Last Will

As Meg flipped through the folder, prudently labeled "Estate documents," her fingers stopped automatically between a stock report and the deed for property in Florida, fingering a slim simple envelope with her own name scribbled on the front.

"Mo-o-om," Sandy said from the doorway, startling Meg. She had to fight a senseless urge to hide the envelope. "How long do we have to stay at Grandma's? It stinks."

"There's no helping that, baby." Though it was true. Meg's mother's meticulous home and tidiness was no match for time. Five unexpected weeks in the hospital where Elise McClain argued (vainly) that her body would never have the effrontery to betray her had left her well stocked refrigerator to the same inexorable decay. The cleaning people, paid automatically on schedule, had removed dust and nonexistent fingerprints but left the fridge untouched. Left for Meg to clean up.

It was done but the odor lingered.

"Hopefully, it won't take long, Sandy."

"But it's bo-o-oring. She doesn't even have Wi-Fi!" It was a cry from a young teen's heart. There was Wi-Fi, of course, but no one knew the password except Elise and Elise was dead. "I can't get streaming on my Kindle and my cell phone's screen is still cracked."

Meg lifted a brow. "And whose fault is that? I told you after the third lost or broken phone last year that you'd have to live with any more problems until the end of the contract. You're lucky it still takes calls."

"'Cause it's not a touch screen. So lame."

"Maybe you'll finally learn to take better care of it."

"Let me have yours."

"No way. Here, take this." Meg reached into the huge purse/tote she took with her everywhere and pulled out a portable DVD player she often brought for her patients.

"You only have old people movies." Sandy sounded disgusted.

"Take it or leave it."

Sandy sighed, and took it with the air of great concession. "Fine. Better be in color. Sheesh." She glanced around the study, old dark wood and hard unyielding leather. "This place is so cold. Can we up the temp?"

"Go ahead. Let me get through these papers and we can leave. You can pick where we eat."

"Not much to choose from, here in Dullsville," Sandy said. She caught her mother's eyes and held them. "You call me if you need me, 'kay, Mom?"

"Okay."

She waited until Sandy disappeared to close her eyes, but shivered when she did so. The house was cold and it wasn't the thermostat. Meg had always known she'd be an executor. Her mother had made it clear that her co-executor, her partner at the law firm, would be responsible for anything of value. To Meg was left only whatever personal belongings she cared for.

As if there was anything in this house that was personal. As if there was anything her mother had had that she coveted.

I'm past all that, she told herself. But she wasn't, not really. When Elise had first gone to the hospital, dragged unwilling from the law office where she worked after fainting during a deposition, Meg had been called and told about the pancreatic cancer. She'd left her husband and children to fend for themselves as she came to support her mother. And was sent home next day, thoroughly scolded that doctors were fools and, even if they weren't, she needed no useless girl who had no skills but patting hands and fluffing pillows.

"I'll call you when I need you!" she'd screeched as she'd sent Meg from her hospital room, the last thing Meg had heard from her lips. Meg was not surprised that she had never called. When had Elise ever needed her?

This was the last room. Meg and Sandy had wandered through the tiny house, tastefully furnished in somewhat austere fashion. Conveniences as needed, fine art on the walls, but not a single splash of personality: no quirky knickknacks, no signs of hobby—other than several bookcases of serious authoritative books—not a single photo, not even of herself, though Meg had sent her dozens of photos over the years. There hadn't even been one of Meg's children in her wallet. The jewelry—fine jewelry as befit her position—was to be given to the other ladies in the law office, with the exception of one piece each for Sandy and Meg. Nothing had tempted either. Clothing to charity. Furniture to be sold at auction. Meg felt she'd been brought out with no reason other than as a reminder that she had no part of her mother's life, not even in death.

Or so Meg had thought until she'd seen the envelope, her name scrawled in her mother's illegible hand on the top, just the first letter of each word and a squiggle, as if the rest of the word wasn't worth forming.

Meg heard the movie start in the other room, the music familiar. Father Goose. She turned the envelope over in her hand, certain now that her mother had left only this envelope for her, had drafted her as unnecessary executor only to ensure she found this envelope.

It was vellum, the kind her mother had always used for letters of significance. Smooth, not quite white, with a translucence that reminded Meg of many an elderly hand she held as they breathed their last. The skin of her patients was also frequently translucent, pale, amazingly smooth as if the identity was wearing off the fingertips as they neared the end.

Meg hated vellum. The letter her mother had sent to her when she'd dropped out after the first semester of college, demanding repayment in full for every cent she'd spent on her education and sneering at her elopement with a man she barely knew. "Have you learned nothing from my mistakes?" her mother had typed, "Must you throw your future away for a worthless man and a child you're ill-equipped to raise properly? Obviously, you're pregnant and I can't say how disgusted I am that you would do anything so foolish."

