The day after my mother’s burial, I moved the junk sitting on one half of the dining room table so that it sat precariously on the junk sitting on the other half of the dining room table, the big table had held so many dinners that so many people remembered more fondly than I did. Alex and I sat down with a bunch of paperwork and tried to figure out what we needed to do about the annuities, the pension, social security, and insurance policies. We made lists of calls to make, letters to write and forms to fill out. We divvied up the work.
A little problem had been worrying me for two months: Its inception lay in one of my final encounters with the chaplain at the care center. He had waylaid me in the hall one day to say that the priest wanted to know about the terms of my mother’s will. Was there no place these two men didn’t feel entitled to stick their noses?
“What business is that of his or yours?”
“Your mother has left a bequest to the church,” the chaplain said.
“My mother has no estate,” I said.
“She has the house,” he said.
“She doesn’t own the house,” I snapped. “And this is none of your business!”
He stepped back with his hands up. “Okay, I just thought I could help.”
I knew immediately what had happened. My mother had made statements to the priest about leaving money to the church or possibly giving them her house without any understanding of the legal process required or of the legal processes that had already been implemented. She had made such promises to every church she had dragged her family through since I could remember. Bequests on the backs of envelopes– dating back to the 1960s– to people she later crossed off her Christmas card list nestled in her underwear drawer.
There was a will that was part of my parents’ trust but we assumed something new had been written after my father’s death. If it had, I couldn’t find it. I had looked in all my mother’s usual places for squirreling things away—the freezer, her buttonholer, wrapped in a girdle in her underwear drawer, sandwiched in between stacks of sermon notes and an 8×10 glossy of Nancy and Ronald Reagan. I had taken her bedroom apart, lifted up rugs, pulled out drawers, and looked behind pictures. Nothing.
Alex was afraid of what my mother and Mrs. Pilson had concocted in their secret meetings. I said that it didn’t matter what they had concocted because our mother didn’t have an estate. Alex thought that if her intention had been to leave the church something, we were obligated to honor it. Twenty-five years’ of therapy had relieved me of that kind of thinking.
We decided we had to contact Mrs. Pilson. Alex made the call. I listened to him chat with her, telling her what I considered to be needless details. I waved my arms in his face to get him off the phone. He took it into the other room. I followed him, making slicing motions against my throat. Finally he hung up the phone, thoroughly irritated.
“What is wrong with you? It was only five minutes.”
“Yes, and she is going to bill us for 15. She’s not our friend. If it had been me, I would have said, “Hello, Mary died, we can’t find the will and wondered if you have a copy. If so can we pick it up today.”
“Why did you tell everyone they can have whatever they want?” Alex asked me. “When Radcliffe was over here to get the bed for his grandson, he wanted the night stand that went with it.”
“So?” I said. “He can have the night stand.”
“He was looking at everything. What, are we letting everyone take everything they want for themselves and their families, too?”
“The idea is get stuff out of the house. It doesn’t matter how it goes.”
“But if we could make some money off the stuff–”
“That nightstand would probably go for $3.50 at a sale,” I said. “Besides, I think we can afford to be generous with the few people who haven’t written us off as the spawn of Satan. We need their help.”
“What if they take thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff we could sell?”
“Oh. My. God. Have you ever been to an Estate sale?”
“I am sick of you telling me what to do and what not to do and how long I can talk on the phone and how I’m not doing anything right!”
I stared at him. We needed to be able to work together for at least a few more months.
“Look, I’m sorry. It’s just that your paranoia interferes with my hysteria.”
This made us both laugh and we relaxed a bit. We sat at the dining room table and started to do what historically had helped us feel connected: imitations of our parents.
I told the story of our mother piping up, as the chaplain was turning away from her, saying, “I’d like a small service.” By the time I had repeated the line half a dozen times, I couldn’t get it out for laughing so hard. I repeated the conversation I had so many times with my mother:
“The priest wants to talk to you about the funeral.”
“Do you want a funeral?”
We howled until we doubled over the dining room chairs, our sides ached, and our cheeks hurt.
We made a trip to Mrs. Pilson’s office where she handed over everything she had of our mother’s, including the original trust and will. Nothing had been changed. The Trust over-rode any will even if a robe and a suit had made our mother sign a new will in hospice. In any case my mother had nothing to bequeath. Mrs. Pilson offered to file the will. I said I would walk it into court myself. I wanted to be done with her. Before too long a bill came for $100 for the phone call and the time it took Mrs. Pilson to dig out my mother’s stuff and give it to us. I told Alex I wouldn’t pay it. He said he would. I told him not to. He paid it.
I wrote a letter to my mother’s church:
My brother and I wanted to thank the members of your congregation for the care and friendship you gave our mother in the last years of her life. When my father died, there were only 2 things my mother felt strongly about: one was that she wanted to remain in her home until she died. The family appreciates the help you gave her: house cleaning, yard work, taxi services. But for your help, she probably would have opted to go into assisted living.
The other thing she felt strongly about was that she wanted no funeral.
If anyone in your congregation had any compassion or depth of understanding for my brother and me, we were not aware of it. Any effects would not have been felt in connection with you and we could not thank you so I do that now.
“It’s way too subtle,” my brother said.
Reader, I didn’t not mail this one. My brother was probably right. It was way too subtle.
* * * * * * * *
My mother died seven years ago today on Nov 21, 2007. I wrote my memoir 99 Girdles on the Wall in 2009 and it was published the following year. The “Remembering My Mother” posts are all material that was cut.
I toyed with several different endings to my memoir. I had visited my mother’s grave several times in the year after her death. On one of those visits I told her, “I’m writing a Tell-All about you.”
I got two distinct responses from her and thought about using one or the other as an ending. One was: “Oh dear, I hope you don’t say anything about my messy house.” The other was: “Elena, don’t mention menstruation.”