The epilogue to my mother’s death came with a telephone call and a name I hadn’t heard used since fourth grade.
It was my brother Thomas calling me at work. My brother and I had seen each other a handful of times in the past twenty years, a couple of Christmases, when my mother fell ill, at the funeral that she expressly didn’t want, and we had never spoken to each other over the phone.
“Did you hear about Ben Webster?”
My mind immediately raced to the possibility of a massive heart attack or stroke.
“I don’t expect Ben to live much longer after I’m gone,” Mother confided shortly before her death, despite the fact that her fourth husband was 14 years younger than she. Shortly, but it was all shortly. Mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer in July and three months later she was dead.
“My doctor says it’s the kind of lung cancer caused by exposure to industrial chemicals,” Mother explained matter-of-factly between draws on her Winston cigarette. She had started her career at a plant manufacturing vacuum tubes for radio and television sets before moving on to a factory that produced light bulbs and after that factory moved to Mexico another factory that made light bulbs and when that factory moved to Mexico she got a job manufacturing missile launch systems for nuclear warheads. The pay wasn’t good and the benefits lousy but she figured at least they wouldn’t move out of the country.
“In just four years I’ll be able to retire,” Mother said in the last conversation we had before she got sick, some seven months before. She had planned to retire at 62. She died at 58.
“No,” I said, “what about Ben Webster?”
“He’s been convicted of Federal Child Pornography charges.”
“Convicted? What?” My brain could understand the words individually but I was having trouble processing them together in a way that made sense.
“Convicted,” Thomas repeated, “Daddy called and told me. It was in the newspaper. I thought you knew.”
That last bit sounded slightly accusatory.
“No, I didn’t know a thing. I am completely blindsided.” I brought up a search engine and pulled up my hometown paper online and typed in Ben Webster’s name and there it was. He had been busted a month after Mother’s funeral with a computer full of child pornography that he’d been trading.
“I don’t want a funeral,” Mother said, “I think they’re barbaric.”
“I know your Momma didn’t want a funeral,” Ben drawled, “but I’m having one for her Bingo buddies and the ladies she worked with.” And we let it pass because we felt it was his grief and he needed to work through it in his own way.
I read through the article. He had come to the attention of the authorities because we had been sending naked photos of himself to what he thought was a twelve-year-old girl but who was in reality a fifty-something detective. The conviction came over a year later.
“Now children, I want to tell you something,” both Thomas and I had come to visit her at the same time, something that had only happened once over the previous two decades, “after I’m gone Ben might want to have a new girlfriend. He might even want to get married again.”
We shook our heads solemnly.
“And if he does,” she continued, “I want y’all to kill him.”
“We will, Momma, we will.” We promised on the grounds that it is wrong to deny the dying their last wish. Mother had been furious when her stepfather took up with another woman after my grandmother had died; a fury that had manifested itself in a fight over Grandmother’s headstone. Mother had agreed to buy the headstone but her stepfather, Lou, was furious that she had bough a single stone with no room for him so he went and bought a double stone for the both of them, leaving Mother the odd stone out.
“I am going to get Pepi the Poodle’s name engraved on it and put it in back yard,” she said. And she did.
Ben had moved a woman, Susan, in with him three months after mother died. In the Spring he took her on a cruise. I met her that Christmas and even brought her a present, an amaryllis kit. I didn’t know where she came from and she wasn’t forth-coming. She was blond and perhaps in her early forties. Her face had aspects of a Halloween pumpkin in mid-November. She resembled a celebrity mash-up of Susan Olsen and Debbie Rowe. I didn’t kill her, of course, or even attempt to kill her. I knew life is for the living, right, and I was happy that Ben had found somebody. Now I knew that she had known for all this time.
“This is horrible!” I exclaimed
“Oh, it’s worse than that,” Thomas explained, “the Feds seized the house in forfeiture and they’re going to auction it off along with everything in it.”
My mind flashed to the herd of elephants stampeding across the top of Mother’s entertainment system. After she got sick Mother’s had two priorities: to have glamor shots taken and to choose a personalized vessel to hold her ashes so rising grandly in the midst of a menagerie of elephants was a magnificent mahogany stained Urn, at least two feet high, with four elephant mask cartouches around its equator and a full bodied elephant on top, all with upturned trunks, releasing good luck to follow her into the afterlife.
“Put me on top of the entertainment center so I can watch over my family,” she instructed.
“Those things have got to go,” Susan cast a jaundiced eye toward the entertainment center, “there’s just too damned many of them.”
“Mother’s ashes are in that house,” I said.
