I got a letter from a large insurance company the other day informing me that they had a policy for my grandmother that might possibly be something I was the beneficiary of. I raised my eyebrows at it in surprise. I had remembered finding the policy (from 1934) in her folder of important papers and put it in the growing stack of Things I Ought To Do that sprouted after my mother, and then my grandmother, died. Then I remembered why I never dealt with it. I didn’t want to deal with the morass of paperwork that was very likely going to accompany the task of proving family lineage. An easy task in thought, since I am indeed the last person who actually knew her that was also related to her. A difficult task in practice due to the fractured nature of the family and the fact that my mother had her name legally changed in the late seventies, which is going to snarl the proceedings mightily in the absence of that paperwork.
I first need my mother’s death certificate, a task that will either be super easy, or a serious pain in the ass due to not knowing exactly which name is on all those records. I may have to file that request two or three times before I get it right, and I’ll have to pay for every one of them. Easy or hard, getting that will be accompanied by a lot of bad feelings given the nature of her death and because I have to utter the name and think about the horrible man that she lived with when she decided to shuffle herself from the mortal coil. I have to think about the inequities of our country’s social service system, which would have essentially made her live under a bridge for two years before granting her the benefits that might have saved her life. I have to think about our own relationship, which by then precluded any good feelings whatsoever: we hated each other. I hated her because she was abusive and selfish, and she hated me because I refused to let her forget it or behave that way around me anymore, particularly since I had a brand-new baby only months old who was too important to be tainted by that bullshit. Mom flat out told me not to offer her any help anyway, so I didn’t.
Following her death, her charming husband shunned my sister and I, dumped her ashes in his backyard, and later gave away the rest of her possessions, leaving us nothing, not even a coffee cup, to remember her by. I let him know just what the rest of us thought of him and tried to move on. It was the one and only time I’ve had the opportunity to tell someone to shove a red hot poker up their ass. Hopefully it isn’t too difficult to see why dealing with anything regarding my mother’s death got shoved to the bottom of the Things I Ought To Do pile.
Fast forward five years. I had had the blessed opportunity to actually spend some time with Gram after dangling the prospect of a visit in front of her since Mom died (don’t taunt old people, they don’t like it). I spent several days with her in May 2007 and then again in September, when I brought the whole family out and she got to meet her great-granddaughter. I didn’t know it would only be a year later that she would die. In fact, her last year would take her away from her beloved cabin in the canyons of Orange County, though it was really for her own safety and that of the other people who lived there. She just didn’t move fast enough to escape a brush fire. Specifically, this one, the Santiago Canyon Fire of 2007:This fire would come within a single mountain ridge of utterly decimating Trabuco and Holy Jim Canyons, where Gram and her neighbors lived. She went to stay with friends but her health precluded her ever living there again. Less than a year later, she died in her sleep. She was 85, just a few days shy of her birthday.
Memories of the Santiago Fire haunted me, and fire season was rapidly encroaching, so I knew I had to get out there to save what was in her cabin as quickly as I possibly could. A couple of weeks later, I flew out and her dear friends Doug and Scarlett got me out there and later helped me pack up the UHaul that I was going to have to drive back to Texas. Alone. For 1700 miles. First I would have to clear out the cabin of a woman who had been raised during the Great Depression and never.threw.anything.away. And I do mean anything. I had laughed and teased her about it when I had visited before, but all of those extra sheets, towels, paper bags, and other things actually came in handy. Given the circumstances, I was reluctant to get rid of any of it anyway.
I still felt bad about it all, of course. I had been unable to come and visit her again as I had wanted to, and Gram was one to hold a grudge. I felt it was my duty to preserve what was left of her with as much dignity as possible. These were important things, if not to the world, then to me. They represented a family past that I had never, ever been privy to due to the fractured nature of her relationship with Mom. It seemed the entire family was filled with women who were difficult to get along with. I wouldn’t know anything about that. *looks around and whistles*
Miraculously, and I mean that completely, the loads of her belongings were jolted down a 5 mile pitted washboard dirt road in the back of pickup trucks, packed into a UHaul, and then driven from Rancho Santa Margarita in California to Austin Texas without a single thing breaking. Not even the three massive mirrors or the fragile glass and pottery.
And so began the long and arduous process of first, finding a place for it all somewhere in the house or garage, and second, going through it all, as it was all packed in boxes and Rubbermaid trash cans (one of the items about which I could hear her saying, “See? I told you so, that’s useful!”). I found a pair of red canvas shoes that apparently I had worn as a baby. I found her letters and pictures. I found so many things that were wonderful to me but useless to anyone else that I did nothing but go through her things for the next two months.
Then I crashed. There were so many questions in those boxes amidst the photo albums and books. It became overwhelming after a while and I just couldn’t bring myself to go through any more of it. Even today, there are a few boxes and a trashcan in the garage that still need to be gone through, which I’m sure Doug would love if I would get around to that, as he is now the owner of her little cabin in the canyon and they hold papers relevant to it.
I also found the aforementioned insurance policy, and knowing that I would have to drag all that bullshit about Mom back up from the bottom of the Things I Ought To Do pile, I did nothing about it. I came to the proverbial screeching halt. Now I have to start my engines again and try not to let it all bother me, too much anyway. There’s just so much there, the mad and the sad and the disgusted and the raging and the depressed and so on and so forth. Like a bubbling cauldron that no one in their right mind would ever want to stir. But I have to. If I want those last questions answered and those last connections forged, I have to. It’s not even about insurance policies anymore.