Teri Orr: Tales from the crypt
March 30, 2018
It was one of those strange Instant Messenger things that popped up on my phone during a meeting where I wasn't paying attention anyway. It began — "You don't know me and I am sorry to contact you this way … I work in a law office in San Carlos, California. We are cleaning out our safe deposit box of old wills."
And since I grew up in San Carlos, California, she had my attention.
"We have a copy of your mother's will. I looked her up and saw that she passed away — I'm sorry — I assume you must have a later will than this one. But we also found a cassette tape in the envelope. I thought you might want that. Please contact me…"
Since the will was written in 1985 turns out they couldn't find me easily now, under the married name I had, then.
The tape did make me want to sit down and write long letters to my own two children and let them know how much joy they have each given me.”
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I thought it might be a scam. I would be asked to pay for the tape or the storage of the useless will. But when I called their office, I realized the lawyer in question had attended high school with my half sister — the whole thing was legit. I gave them my mailing address. A few days later the cassette tape arrived. I bought a cheap cassette player and waited a couple of days deciding whether or not to listen.
For newer readers of this column — it is enough to say my relationship with my mother was complicated, messy, not warm and not happy and … lots of nots. I wasn't sure I needed her criticisms from beyond. Still, I was curious. Maybe the tape would solve some family mysteries. Perhaps there was some treasure hidden in all the knick knacks I had hauled back from California when my sister and I placed Jean in a "memory care facility" a decade ago. Two years later my sister would pass away and I continued my long distance care of my mother, who passed away five years ago.
I waited for a quiet night, poured a whiskey and sat down to listen in my favorite chair with a roaring fire. Nothing happened. There was no sound. No movement. I tried different batteries. I tried the old school method of taking a pencil to advance the spools of the tape. Crickets.
I told my daughter about it and she suggested I give it to our tech guy at the theater and see if he could find sound. And he did. He put it in a folder on my computer. That night I went home, poured another stiff drink and sat back down with a notebook. What I heard was so typical of my mother. It was all about The Stuff. She started walking through her home — room by room — explaining — between my sister and me — who got what. And why. The desk, the chair, the creepy glass clowns, the Republican badges … there wasn't a full minute in the 50 she told any magical family stories. There was much discussion about why — The Stuff mattered — why it really mattered who got what. And that, was the handwritten name of the tape … Who gets what and why.
There were no mysteries solved in the one-sided conversation. There were the forever digs at my sister about her weight. I was a size 4 at the time it was recorded so she wanted to let us know most of her things wouldn't fit either one of us — for different reasons — but the gray fox fur coat might be small enough for me. (I gave it away — on sight — when I finally got into the house to pack it all up — 35 years of stuff in one place — had to go in one weekend). It was a reminder of her playing favorites, her desired control and of my longing for a real mother/daughter relationship.
The tape had a couple of false endings which made me hopeful. They were things she thought of later. … "Linda gets the old desk downstairs, Teri gets the desk from her grandfather — after all she is The Writer in the family. And you really must write me that book one day. I know you can write a book — if you try hard enough."
And "Teri might as well get my copy of The Prophet. After all, she borrowed it years ago and has never returned it."
The book I don't remember seeing that she described sounded like a fascinating read — it was called "Mother Goose Steps and other Nazi Rhymes…"
I was to receive some crystal martini glasses because she stated clearly — for my sister's benefit — "Teri is more apt to entertain and use them." Another set of glasses, I have no memory of — my mother said my Grandmother had stolen from a Standard Oil Christmas party.
My grandfather had finally landed a real job during World War II working for Standard Oil in Bakersfield, California. Eventually, it afforded my grandparents a lifestyle very different from the river bottom they started out on in Los Angeles — where my mother was born just before the Depression. My grandmother had been one of the first female detectives with the L.A.P.D. and she was a member of the Red Squad — a group who secretly outed "Commies" in the late '40s and early '50s.
I often wonder how I turned out so radically, liberally, different from much of my known DNA.
The tape did make me want to sit down and write long letters to my own two children and let them know how much joy they have each given me. To remind them of some tough times and grand times and how we made it through. To shower them with written love so they never need to care who gets what. Because they will know The Stuff never mattered. Not a single day — not a Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.