“I know,” Thomas responded, “Daddy’s called everyone he can think of to let them know but he hasn’t gotten anywhere. What are we going to do?”
“Don’t worry, Bubby,” I said, using a name I knew he hadn’t heard me use since 1972, “I am not about to let our mother get herself sold at public auction.”
After I got home that day I hunted down my uncle Terry. I knew he lived in the Hammond area and I found him in East Chicago.
“I thought you knew.” Terry said.
Why did they all assume that?
“No I didn’t know. How did you know?”
“Brother Danny told me. He knows people in the Courthouse.”
Danny was one of my mother’s red-headed step-brothers.
“Danny said the Probate hasn’t gone through.”
That was strange. Mother hadn’t used an attorney to draft a will. She used one of those legal document preparer services. She had shown us the will and then explained what she wanted. I knew at the time if she really wanted something it should have been in the will but I didn’t care. My mother was dying.
“I left you all my jewelry,” Mother said, “be sure Ben gives you the gemologist’s reports on my diamond ring and necklace and the appraisal for my gold chain. It’s worth five thousand dollars. And after my life insurance pays off all of my debts, my car and my medical expenses, I figure after that there will be about six thousand dollars left. I want you and your brother to have that equally.”
Once, in Reno, some thug had tried to snatch her chain but it was too thick to break. Reno was where she was where she first felt like she couldn’t breathe, like there was something constricting her chest.
Mother’s funeral was held on October 31st. She would have liked that, I thought, even if she didn’t want to have a funeral. The little daughter of one of the funeral directors buzzed around the front lobby dressed as a bee. Two months later at Christmas, one month after he had been arrested by the Feds, we visited him. He seemed tired and wan. I felt sorry for him. He brought out the jewelry in a box and emptied it.
“Here,” he said and I went to the kitchen to get a baggie to put it in.
“These two broaches,” Mother said holding up two large, enameled flowers, “Your Great-Aunt Pauline got from a woman who lived in a bordello on Pearl Street. You know, back then all the White cathouses were on Pearl Street while all the Colored cathouses were on Plum.”
“I can’t find the papers,” Ben said. “Also, I think it’s only fair to split the insurance three ways.”
I looked at the check for fifteen hundred dollars.
“I want you to promise me,” Mother said, weaker now. After watching my grandmother die of small cell carcinoma of the lung she had decided that if she ever got the disease she wouldn’t fight it. She was on liquid Oxycodone and had to turn off her oxygen tank when she wanted to smoke. “Promise me, that you won’t lose track of Ben. That you’ll always treat him like family.”
“Thank you,” I said, thinking this was some sort of loyalty test, “that’s fair.”
“These diamonds are heat treated stones and the necklace has been hollowed out by a laser,” the Estate Jeweler told me.
“I always thought Ben was an alright kind a guy. He did like to get naked at work though. I guess that’s kind of strange.”
“Kind of,” I agreed.
Mother’s stepsister Juanita was diagnosed with lung cancer right after my mother did. She had been trying to raise bail to spring her own daughter, Joannie, from jail where she was awaiting trial on an attempted murder-for-hire charge. Juanita’s cancer was aggressive but she fought it with everything she and medical science had. At one point another of Mother’s red-headed stepbrothers, Alvin, dropped by to berate her for not also aggressively seeking treatments,
“Miracles happen all the time,” Alvin argued.
But not for Juanita. She ended up in a hospital in Nashville where, delirious from a combination of pain and who knows what else, she tried to throw herself out of a fourth story window and had to be restrained until her death, which came as a gift on her 44th birthday, fifteen days before Mother died.
By then Joannie had been convicted and sentenced. Mother called to relate the news.
“You know, he had broken the puppy’s leg not too long before.”
“You know, I replied, if she had shot him right then when he broke the puppy’s leg she probably would have gotten off. At least with a lighter sentence.”
“Yeah, women who wait to shoot their husbands when they are asleep, or hire someone to do it for them, are just stupid. They should wait until he’s enraged and coming at them and then shoot them.”
“I don’t think I like the direction this conversation is taking,” my husband piped in.
I then called my step-uncle, Danny. Danny had been the youngest of the four brothers, just a few years older than myself.
“Yeah, I thought you knew.”
“No,” I assured him, “I didn’t know.”
Danny told me that a Probate hearing was being held the next week. I made plans to attend.
“Ben gave you money?”
Once again Thomas was sounding a little accusatory.
