thought so. He was older and he was The Male.
I went from begging to demanding that Alex use the POA to do something about our mother’s bank balance. After numerous trips from California to Olympia and phone calls with someone at the bank where it sounded like he principally chatted her up, Alex finally set up an account into which he could siphon money from the account my mother was pissing away. Then he couldn’t bring himself to actually use it.
“People are watching us!” He told me “We have to be careful.”
This was so unexpected a response that I took it seriously for a while. “Who is watching us?” I asked
“People in Olympia. Her church.”
I thought about this for months. It sounded very weird, but he was still my older brother. I still wanted him to know more than me and to take care of things. Gradually and under protest, I came to the conclusion that I was the grown-up in the family. I had always wanted to be the Saviour. Well, here was my chance. It wasn’t how I had imagined it when I was ten years old. It wasn’t fun at all. And nobody thanked me for it.
We had never had a good relationship, Alex and I, except for briefly during his first year in college. He came home on breaks and we listened to Bob Dylan records. His personality expanded at my interest in his life at college. Then he stopped coming home and I took over his old bedroom. He resented that.
I visited him a couple of times after he moved to California. I thought we had some good times together. When he made trips to Olympia, I thought we had some fun. I did impersonations of our mother that would amuse him and soon we’d be laughing about incidents that had not been funny when they happened. Those times felt good to me.
But Alex never made any effort towards developing any rapport with me. He responded occasionally, but never initiated. I had the impression that he didn’t think he participated in his own life. Things just happened to him for no reason. He might have enjoyed the times with me but it didn’t occur to him to make an effort towards making them happen again.
After our father died, we tried e-mailing to get better acquainted but that didn’t last long. It was too hard and we were too far in arrears.
When I am in a charitable frame of mind, I describe my brother like this: He is an artist. He plays the piano by ear –beautifully, enviably. He is a potter. His pots are amazing in their imaginative delicacy. He thinks like an artist. He has that messy kind of mind that is a pile of ashes from which a phoenix arises. He can be very funny and very crass. He approaches life in a gullible, guileless way. I feel like Machiavelli next to him.
* * * * *
One thing all three of us –my brother, my mother and me–agreed on: We didn’t want the attorney in our lives. My mother didn’t see why she needed any kind of attorney. I realized too late that we would have been better served by someone who represented all three of us. Alex disliked all attorneys on the belief that once you hired one, they convinced you that you needed their services for other things. That was what had happened with Mrs. Pilson. She worked out the Trust situation and then stayed on as an expensive advisor.
No one had heard from Mrs. Pilson in three months when one day she e-mailed my brother to ask how Mary was doing. He wrote her a long letter and sent it to me to see if I had anything to add. I advised him to shorten it to one sentence and tell Mrs. Pilson we were doing fine.
“She is going to bill us for the time it takes her to read the letter, you know. We do not have to report to her and we don’t need her permission to do anything.”
Sure enough, a bill for $150 came to my mother. Mary understood immediately that her attorney had done something she hadn’t authorized. She erupted, refused to pay the bill and fired the attorney.
From this episode, I took away the idea that my brother needed a woman to tell him what to do. I decided that I might as well be that woman. I set about doing whatever I could that didn’t require a POA. Quite a lot, I found out.
I got my mother on automatic bill pay and got her an unlisted phone number. I ratted her out to the DMV and her driver’s license was revoked. I got in the habit of checking a little pile of stuff she kept next to her seat on the couch to see if there was any small fire I could put out. This is how I discovered that she was just about to cash in an $80,000 annuity and give it to Jerry Falwell. I put a stop to that by telling her that the government would take most of that money in taxes if she cashed it in now. She was always ready to believe this line. I took the paperwork and told her to call me if she ever heard from the annuity company.
