In the premature dark, the snow squeaks and crunches beneath our ginger steps. The icy winter resurfaced, plummeting the temperature below zero and into the negative double digits.
“Of course, our appointment with an attorney we have never met has to be on one of the bitterest of nights since Mom died,” I mutter through my wool scarf. “The lawyer’s office is in the building is across the street, one with the time and temperature sign flashing. “How can sign’s electronics even register negative thirty,” I snort, my breath inside the scarf’s dampening the wool.
After crossing the freshly plowed road, Steve casts open a glass door. The cold air meets the stolid warmth inside, and a thick film of condensation forms on the glass. Pausing to knock the snow off his boots on the entryway’s beige carpet, Steve locates the office floor and suite number on the building’s wall index. I shift my weight on the carpet, well-past its saturation point from a day’s worth of entrances and exits, and chew another fingernail.
We ride the elevator in relieved silence. Earlier, the culmination of tension from the funeral, ceaseless, lengthy phone calls about the Canadian farmland and the house in England, and a handful of our bills that passed their due date by one or two days had ignited a spark of simmering frustration between us. When Steve left the apartment to buy more U-Haul boxes, I beseeched Janet: “He is driving me nuts, Janet,” I sobbed, striking the dining room table with my fists. “When Steve was in Santa Fe, before the funeral, I had a routine. I have my way of handling calls and meetings and letters and priorities. Steve doesn’t mean to, but he interferes, tells me I am doing things wrong. I have known the players in England and Canada for years. Tell him to get off my bloody back,” I railed, the onset of tears dissolving into a foul puddle of marital discord.
Later, after I left the apartment upon Steve’s return, fleeing to Barnes and Noble under the pretense that I needed a book about the legalities of settling an estate, Janet quietly approached my husband. “Anna is in “campaign mode.” You know she gets like this, and I learned years ago to stand back and allow her to move at her speed. I know her behavior drives all of us crazy sometimes, but part of her mania is a way of dealing with her grief, too,” Janet reasoned, soon soothing Steve’s anxiety. Janet recognized another truth: my frenzy to pack up my mother’s apartment and understand my responsibilities for a moderate yet intricate estate was a response not only instigated by grief and practical necessity but also by a compulsion to erase a life without my mother in it. I returned to the apartment and calmer marital waters.
The elevator door opens, and Steve and I peer out into a nearly colorless, symmetrical passageway. Decorated in a palette restricted to brown shades, both sides of the hallway host equally nondescript artwork featuring Latin legal lexicons and graphic allusions to justice being blind. “I hope our lawyer is more invigorating than this hall,” I quip, forcing a tepid smile.
Near the end of the hallway, a light casts a shadow on my boots. Steve nods and follows me into a seemingly barren office. While we struggle out of our winter coats, a slight and wiry man with a hooked nose appears, his bony hand outstretched towards both of us. Whether due to my grief, the lateness of the hour on a frigid winter evening, or simply our lawyer’s way of doing business, introductions are made and disposed of expeditiously.
After Steve and I are seated, the man with a face like one of the Gringott bankers in Harry Potter listens. At the same time, I begin retracing an abbreviated version of the events leading up to our visit, starting with my mother’s stroke, winding through the discovery of the covert will she penned after my stay in August, before culminating with her death.
“As well, my mother’s bank and investment representatives froze all accounts after her death.” The gnome-faced lawyer nods without comment.
I fail to mention that the bank manager has turned a blind eye to any checks I write for bills.
Bending over a fresh piece of yellow legal paper, he records the events described with an expensive Montblanc fountain pen, its tip scratching across the once virgin page. “Do you have a copy of your mother’s will?” he inquires without looking up.
“Two wills.” The fervent note-taking ceases for a moment, and the lawyer shoots me a penetrating look through his round spectacles. Worried that the admission suggests nefarious behavior on my part, I continue without allowing our counsel to interject. “I have a copy of the will she had drawn up in the early 1980s by an attorney after my father died. All of the beneficiaries mentioned in this will are dead. But I also have a handwritten will that my mother wrote herself five months ago,” I state, cautiously choosing my words and handing both wills across the desk. For a few minutes, no one speaks.
With effort, I suppress the urge to chew another fingernail.
“Well, the handwritten will is the most current demonstration of your mother’s wishes, thereby nullifying the one drafted thirty years ago.” The breath I have been holding expires like a punctured balloon. “Of course, you are Anna, and you are Steve,” he affirms, glancing first at me and then to Steve. We nod. “A holographic or handwritten will does not present a problem in and of itself. Many states, including South Dakota, accept handwritten directives as part of probate proceedings.” I breathe out. Pinpricks of tears gather. I don’t understand my mother’s motivations for writing a second will. I never learn her reasons for keeping it a secret from me. “But, there is a problem with your mother’s will in that there is only one witness signature,” the Gringott banker’s doppelganger continues.
The room falls into silence once more. I turn to Steve and mouth the words, “Now what?” drumming the stubs of my fingernails on the armrest. The proximity of my rising anger overtakes the threat of an embarrassing wave of tears. Has my mother made a legal mess because of her stubbornness?
“Interestingly enough, only two states allow the use of a holographic will with only one signature in matters of probate. Once again, South Dakota is one of those states. However, you will have to sign a legally binding affidavit attesting to the fact that this is your mother’s handwriting,” he announces.
Shooting me another probing glance before continuing to scribble notes, he asks, “Can you attest to this writing being in your mother’s hand?”
“Yes, I can. Without question, my mother wrote the will,” I answer without hesitation. While over the years, the words my mother wrote shrunk, the letters were growing closer together. The directive printed in block letters on a gray paper was undoubtedly written by my mother, signed by her, and witnessed by her friend, Margaret.
“With this holographic will and your signature on an affidavit attesting to the validity of the writing, I can request the court to open probate proceedings on behalf of your mother’s estate. Customarily, such a request is made, and a judge assigned to the case appoints the named parties as executors, you and Steve, within two weeks. However, given that Christmas is two days away and several district court judges are on vacation, I anticipate this result will take longer. In the interim, you may not access your mother’s bank and investment accounts, nor will you be able to sell or change any lease agreements with regards to the property in England and Canada.” Upon completing his recitation of the ins and outs of prairie probate proceedings, the man who will be the first of five lawyers to settle my mother’s estate lays down his pen. Reaching for a tissue, lawyer “number one” removes his circular glasses and wipes a speck of dust from the lens before an afterthought occurs to him.
“Do you have legal counsel in Canada and England?” I shake my head, picking at the corner of my index finger’s half-bitten nail sensing my responsibilities tighten into a legal pretzel. “Probate proceedings differ from country to country, even state to state, so I strongly advise you to retain legal counsel in both England and Canada as it is likely that separate probate proceedings will be required.
Once you are named executors in this country, your standing will be legally established and may be helpful as you proceed in other countries.”
One day after my mother’s funeral and two days before Christmas and my executor’s year has begun.