Authors: Beth Gutcheon
For Ann Standish Mueller
Beloved Old Same
he trouble started when Jimmy took the piano.
Not their famous father's concert Steinway; that was too valuable to keep and was, anyway, nine feet long. Jimmy took the piano from the living room, the baby grand that had belonged to their Danish aunt Nina, the Resistance hero. Everyone knew Monica wanted that piano more than anything, and certainly more than Jimmy did.
Well, we all knew it. We assume Jimmy knew.
The middle-aged orphans' lottery. Three grown siblings come together at the scene of their shared childhood, which they experienced the same and totally differently in about equal parts, to divide up the contents of the house they grew up in. Was there ever a scene more fraught with possibility for bloodless injuries, sepsis in wounds no sane person wants to reopen? They'd have been better off burning the house down. But they hadn't. So few do.
Which we think is just as well. Birth is usually instructive. Death always. But as one of the minor passages, this one holds much interest. Deciding within a family how to divide or share what the dead leave behind is a test that tells.
In this family, Eleanor needs neither money nor things, but she likes to win, at least sometimes. And as eldest, feels entitled. Monica needs everything, and as middle and least-loved child,
has her issues. And Jimmy as the youngest and well-known favorite feelsâ¦well, it's often impossible to know what Jimmy feels. He's a stage-five thinker, to the surprise of a good many of us. We'd love to know if this came from his Buddhist period, or if it was all those psychedelic drugs.
Eleanor Moss Applegate
We were in the dining room of the house in Connecticut. We grew up there, but none of us had lived there full-time since we were fifteen, forty years ago in my case. Jimmy did, here and there, whenever he was kicked out of school, but not for decades. Of course we visited our parents there, but Mother was pretty territorial. She didn't like people prowling, especially her grandchildren, so now that we had the run of the house, what was there came as a revelation. All our mother's stuff from her childhood was up in the attic, and a lot from generations before that. Mother and Papa had died together last Labor Day weekend. That was a bad shock, of course, but not the only one.
Andrew Carnegie said that if you die rich, you die disgraced. Well, Mother will be safe with Andrew, if they meet in heaven. She'd been living beyond her means for years. Way beyond.
One of the first things my future mother-in-law told me when we met was that
grandmother used to cross the street to avoid shaking hands with a man who was known to be Spending Principal. Those robber barons, who made their money before the income tax, you'd have thought their shit didn't smell. Oh, sorry.
Anyway, I was stunned at how little would be left, after Uncle Sam took his whack. Sydney Brant Moss, the Princess of Cleveland, Ohio, had not been one you could talk to about estate planning. The laws of mortality had been suspended in her case. That was her position and she stuck to it.
Poor Mother. Being Lady Bountiful was her whole identity. After I got over the surprise, it made sense to me.
She did give a lot away, and got a lot of social mileage out of doing it. She also paid no attention at all to what her money guys were doing, even when she still had her marbles. AprÃ¨s elle, le dÃ©luge.
Sydney and Laurus Moss, late parents of this tribe, died exactly the way they wanted to, by the way. Together. In old age, on the last night of their last summer in a place they loved. A faulty heater was involved, but so was will. It was hard on the children, though, I admit that.
Sydney's mind had begun departing in wisps and then chunks years earlier, leaving her soul, that bright nightgown, to cope alone. This made her a much simpler being than she had been for most of her life. More like us. Laurus had had strokes and knew there would be more. He dreaded what would have come next for them: he unable to look after them both, and she long since unable to do much of anything except be grateful. (Not that that should be underestimated as a contribution to the common weal.)
Laurus appeared here almost immediately, and moved on just as quickly. Sydney, so far, is still elsewhere.
I'd been the one to do most of the cleanout of the house, and to deal with the officer at the bank and the lawyer who'd drawn up our parents' wills. They're both about a thousand years old and we think the lawyer has Alzheimer's. Monica had her hands full at home, and Jimmy lives in Californiaâ¦well, it fell to me.