My mother didn’t figure out that she could get a listed phone number again. I told her she needed to let her friends know what her new number was but she didn’t make that effort. As a result, I think she felt lonelier and sank further into her world of playing solitaire and watching religious TV. She stepped up her complaints about my not calling her. Here’s a conversation I had with her 254 times:
“Why don’t you call me?”
“You could call me when you want to talk.”
“I don’t know how to dial the phone.”
“You just did.”
“But there are too many numbers. It doesn’t always work.”
“I can set up a simpler long distance so you don’t have so much dialing.”
“Oh no, that would cost too much.”
“But you say you can’t use the one you are paying for now.”
“Elena, did you take that stack of magazines I had on the end table?”
Every so often she and I talked about her death. We went over the arrangements she had made with Mills and Mills Funeral home. “I’ve paid for everything,” she told me repeatedly. “I don’t want a funeral. I don’t want you kids to have to worry.” She looked at me wistfully and said, “I hope I am not going to be a lot of trouble when I die.”
I looked at her wistfully and said, “I wish you weren’t so much trouble now.”
On the rare occasions when my brother drove up from California, I made the three of us sit down and talk about what our mother wanted. I made her write statements of the things she said to us:
“I want to live in my house as long as I am safe and able. My preference is to have someone come in to help me do things rather than move. If I have to move, I want to stay in the Olympia area. I want my children to manage my money when I am unable and to take over ownership of the house.”
I made us sign the statements. Sometimes I insisted we get them notarized. We’d make three copies so everyone would have one. They were of no legal value but they made me feel better. They soon became known as Those Papers Elena Makes Me Sign and my mother used them as coasters.
“You know she’ll say something different tomorrow,” my brother said after one signing session.
“All the more reason to document something that is also okay with us,” I said.
There were some things she said consistently. I had this conversation with her 587 times:
“Mom, do you want to move out of your house?”
“The priest thinks I should.” Smug little smile.
“Do you want to move?”
The trips to the bank to get things notarized were always difficult when my brother was along. He and I had the following conversation 82 times:
“What are we going to do if she makes a scene in front of the notary?”
“She’s not going to make a scene.”
“How do you know?”
“Has she ever made a scene?”
“She almost did, once.”
“She never has when I’ve been there. If she does, we’ll just handle it.”
“No, that’s not good enough. We need a plan.”
“OK, here’s a plan: Forget the whole thing. We just won’t do it at all on the off chance that she might make a scene in front of the notary.”
“No, we need to get this signed. I drove all the way up here to do this. She just better not make a scene.”
* * * * *
While my brother worried about what people were thinking, I worried that my mother would sell the house for a $3 bill to the first con artist that came up the front walk. And I worried that she would make another dive for the annuity money. I was furious that my brother was still clutching the POA.
I told him, “If I had it, I would be throwing it at everything to see how far it could help in saving her from herself.”
One day I called him. “I’m going to see an Elder Law attorney in Seattle about our situation. You can be there on a conference call or you can come up and be there in person or neither. Here’s the date and time.”
I had learned it was best to just tell Alex what I was going to do, to not give him options, and to not negotiate. He came.
Peter listened to our story and recommended we put the house and annuity in our names. He picked up my list of the 450 money-soliciting organizations my mother was supporting.
“I’ve been at competency hearings where something like this was Exhibit A,” he said.
He went over all the legal details with us and we divvied up the work. We needed change of ownership forms and the deed to the house. I took the house and Alex took the annuity. Peter said it would be better if we could do everything without resorting to the power of attorney. I said I could talk my mother into anything.
I took the Quit Claim to Olympia, collected my mother and made a scene-free trip to the bank to have it notarized. Peter filed it. Done.
In the same week, Alex ran into all kinds of problems. First he wanted to know who was beneficiary of the Richmond Family Trust.
“We are,” I said
“But she was the beneficiary when Dad was alive.”
“Well, he’s not alive. We signed that non-judicial trust resolution thingy.”
“I think Mom is the beneficiary.”
“Of her own trust? That makes no sense. She can’t benefit after she dies.”