“He didn’t give me any money. I sent him a Red Lobster gift card for Christmas after Mother died and then called around New Year’s to see how he was doing. He told me “Probate hasn’t been started” and hung up on me. I just wanted to see how he was. I decided right then and there he could keep the piddly little amount of money and choke on it. I never wanted to see the bastard again”
I had already left home, or rather, had already been kicked out of the house, before Ben moved in with Mother but Thomas had to stay there another three years, until he escaped into a different Hell by joining the Navy.
My husband and I drove back to my hometown to attend the Probate hearing which was presided over by a young, blond judge named Lisa. Susan was there with her shorts bunched up around her crotch and her hair a rat’s nest. She smiled and waved when she saw me but that expression froze when she saw the look I gave her. Susan went up when the case was called but then so did I. I objected to the Probate Proceedings on the grounds that a convicted, imprisoned, felon should not be allowed to serve as an executor and that my mother’s children, my brother and I, should have care and control of her ashes.
Susan, of course, objected.
“I don’t know that you and your brother have any right to know where your Mother’s cremains are,” said Judge Lisa but she postponed the hearing for another week.”
“You know, my Daddy was a really rich man,” said Uncle Terry, “I mean, a really rich man. Let me give you the name of the attorney I used we negotiated the settlement with my father’s estate.”
So in a time of almost five dollar a gallon gasoline and at a time when my husband was losing his job of twenty years we drove another 2 ½ hours and met up with Uncle Danny. We went to the offices of the attorney Uncle Terry had suggested.
“Was your mother a rich woman?” the attorney asked, “Did she have money?”
“Well, she had her life insurance policy and some stock from the company where she worked and her house but no, she wasn’t rich.”
“Do you have three thousand dollars?” he asked and when I said we didn’t he accused us of stealing $150 worth of his time and ordered us from his office.
Danny then dragged us into several attorneys’ offices around the square only to be rebuffed at every turn.”
“Would you like an Oxycontin?” Danny asked, pulling his prescription bottle from his coat pocket.
“No, thank you,” I replied.
I had prepared my own pleadings just in case, arguing fraudulent inducement on the grounds that my mother was unaware of her spouse’s criminal behavior and therefore the will should be voided.
“I don’t know what Ben is doing in there for hours at a time,” Mother’s face was sallow and a waxy tube ran up into each nostril, “Probably looking at porn,” she snorted.
Judge Lisa agreed to look it over and ordered us to return the following Tuesday, which we did.
“You made some very good points,” Judge Lisa acknowledged, “Very good points, but you should really have an attorney.”
I told her I couldn’t afford an attorney and Susan said she couldn’t afford an attorney either, their money having gone to hire one of the best criminal defense attorneys in town for Ben. Judge Lisa then said she would see what she could do. She ordered Susan not to remove any property from the house.
Whem Mother first fell ill she was in her living room and decided to pray for a sign, any sign. As she prayed she heard a commotion at the front door and upon opening it a little white cat came prancing in like she owned the place.
Mother named this sign Sheba and decided that Sheba was actually the reincarnated soul of her own mother, sent to help guide her into the next life. She drew this conclusion from the fact that Sheba had the curious habit of trying to work rings from ladies' fingers and would sneak wallets from purses.
"I hate that cat," Susan said as we stood in my mother's kitchen, "She just follows me from room to room and stares at me."
I wanted to say, "That's because she's the reincarnated soul of my grandmother and Grandmother doesn't like you very much," but I didn't.
"You want me to go steal that cat for you?" Danny asked.
I declined, but was really touched by the offer.
When we returned the following week Judge Lisa had found an attorney who would act as executor of the Estate. She had also arranged for Ben to be brought from the County jail where he was being held for sentencing. He shuffled wearing an orange jumpsuit with irons wrapped around his waist securing his wrists and feet. On his feet he wore flip flops and white socks.
“We get to see Ben!” Susan squealed to the woman she was with, presumably her daughter.
Judge Lisa asked him some questions about what he had ultimately intended to do with Mother’s remains and he said he always figured they would be interred together in Howard County. As far as I knew Mother had never set foot in Howard County and she absolutely did not want to be buried.
“If the day comes, if for any reason, I can’t be in my own living room on top of my own entertainment center I want you to take my remains on a Riverboat and toss them into the Ohio River.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said in another empty promise.
The papers were signed naming the found attorney Executor and we were all ordered back in two weeks.
“I can’t believe you are doing this,” Susan said as we were waiting in line in the Clerk’s office, “It’s not like you and your mother were even close.”
