Episode 7: The reading of the will
Dandelion seed, blowing
floating above cracked pavement
wilting tulip beds…
How much desire
is tossed about in the world?
it anchors, sprouts, blooms.
From the poem “spring melancholy” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
The first piece of bad news is the discovery of a quitclaim deed from 2005, in which my mother signed away her rights to the house.
Combing back through the public record documents, I am able to paint a clearer picture of the house’s history. It was purchased by my grandparents in July of 1971. When my grandfather died in March of 2001, ownership of the house was split— half for my grandmother and his two living children, giving a quarter claim each to my mother and Joe.
At this time, this house had been paid for in full.
My mother’s claim was terminated in July 2005, when she signed the quitclaim deed and relinquished her ownership to my grandmother.
Then Joe’s quitclaim came in April 2008, just two days after he’d appeared in court and found guilty of criminal trespassing. His signature conveyed to my grandmother full and complete ownership of the house. No doubt this was a financial decision. Because that year, she took out the $12,000 loan from the mortgage company I’d heard so much from lately. And the dates on the loan application the lawyer sends confirms this.
Since that was twelve years ago, this means whatever is outstanding on the mortgage can’t be much. 3 or $4 I’m sure, when considering they’d also been paying the property taxes from the mortgage payment.
I’m sure Joe’s credit or arrest record probably made this transfer from him to my grandmother a necessity. She would’ve had better credit and no arrest record of any kind. Regardless, it meant that upon my grandmother’s death her 100% ownership of the house, should’ve been split between her two surviving children. 50 / 50 ownership between my Joe and my mother.
The second bad news — the killing blow arrives in my inbox soon after.
The email from my lawyer has a single attachment. I open it on my computer and read:
Last Will and Testament. Then my grandmother’s name.
I, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, being of sound mind and disposing memory, do hereby make this my last will and testament and do hereby revoke all other wills made and codicils by me.
I do hearby appoint my son as the executor of my estate to serve without bond, and I do hereby waive the filings of any accountings and inventory by him.
I do hereby give, devise, and bequeath all my property of which I die to be seized by my son, absolutely and in fee simple.
The will is punctuated with my grandmother’s signature and dated December 30, 2008.
“Is this a binding will?” I ask my attorney.
“It appears so,” he says.
“She left him everything,” I say in disbelief. “She completely wrote my mother out of the will.”
“Do you know any reason why your grandmother would do that?” he asks.
“No,” I say coldly. “I don’t know why she would do that.”
At the time it may have been a financial decision, but that doesn’t tell me why she’d leave my mother with nothing. Why she wouldn’t at least give back what was already hers.
Unless she really believed that Joe would look after her, take care of her—make sure she got what she deserved.
“Well. Did your mother have anything else?”
No, only me, I think.
And remember how my mother would cup my face in her hands, kiss my nose, my forehead, and cheeks until I was laughing. And over the laughter she’d say, You’re the most precious thing in my life. Absolutely priceless. I wouldn’t trade you for all the money in the world.
“No,” I tell him, the old sadness rolling through me again. “She didn’t have anything else.”
The lawyer goes on to explain that since our business is done, that he won’t need to take the case to court for me, he’ll return what’s left of my retainer by mail. I thank him and hang up.
My feelings remained mixed in the weeks that follow.
On one hand I’m deeply relieved.
There will be no battle. No years of having work with Joe, possibly appearing in court with beside him, making arguments or defending my mother’s rights. I would’ve done it, of course.
I have no problem taking up arms when necessary, but it wouldn’t have been fun.
It would’ve been exhausting and emotionally draining at the very least. Economically perilous at its worse.
But here I’m given the perfect excuse to bow out, to step away from all the madness and salvage my own sanity and peace of mind.
If only the relief would last.
Too quickly it vacillates with irritation. Anger on my mother’s behalf. That the people she loved, relied on her, had manipulated her—whether my mother realized it or not.
And who did the manipulation? My grandmother? Joe?
Because Joe didn’t quit anything in 2005. He held onto his claim for three more years, until my grandmother had needed to finance the $12,000 loan for the back taxes on the property.
But it’s more than that.
Did they really care so little for her well-being? About what was fair? Or had my grandmother believed, perhaps rightfully, that my mother would always need care—and for some reason I’ll never understand—had actually trusted Joe to provide that care?
Joe had once said to me, “I promised our parents that as long as she was alive, my sister would always have a place here. I’d always look after her.”
As long as she was alive. What an interesting choice of words.
That evening I’d call Shay, my mother’s ex, and gave her the update on the probate situation. I’d been checking in with her more and more in the weeks since my mother died.
First, because it was nice to talk to someone who knew my mom, who understood her as well as I did. We shared all the same frustrations about my mom’s choice to return to her childhood home again and again, placing herself Joe’s reach each time.
And she was dealing with many of the same emotions I was: guilt, regret.
“I should’ve had her come here and stay with me. I’ve got an extra bedroom,” she thought. “When I called, I’d told her about momma and Henry dying. Then she didn’t remember the next time. I should’ve known then somethin’ wasn’t right.”
This was our third or fourth call.
I’d reached out through Facebook first, knowing that she would want to know my mom had passed, being as she was the last real friend my mother had had.
No one, except for me, had talked to her in years.
When Shay had gotten my message, she’d called me back, and I told her the news, what the police had said.
She wasn’t surprised.