“I want us to ask Peter.”
“We are not asking Peter. He charges $450 an hour.”
We asked Peter. He said, “Your mother cannot be the beneficiary of a trust that was funded with her assets.”
We paid his bill.
“And Alex has the POA,” I fumed to myself. It might have been funny. It wasn’t.
Then my brother called the annuity company and managed to antagonize them to the point that no one in their office would talk to him.
“What did you say to them?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “I told them I had the POA and we needed the forms for a change of ownership. They said I had to send them the POA for their legal department to look at before they would talk to me again. Now when I call to see how it’s coming along, no one will even speak to me”
“Give me the number.”
“They won’t talk to you. They have to confirm the POA.”
Within half an hour I had talked to the annuity company, downloaded the form we needed, had filled it out, and it was in the mail for Alex’s signature. I tried not to gloat when I told him.
“It must be because I’m a man,” he said.
“Look,” I said. “You don’t trust anyone. When you are suspicious of people who are doing their jobs, they smell distrust in the atmosphere, and they naturally think that you are the dishonest one. So they decide they need to scrutinize your POA.”
“Did they ask you for the POA?”
“No, I didn’t mention it. I just said I needed some forms.”
This conversation advanced us not at all. It just made Alex more suspicious of me. He was sure there was something I wasn’t telling him. I was shortly to give him something to not trust me about. Something that would set us back months.
The annuity company never did confirm the POA. I took the signed change of ownership form to Olympia, collected my mother and took her to the bank. While we were there, I set up a second account with hers and my name on it, and a place for Alex to sign. I arranged to have all but $800 a month directly deposited into the joint account and all statements and check orders to go to me. My mother signed everything while chatting happily with the bank manager about her years as a first grade teacher.
Then I whipped out a POA form and had her sign me on. I wanted to be ready in case something came up when there wasn’t time to dick around with Alex’s paranoia. I hoped I would never need it – I had managed without it this far– and I hoped my brother would never find out.
My father had wanted to be cremated and had not wanted any kind of service when he died. My mother was against cremation for religious reasons having to do with The Rapture, but she didn’t make any attempt to have my father buried. The presence of the urn, though, in her house, was distressing and she fussed about “that thing.” Alex and I had agreed we would scatter the ashes someplace in Puget Sound; he wanted it sooner, I lobbied for waiting. So there the urn sat, bothering my mother until I finally took it home with me and put it in my closet.
“I’m glad we finally got that taken care of,” my mother said.
* * * * *
I had my own private ritual a few months after my father died. I took my bicycle to Walla Walla, stayed in the Whitman College Alumni guest room and bicycled all over town with a little bag of cremation remains. I left little pinches at places where I knew my father had been: the house on Alder street that my great grandfather had built; Sharpstein school, the Phi Delt house, the bandstand at Pioneer Park, the house on the corner of Park and Alder that now houses the Red Cross.
And finally Mountain View cemetery. I sat by the graves of the grandparents I had never known, the ones that died when my father was so young. The engravings on the headstones were worn and dirty. I cleaned them off and dusted them with the cremains. The ashes made the letters shine: Charles A Richmond. Louise Knott Richmond.
“I came here to tell you that your son has died,” I said to them, and then burst into tears.
* * * * *
Months after we had put our mother’s estate in our names, Alex and I took the urn to Ellisport Lagoon on Vashon Island where the Richmond boys used to summer. We didn’t tell our mother. She thought “that” was already “taken care of” and I saw no reason to drag it all up again with her. We spent the afternoon talking, wading in Puget Sound, and watching the wind take the ashes. It was a lovely afternoon.
So it was a pity that the next morning Alex went to the bank to sign onto the account I had set up and found out I had swiped the POA out from under his nose. The ensuing phone call was ugly and ended with me screaming, “Oh, get over it!” and hanging up.
I wish I had told him up front rather than hope he wouldn’t find out.
Next installment: The Priest