“You never met my mother and you have no idea what our relationship was like. If you knew my mother you would have known she would have despised you. She never would have knowingly laid up with a child pornographer and pervert like you did. She would have divorced him in a New York minute if she had lived to see this. You must be as big a pervert as he is, you Grifter”
A few days after Juanita died Mother blacked out behind the wheel of her new Mustang while returning from a hair appointment. She woke up, still behind the wheel, in her own front yard. After that she failed quickly. I saw her one more time before she slipped into a coma. She couldn’t stay upright and awake for long. We were sitting in her living room. I was thinking how brave she had been in facing death and for all her failings as a mother, as a person, she had been a real example in this. I looked at her softly, lovingly. She shot me her beaver and smirked.
“Mother told me about two years before died that she thought Ben was having an affair.”
I was speaking on the phone with Thomas, updating him on events. Mother had put Ben’s name on the deed to her house about two years before she died. Mother had been extremely proud that she had purchased the three-bedroom, white brick ranch in a bird-themed subdivision as a sole, single woman after her divorce from her third husband. When the lender refused to lend to her because she was a single woman she started dating a lawyer and successfully sued. It seemed odd that she would put Ben’s name on it.
“Well, he did almost pay for it these past fifteen years,” Mother said as she showed us her Will and the Will Ben had done at the same time where he pledged to leave everything to my brother and me after his death with his extensive gun collection supposedly going to Thomas to balance out the jewelry.
“I got Ben a matched set of dueling pistols for our anniversary!” Mother had exclaimed in her best clever voice on their tenth.
Between that Court date and the next Ben was sentenced in yet another court, Federal Court. The Courthouse is a grand marble building that used to be a Post Office. When I was about four or five years old my Great Aunt Katherine and I had been to a street fair Downtown and she had letters to mail. As I climbed the broad, blue-veined steps I tripped and fell, tumbling, spilling my drink, the iced cola spilling down the steps. I wailed and refused to go into the Post Office and my Aunt Katherine didn't get to mail her letters that day. I think she thought it was because I had been hurt, or the shock, but I had seen the wanted posters on the walls and I was fully expecting at any moment Federal agents would burst from the building, guns drawn, and haul me off in handcuffs for defacing a Federal Building. It was years, until I was well into adulthood, really, before I could bring myself to enter a Post Office again and even then I furtively glanced at the posters tacked to the wall to make sure my face wasn't among them. And here I was again.
Once we passed through the metal detectors the Courthouse itself was gorgeous. Majestic the way a Courthouse should be when representing the Majesty of the Law.
We waited in the gilded, soaring room, seated in benches like pews. Susan was there with a lovely, young, dark-complected woman who I thought I recognized from a scrapbook.
“That's Ben's grandson,” Susan said as she pointed to a picture of Ben squatting next to a beautiful little boy with honey-colored hair, Ben's arm around his waist, his hand splayed across the toddler's naked belly. The woman had been in that photo.
I thought that was strange at the time. I had only ever known of one daughter, the one in Pennsylvania from his fist marriage. That daughter was tall and gangly and pale but I was too polite to pry.
We waited until Ben Webster was brought into the Courtroom. He seemed to be swallowed by his ill-fitting blue suit. His black hair was greasy and his bald spot had grown. The Judge, a handsome man in his thirds who faintly resembled Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Roberts, seemed sympathetic towards Ben and indicated that if it were up to him and not the Mandatory Federal Sentencing Guidelines he would be inclined to be far more lenient while the Federal Prosecutor, a woman made up entirely of sharp angles, held the position that men like Ben were creating a market for the most horrible abuse of children and needs to be punished accordingly. Mother hadn't really been in danger of being auctioned off but they did seize the house, the computer, the computer desk and chair, including the heated massage pad. Like he couldn't have been doing the same thing in a rental. He then sentenced Ben to nine years in Federal Prison with no possibility of early release.
His expensive lawyer seemed irritated as he announced he would not be pursuing any appeals. Ben's case had been the last one called and we waited while Susan and the woman who may have been Ben's daughter stood outside the ornate wooden doors, making faces at us through the lead glass portholes.
We returned a week later to the Probate Court. Judge Lisa ruled, at least in my brothers case, that for the purposes of “a sum of money” as mentioned in the Will, zero was a sum. She also ruled the her Estate had no obligation to furnish a place of internment for her ashes. It wasn't in her Will. But she did award me custody of her Cremains.
“But Ben wants those!” Susan screeched.
“As I understand it Mr. Webster will be spending the next nine years locked up in Prison.” said Judge Lisa, sternly, “These are Human Remains that should be accorded all dignity and respect. I am not inclined to leave them in the custody of Mr. Webster's girlfriend.”
“Do you have the Urn so we can effect a transfer?” asked Judge Lisa.
“May I approach the bench?” asked Susan. Permission was granted so I approached with her. “We have a problem,” Susan continued, “we had to be out of the house after Ben was sentenced so the Urn is actually being stored in Illinois.”