The bank had all the stuff in the house appraised, for estate taxes, and I'd hired an auction woman to come in after us and sell what we didn't want. My daughter Nora had dreams of selling it all herself on eBay but we said no. I can't say she took it well. She graduates from college next month and hasn't a clue what comes next, and she saw this as about a year's employment. And I sympathize. I was already married when I graduated from college, but I know what that panic felt like.
So Monica and Jimmy and I were in the dining room with our lists of stuff we wanted. Charlesie, my youngest, came in and took a picture of us with an ancient Brownie box camera he found in the powder room. There was black-and-white film in it, and the picture actually came out afterward. We're standing in front of the sideboard armed with our pencils, with me in the middle in my Princess Di flip. I think I'm getting a little old for that hairdo. Monica is in blue jeans with her mad hair, which she won't color, on top of her head. I dislike noting that she's thinner than I am, which she never used to be. Also taller. Am I shrinking already? Jimmy has our father's face and build. His forehead is higher than when he was young but otherwise he's aging disgustingly well.
Mother's will ordered that only the three of us could be in the room for the lottery, no spouses or children. Her motives weren't pure. She really never liked her grandchildren and she wasn't too sure about Josslyn. We'd have rather had everybody in on it, at least I would have, but we didn't know if Gradgrind from the bank might suddenly appear, lurking in the azaleas outside the windows, to make sure we were obeying Mother's cold dead hand reaching from the grave.
Although cold doesn't mean to us what it does to you. We are one with the weather. Such a pleasure, not to be plagued by one's senses. Now and then one has a fleeting memoryâof scent, let us say. Not of lemon or lilac, but of what a scent
One doesn't miss having itâthat would be Hell, which is a very different matter. But to remember, for its own sake.
No, we haven't all lived, in the sense you mean. I have, once or twice, but was never very good at it. As here, I preferred to observe.
My last time, I took a stab at marriage, to a widow named Candace Brant, and acquired a family. This one, and I liked it more than I would have guessed. Now I can't quite break the habit of watching over them. Not to interfere, though of course we can. Just to see how they grow.
By Lottery Weekend, the house was like a warehouse. Eleanor had been working all winter, hauling stained linens and partial sets of china and crystal down from the attic and up from the basement. Jimmy's kids were
parading around the house in Mother's mink stoles (she had two of them. Why?) and Papa's concert clothes. The older girls ate dinner wearing Mother's New Look dresses from right after World War II, with the great big flouncy skirts. The dresses had matching hats, with veils. Mother used to erupt when the kids explored in the cedar closet, so now they all had to get into everything, if only to prove she wasn't coming back.
I had come to help Eleanor for one long weekend, and Eleanor's girls, Annie and Nora, had been there a lot. My stepdaughter Sylvie helped too. The chatter is wonderful when those three are together. Charlesie came once to do the grunt work, carrying broken juicers and ironing boards out to the Dumpster. When something broke, Mother didn't throw it out, she put it in a closet and bought another one. I found
dead Hoovers in the closet in my bedroom. My clothes from boarding school, pleated skirts, knee socks that I'd carefully put in mothballs, were all gone. Thrown out or given away or stolen by the drunk maid whose other trick was to show her tits in the back room at Hanratty's Grill downtown for a dime. But do we throw out dead vacuum cleaners? What if 1948 came back and they started working?
When the lottery began, the outlaws went into the sunroom. Josslyn was playing Monopoly with her children. She wears her hair down to her butt and she uses it like a shawl, or a curtain, or like something from the Dance of the Seven Veils. I couldn't tell how she could see, half the time. Anyway Jimmy's children are acquisitive lit
tle beezers; Virgil had two hotels on Boardwalk in about the first five minutes. Jimmy's children are named after cultural heroes. Jimmy got to name the firstborn. Josslyn named the next one. Regis.
