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Grave Matters

24 December, 2008 (08:03) | Growing Up

It's not quite the Great Depression right now...

“Listen Mom,” I say tepidly, the fear and disappointed firmly held from my voice. This is important. This is necessary. I still don’t like it. “I’m down to the dregs in my bank account. If I don’t spend any money between now and the end of the year, I’ll have just enough to cover my January student loan payment before I’m out.”

She can’t see it, but I’m cringing. I hate talking about money. It’s part because I’m terrible with it and she’s the responsible accountant for a multi-million dollar philanthropy, and part because discussing money feels like it’s just one small step away from being greedy, one of the ugliest and most common vices in America. Over the years I’ve bounced checks, ran up huge credit card bills that went unpaid, nearly defaulted on my student loan, shirked collection agencies, and borrowed money from friends (all of whom, to my knowledge, I paid back).  I’m hardly an apt and able successor to her legacy.

“Ok. I think your father will be able to free up some money from the estate soon,” she replies.

The estate refers to my grandfather Harry Roberts’s estate. The same one I blew through traveling. Blew through may be the wrong word, as I actually spent only a portion of what has been left for me. The rest is still locked up as they sell houses and items of his and hold it in trust while things work themselves out. The money I got for my trip was an advance, of sorts, which complicated matters as it necessitated disbursement of equal funds to the other inheritors.

Still, the fact that it’s technically my money doesn’t make it any less awkward; especially considering that I wanted to turn it down completely at first.

Stranger by Akasleep of Deviant ArtI didn’t meet Harry until after my grandmother died. I never even asked about him. To me, it seemed my father was raised in a single parent home. For all intents and purposes, that was true. By the time he was six, his parents had divorced and he had visited his dad for what probably seemed like the last time. My grandmother would occasionally mention news about Harry, and for forty-five years that was it.

My grandmother died of cancer while I was at home during my Christmas break in 1995. She had been fighting it for over a year, and by then the chemo had stopped. I had been away at boarding school most of the year, so it was a shock to come rushing out of my room to find my mom cradling her lifeless body when she collapsed. A few days later, we held the funeral and a day or two after that I was hustled back to New Hampshire, my mourning period virtually non-existent.

It wasn’t until several years later that my grandfather suddenly appeared in my life. My father tells me it was a mild curiosity and a whim that put him back in contact with Harry after all those years. He did a search on the Boston Globe online and saw an obituary for one of Harry’s brothers. He contacted the brother’s son listed in the obituary and from there the reconnect happened.

The details of Harry’s life are, for the most part a mystery to me. After he separated from my grandmother, he remarried a Catholic woman named Judy, converted to Catholicism, and helped raise three step-kids. He continued work as a watchmaker and seemed to live a very normal life. Beyond that, I know very little about him after he left my dad’s life.

Shortly after starting college, my dad began visiting Harry. I felt awkward and put off the first time my parents dragged me to meet him. He was pleasant and nice enough, but it still didn’t feel right. Shortly thereafter Judy died. My dad and Harry spoke often on the phone and every once in a while they’d visit, but for the most part I was too busy in Colorado notice.

At thanksgiving one year, my dad gave Harry a call and called me over to talk to him. As usual, the conversation was nothing spectacular or deep and I didn’t really see the point. To me, he wasn’t my grandfather; he was just Harry.

The second trip up was to take him out for dinner for Father’s Day. We didn’t have a reservation so we went early. I acted like an ass. I had a headache, the service at the restaurant was bad, and my dad and Harry weren’t exactly nice to the wait staff, making me even more irritable. When we left that day, I wasn’t excited to have anything to do with Harry again.

Still, family is family and it was important to my dad, so I continued to make an effort. There were a couple more visits by me and the occasional phone conversation, but not much more than that. And still, he was Harry.

Toward what would became the end of his life, Harry got sick and he and my father got closer. He went into the hospital for surgery and something got infected. The night before he died, I called him on the phone in the hospital to see how he was doing. He was upbeat and said the doctor’s were hopeful and I was none the wiser. I’m not sure anyone was.

I didn’t attend Harry’s funeral. It wasn’t the first time I’ve missed a family funeral, and while it bothered me a little simply because I wanted to be there for my dad, it wasn’t the end of the world.

A few weeks later my dad began to talk to me about the estate. He was put in charge. I was a primary beneficiary. I couldn’t understand it. Harry knew so little about me. He had three step-kids. Why would I end up a primary beneficiary? At best, I’m a distant blood relative.

Apparently Harry and his step-kids had fallen out toward the end of his life. He rewrote his will to include my father and me. When I found this out, I first tired to reject the inheritance. I had no rightful claim to it and I’m sure someone else could use it more than me. Besides, I’ve never liked getting hand-outs.

But my parents were insistent. My dad being executor to the estate dealt with selling the house and distributing the goods, but none of it really fazed me. After seeing how Harry lived-modestly, in a small town-I didn’t believe the inheritance would amount to much.

When my parents first began to talk to me about the actual numbers last year, I was surprised. I wanted to do something good with the money, if I had no choice but to take it.

SIDE NOTE: Saying I had no choice is a fallacy. I had a choice. I’ve always had a choice. But there are some things you just don’t do. When my grandmother on my mom’s side offered me her car, I tried to say no. I didn’t want a car. I preferred to walk or bike. But my mom told me to take it. So I did. I had a choice, but it wasn’t merely do I take the car; it was do I offend my mother and the family. The same is true for the inheritance. I felt that saying no with my mother and father both pressing it on me would’ve been taken as a slap in the face and a poor decision. Hell, I even argued with my mom on whether to invest the money or spend it on traveling (surprisingly, I was the one arguing for investing). But regardless the outcome, I had a choice.

So here we are, back at the beginning. My inheritance has been coming in slowly, the first wave being used to pay off part of my student loans, the second being used to travel. As I run down the last bit of available funds in my bank account, jobless and in the midst of a recession, I find myself in the same old position as before: asking my parents for money.

“We’ll be transferring you some money soon,” my mom tells me. I feel better about things, but it doesn’t make the asking any easier.

“Thanks mom,” I say. It still hurts, even if it is my money now.

My father, me and Harry at his house in Massachusetts.

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