“Your Honor,” I interjected, “You ordered this person not to remove my mother's Urn from this jurisdiction. She should be held in Contempt of Court.”
Judge Lisa shot me a look.
“I'll prepare an Order that you,” glancing at Susan, will have the Urn professionally packaged and shipped insured to the Sheriff's office in this jurisdiction within 14 days. So ordered,” Judge Lisa banged down her gavel.
Almost two weeks later I received a letter from the Sheriff informing me that my mother's Urn had arrived smashed to pieces, almost like someone had taken a hammer to it. Susan had been contacted and he had included a letter from her stating the Urn was no longer in production and could not be replaced and that she had searched high and low until she had found the perfect replacement box at the local Hobby Lobby.
My hands went numb, I was so enraged. I called the funeral home that had handled the arrangements and found out that it was true, the Urn was discontinued and they had searched but could not find one. I went online and did no better than the funeral home. I continued looking until I found a box that looked like a glass casket supported by four elephants as feet which I then purchased.
“I stopped by that cemetery and looked in the window of that Mausoleum,” Mother bragged. She couldn't resit peeking in Mausoleums if they had windows.
Another Christmas was fast approaching and I was bone tired. Bone tired mentally. I decided to try and enjoy the Holidays, despite the added stress of spousal employment, and worry about Mother in the New Year. After all, it wouldn't be the first time she had spent the Holidays in a police station.
That didn't sit well with Ben who wrote a letter accusing me of neglecting mother and asking again that her remains be turned over to Susan.
His request was denied.
However, it did prompt me to make one more trip to Kentucky to pick up Mother. We had arranged for the Sheriff to meet at the County Building on a Saturday. We were early and had to wait. Eventually the Sheriff, a tall, slim, man with thick silver hair, arrived and greeted us and led us into the building and into his office.
His office was masculine, all fine woods and leather. Mother was on his desk in a small square box with a pattern of gold and bronze panels on top each embossed with an elephant.
“She made sure they had upturned trunks,” the Sheriff said helpfully, “I think this one is actually nicer than the other one.”
When Mother got sick she did as her mother before her did and contacted a Priest. The Priest told her that all she needed to do was repent and go to Mass. Mother never made it to Mass, and I don't know how much she repented, but the Priest, Father Bradley, agreed to speak at the funeral. Mother's Urn hadn't arrived yet she she was up front in a fake wood box that seemed way to small to contain an entire human, even one so tiny as Mother had been. When Father Bradley got to the part where in the Catholic Funeral Mass where the Priest will slam shut the coffin lid to graphically demonstrate that the deceased really is dead to this world, I ha;;f expected him to lift the little lid and let it drop, but he didn't.
“Mother picked out the other one herself,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied, “I didn't know”
I picked up Mother and thanked the Sheriff for his time. With the other Urn I could feel Mother's life force surrounding us. With this I felt nothing.
We stopped at the Big Dipper and ordered grilled cheese sandwiches and banana shakes and then drove home.
“If you want to see your Momma again y'all had better get down here,” It was Ben.
We drove down to see Mother one last time. She was comatose and lying in the Beehive Bed her mother had been born in. Ben's sister Debbie, who had introduced Mother to Ben, and her husband had been staying with them to help. Ben seemed lost and distracted.
“I couldn't get your Momma to eat the soup,” he said, “so I slapped her.”
I was stunned. I wanted to say 'Don't hurt my Momma, she's been hurt enough by men in her life.” but I didn't. He was doing something I didn't want to do.
I went back to sit with Mother. I tried, absurdly, to make small talk. Sometimes she would grunt and try to move, buy she couldn't. I wanted to bend down and whisper in her ear, “You are going to burn in Hell, old woman,” but I didn't. She died two days later.
I brought Mother across the threshold and into my home and into the study.
“Max,” I asked my son, “would you help me get your grandmother out of this box?”
He looked stricken.
“She's in another box,” I said, “It's not disgusting. It's just in their tight.”
So Max helped me free his grandmother from the box and I placed her in the glass display and draped a blue silk scarf woven with golden elephants, trunks all upraised, over her remains.
I then took the box Susan had bought and wrapped it in a gutted grocery sack and mailed it back to her. I resisted the urge to include a dead bird.
“You must take after your Daddy's side of the family,” Mother said as she eyed my husband as he left the room, “Not like me and Thomas.”
On the way home from the Post Office I stopped at the Mission Store and purchased a little resin elephant for a quarter.
“Welcome home, Mother,” I said, placing the small token in front of her, “Welcome home.”