I NEVER CASHED THE CHECK – A family memoir

My Aunt Grace was an exceedingly disagreeable person.  Physically unappealing and possessed of a Germanic personality, she was destined to spinsterhood from an early age.   In those days, that was a most unwelcome fate – there were few unmarried opportunities for even the most beautiful and intelligent women, and Aunt Grace qualified in neither category.  This would have been very evident to her mother, because she made my father and his older brother Wallace swear on her deathbed that they would always take care of their little sister.

In the late 1920s, not long before the 1929 stock market collapse that lead to the Great Depression that hung over America until jolted out of it by World War II,  my father and Uncle Wallace resigned their warrant officer commissions in the Navy, and – using the knowledge they had garnered in the service – established a small but flourishing business selling and repairing the growing number of electrical appliances that were being invented and brought to market.   And in 1930, almost simultaneously, they both met the women they wanted to marry – my mother and Aunt Natalie.

When they went to Aunt Grace to tell her the good news, she was furious. “No, you can’t do that!  You promised Mama on her deathbed that you would always take care of me!”

Prompted by a code that would not apply today, her brothers sold their business, liquidated their possessions and gave every nickel they could beg, borrow or steal to Aunt Grace, to buy her off.  She even demanded that my father hand over his favorite ring – the mine-cut diamond that my mother lusted over and Aunt Grace later flaunted.  Thus unencumbered by any material possessions or financial assets, my father married my mother and they began a life of hand-to-mouth existence all during the depression.

This was all family folklore, and even after my father died in 1947, when I was 13,  my mother continued the story, including their depression years struggle and the saga of the diamond ring.  But although she had reason to detest the woman, my mother always insisted that my brother and I stay in contact with Aunt Grace. “Be nice to her,” Mother would say, “she’s family.”    My mother was a kind and gentle woman, who wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if she had a mouthful, but I suspect she was motivated by anticipation of the time when my brother and I would be Aunt Grace’s only living relatives and potential heirs.  We dutifully sent her birthday cards, called her on special occasions, and visited her on the infrequent venture into Manhattan, but it was never pleasant. She was not pleasant.

Then, some years ago, my mother suffered a stroke and I flew back from Portland, Oregon, to Long Island to be with her.  She lingered in a coma for six days and then passed peacefully.  We buried her two days later and, needless to say, Aunt Grace neither attended the funeral nor sent flowers.

My brother was willing to close up her home and make all of the necessary arrangements, so I made ready to fly back to Portland and my wife of only a year.  As I was packing, my office called.  A major client wanted me to meet him in Philadelphia two days hence to negotiate a deal.   Given that I could ride the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station, and then take the Penn Central Railroad to Philadelphia, I agreed.  And given that Aunt Grace lived close to Penn Station, I called her and arranged to meet the next day for a cup of coffee while I changed trains.

It was July;  New York City was hot and humid;  I had just buried my mother after sitting by her bedside for a week; and I was hoping for – without much expectation – a pleasant reunion.  I hadn’t seen Aunt Grace in three or four years and I was somewhat shocked by her appearance until I remembered that she always looked terrible.  She wore a ratty old housedress, and her hair had thinned to the point where her scalp showed through – she was letting herself go.

No sooner had we sat down in a booth in the small diner around the corner from her apartment, and had ordered a couple of coffees and bagels, than she launched into her favorite tirade.  Without a word of condolence or sympathy for my mother, Aunt Grace began to tell me how awful my brother and I were to her.  She could partially excuse me – I lived 3000 miles away – but my brother was right here in New York and he never wrote, never called; and she had never been invited to see his children.

I didn’t want to hear that.  I was hot, tired, and in no mood to be polite.  For the first time in my life I summoned up the courage to tell her off, and I carefully crafted what I would say:  “Aunt Grace, the reason that we don’t keep in touch with you is because you’re not pleasant to be around.  All you ever do is bitch…..”.

But before I could get those words out, she got a funny look on her face, pitched forward into her bagel, and died.  An ambulance raced us to the hospital, but it was too late.  They wanted to know what to do with the old housedress she had soiled when she died – I suggested the hospital incinerator – and once I had given them the name and phone number of her best friend, I took a cab to JFK, determined to get out of New York as soon as possible.  I canceled my meeting in Philadelphia, and caught the first flight back to Portland.   I’m sure my mother would have been pissed  –  she went two days before Grace.

Some months later my brother and I received letters from the lawyer who was probating Aunt Grace’s will, with copies of the salient portions.  She had left a modest estate, and had bequeathed upon my brother and me the munificent sum of $1.00 each.  Checks for that amount accompanied the letters.  I asked if I could have, or at least buy, the ring from the estate, but received a very curt no.  I had my revenge.   Knowing that the estate could not be closed while there were still probate obligations outstanding, I never cashed the check.

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