Norman Faithful was showing me a present he bought Monica when they stopped in New York on the way to Connecticut. Why, I don't know. It was a little box made of silvery mesh. “So I got out the door and was walking toward Fifth Avenue when a guard from the museum taps me on the shoulder,” Norman says, acting this all out. “The guard says, âExcuse me, sir, but that box is not free.' I said, âIt certainly wasn't, it was bloody expensive.'” He had put it in his tote bag, hadn't let them put it in a store bag. He carries a canvas tote bag everywhere. “Nicky's a fanatic about refusing plastic bags,” he says. The guard wants to see his receipt. Meanwhile half of New York has stopped to watch this drama.
(Monica is sometimes called Nika, NEEK-a, by people who have known her since childhood. Only her husband calls her Nicky. It's a little controlling to rename a person, isn't it? Of course, the kids call
Normal, but not to his face.)
I ask him if he was wearing his dog collar. Kind of loving the image of this great tall stringbean priest in the hands of the gendarmes.
“I was.” Norman is meanwhile miming a desperate search of his pockets. “Finally I found the damn receipt in my wallet. Our audience was crushed not to see me wrestled to the ground and handcuffed.”
“Did the guard offer to kiss your feet?”
“And back out of my presence? No. But he did apologize.”
“You should have threatened to sue,” says Josslyn from behind her hair.
After a silence, Norman says, “He was just trying to do his job.”
Eleanor Moss Applegate
We were determined not to be one of those families that comes unglued over who gets the special tea cozy. I thought we all worried more about getting crosswise with each other, as we got ready to divide the spoils, than about getting any particular treasure. But on the day, Monica was like spit on a griddle, as Ellen Gott used to say.
The Lottery According to Mother was to go like this. First we drew straws to see what order we would choose in, and it worked out Monica first, then me, then Jimmy. Then it reversed. With her first choice, Monica took a diamond brooch that belonged to Great-grandmother Annabelle.
It was almost the only good jewelry left, but I was surprised she took it. It's old-fashioned, in the shape of ribbons tied in a sparkly bow. She has nowhere to wear such a thing, and if she breaks it up, it's just a handful of not especially good diamonds. Nothing of which you could say, “This came to me from my mother.”
I could have worn it.
I don't know why I took the brooch. I surprised myself. Being in that house, picturing Mother going out in the evenings, I remembered being little and thinking that someday I'd be grown up and have diamonds too.
Now I'm fifty-three, and Eleanor wears big diamond studs in her ears for everyday, and I wear the same little gold hoops I bought when I had my ears pierced.
I took Mother's writing desk from the living room. It was one of the few really valuable things in the house, but I wanted it because I could see her sitting at it in the mornings, paying her bills. Jimmy took the massive butler's desk from the old Elms, that Papa had used as a dresser. It will look ridiculous in his pastel house in California but we all knew he wanted it and were pleased that he got it.
Then it was Jimmy's turn again, since we chose in reverse order for the second round. I assumed he would take one of the sets of silverware. There are two: the Victorian set Mother used, and the Art Deco service our mother's mother, Candace, bought when she married Bernard. Mother raised us to despise our grandmother, but now that we were finally demobbed from our duties as foot soldiers in her many battles, we all found the Art Deco set much prettier.
But instead, Jimmy said, “I'll take Nina's piano.” Monica looked absolutely stricken. Clearly she hadn't seen this as a possibility or she'd never have taken that pin.
“Why?” asks Monica in this flat voice.
“Josslyn wants Boedie to take lessons,” says Jimmy, apparently puzzled. Did he
Boedicia is their youngest. Jimmy refused to have a fourth child because Josslyn would have named it Jewel.
Monica Faithful, e-mail to Jeannie Israel
The point wasâ¦why
piano? Why not buy some Yamaha spinet? Some damn thing Josslyn can paint sea-foam green? If she
paints Aunt Nina's piano, or decoupages it or something, I'll have to kill her. Really.