She had been pregnant, though she had never told her mother about it. Taken in by a boy's kind words, words she'd never heard growing up, she'd been unprepared for the brutality that followed, and the crude dismissal, blaming her for his own dissatisfaction.

Bobby was the one that found her, bloody and used behind the convenience store where he worked, finding her by the dumpster where she had been left. Bobby had brought her in, given her a spare shirt, offered to call the police. Meg wouldn't, of course. Her mother would blame her, would never forgive her the shame, but Bobby accepted that decision too and gave her a ride back to her dorm after his shift.

Back in class, her rapist's crude jokes and callous dismissal made school all but unbearable, her nights full with nightmares. But, when she found out she was pregnant, she found herself outside the same convenience store, sobbing in Bobby's arms again. He was the one who took her to the clinic, helped pay for her abortion, held her hand.

When she could stand school no longer, he was where she found herself every time. So she got a job, ran down to Maryland with him to get married, and she moved in to his apartment where his warmth kept the nightmares away.

It was not that Meg didn't understand her mother's view. When Elise, in the midst of law school, had become pregnant with Meg, options were limited so she married her law school fellow student as proprieties demanded. Somehow, they managed between the two of them, to finish their degrees and each pass the bar with a small child underfoot, but not without a great deal of resentment for Meg and for each other. Since they were lawyers, it ended in a miserable acrimonious divorce Meg could not directly remember. Nor could she recall the father. But Meg knew from her mother's near daily reminders that she, Meg, had ruined her mother's life.

By existing.

After no grandchild was announced in nine months, there was no apology, just a complaint that the CNA course she completed was a sorry alternate to a real degree.

When three years later, Jimmy was born, there was only the snide note that she (Elise) should forgo any dreams of Margaret making something of herself. So it had always been. Words of disappointment typed on lovely vellum. 

What horrors would this letter hold? More criticism? Or redemption? She thought she was past wanting her mother's love or acceptance.

The envelope was sealed with wax, an eccentricity Meg had not seen before, though she'd found the wax set in the desk. With care, Meg broke the seal and open the single typed page.

Margaret, she read. Throughout your life, you have done nothing but thwart my will and defy me at every turn, even at the expense of your own happiness. My every generosity you have chosen to throw in my face as you scorn the sacrifices I made on your behalf. But, I have always been a fair-minded woman. Therefore, I FORGIVE YOU.Your mother, Elise McClain.

The signature was a study in beautifully formed letters.

Elise McClain had forgiven her, Meg Ashton. Elise had forgiven her. Elise had decided that Meg was the one who required forgiveness and, with her usual magnanimity, had provided it. Forgiven her the unwanted boon of being Elise's unwanted daughter.

Meg began to laugh. She had a quiet laugh but it took all of her and her body shook with the force of her laughter before it became sobs as she acknowledged just how much she had wanted her mother to love her, even once.

She wiped the tears, hoping Sandy wouldn't hear, and shook her head at the pain. Who knew Elise could still hurt her so much. And, she'd saved that last twist of the knife for after her life was over.

There was nothing here for Meg. There never had been.

Meg threw the letter in the trash and replaced the folder, sending a text to the co-executor that there was nothing personal left in the house and to dispose of it per the will's precise directions.

As Meg gathered her things, she wondered if her mother had offered forgiveness in a backhanded way of asking for it. But, of course, Meg had never offered it either. Not to her mother.

Meg had chosen the revenge of a happy life. Three beautiful children who had futures with their own choices for happiness, a husband who made a good living in servicing air conditioners, a career that, in Texas, meant they'd never go hungry. And she cared for people who were dying and gave them all the comfort she could, eased their passing, and made sure they felt cared for.

The job was sad but fulfilling. And Meg had grown used to words of love from her husband—still Bobby, warm as ever—from her children and from grateful patients who found her presence a boon and not a burden.

"C'mon, kiddo, let's ditch this joint," she told Sandy, moving into the living room.

"You know," Sandy told her solemnly, indicating a cavorting Cary Grant, "I mean, for an old guy, he's pretty cute. In a scruffy kind of way."

"He cleans up nicely, too. I'll show you a different one later."

"You got more?"

"Cary Grant? Always." Meg ruffled Sandy's short hair, cut almost to the scalp and dyed green and blue. "Thanks for coming, Sandy. I'm glad you were here."

"You bet, Mom." Sandy wiped a bit of wetness from beneath her mother's eye. "You okay?"

"Yeah."

"Do we have to come back?"

"No."

When Meg closed the door behind her and left the key in the lockbox her mother's partner had provided, she felt she had closed that section of her life.

As she walked back up the path to her rental car, the New England air cool to her Texas-acclimatized skin, she wrapped her arm around her daughter. Meg asked herself, had she forgiven her mother? In a way, she had a long time ago, when she decided to be the mother she'd always wanted for her children.


Stephanie E Barr

Stephanie E Barr

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