“How many times had we told her he was gonna kill her? How many damn times, Kory?”
I couldn’t argue.
Though admittedly, I’d expected a violent death.
Apparently so had Shay. Because when I told her there was no real physical damage to my mom’s body, that Joe claims it was an overdose, she refused to believe it.
“No damn way,” she said. “She liked her pills, true enough. And that damn doctor in Tullahoma just kept givin’ them to her. Somas, valium. It didn’t matter. Made me so mad they don’t ever punish those doctors for what they do. But there ain’t a pill she liked that’d kill her! And she ain’t fool enough to take a whole damn bottle!”
It’s not only the doctors that are to blame, I think.
I was fourteen or fifteen when I got a skin graft in my mouth. The surgeon cut a piece of skin from the roof of my mouth and sowed it along the bottom of my teeth. They did this to repair gum loss and to prepare me for the braces I would never have.
When I’d woken up with a sore mouth, to stitches and gauze I couldn’t stop tonguing to save my life, they’d given me a prescription for pain pills.
I’d taken one that night when the pain had been the worst.
I’d gotten through half a bowl of cereal before I was drooling on myself, staring into the cocoa puffs as if I was going to divine my future in the milk.
Shay, laughing, had taken the bowl away. “I think that’s enough for now,” she’d said. “Give it up before you fall in it.”
Because I hadn’t liked how the pills had made me feel, like my body was heavy, uncontrollable. Like something I didn’t own, I hadn’t wanted to take anymore.
When my mom asked if she could have what was left, I hadn’t put up a fight.
If she’d taken them immediately, or had added them to her collection, I didn’t know.
I think of the row of kitchen cabinets in the home my mother and I had shared with Shay for almost ten years.
In the early 90s, I could open three whole doors and see the pill bottles stretching from one side of the cabinet to the other.
They stood in little rows, orange bottles with their white caps filling both shelves, top and bottom.
And I have more than a few memories of her pulling a bottle down after she got home from work. Of her standing at the bathroom sink, cupping her hand under a running faucet and gathering just enough water to throw the pill back.
“What if it was a pill that killed her?” I ask. “I hear they’re mixing all kinds of crazy things into pills these days.”
Whereas I can’t so much as take my vitamins and probiotics without choking on my own tongue.
“If there was a pill, how the hell she’d get it!?” Shay asks. “And don’t tell me that bullshit about the broken safe. You know she couldn’t have managed that. He must think we’re dumb as hell.”
How’d she get ahold of a pill?
It’s a good question. If Joe is the sort of man to keep his drugs locked in a safe, I can’t imagine a viable scenario in which he dropped a pill or left one on the sink.
That somehow in between setting pans on fire on the stove or stuffing things in the freezer, my mom had managed to find a pill stuffed between the couch cushions or something.
And if there had been one sitting on the bathroom sink?
Would he have left it there on purpose? Hoping, knowing, she couldn’t resist.
That all his talk about locking up her medicine to keep her safe might be just another lie—a manipulation he expects everyone to believe.
Talking to Shay makes me miss my mom. Her voice. To ease the ache, I ask Shay, “How did you and mom meet?”
If I can have nothing, I’ll take a story. A sweet reminder of that my mother had been here and alive, once upon a time.
Shay laughs, the warmth in her voice deepening. I’ve always loved this about Shay. The word “good-natured” has never fit anyone so well.
“We met at The Caberet. It was a gay bar in Nashville. Your mom was putting makeup on the drag queens.”
“That night?” I ask.
“For a while, I think. She’d do before they went on stage for their shows.”
“So she came over and said hi or what?”
“Sort of. She pulled my friend’s hair.”
I laugh. “What?”
“We had tails back then. And she came up and pulled my friends. When she turned around your momma apologized, saying that she’d thought my friend was someone else, someone she knew.”
Likely story, I thought.
“I asked her to join us. We got to talking and turns out we did know some of the same people. I’d known your aunt Renee for ten years already, but hadn’t crossed paths with your momma. I went home with her that night. Kory, I hadn’t never done something like that—a one night stand. And I’d only been broken up with Linda for a month. I wasn’t even lookin for nobody.”
“How did we end up moving in with you?”
“Well, your momma got into it with that roommate of hers. She’d beat her up pretty good, actually. And she called me to come and get her. So I did. She looked like hell, with all those bruises. You know your momma bruised easy.”
“She did,” I confirm.
“And that weekend I moved you both out here to my trailer in Manchester. This was ’91, I believe. It wasn’t always good times, but sometimes we were happy. Real happy.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “We were.”
I don’t remember the exact moment we moved to Shay’s trailer in Manchester, Tennessee, but I do remember being happy there. It was a clean, well-lit trailer. Two bedrooms — one for my mom and shay and one for me.
I even had my own bathroom.
Shay had bought me a brand new day bed and a desk. A dresser for my clothes.
It was quieter than my grandmother’s, which I liked, and because both mom and Shay had to work during the day, I was a latchkey kid.
I was dropped off at school in the morning, on their way to work and I walked myself home.
It was an easy walk, less than a mile, and entirely through quiet, safe neighborhoods.
Back then the neighborhood had a little market called Mrs. Carter’s grocery store—nothing more than a one room shack with rough wood walls and a couple of cold cases. And I would pop in on my walk home and buy candy or ice cream with the change my mom left on the counter that morning.
Then the rest of the evenings were entirely my own.
Sometimes I read or watched television. Other times I went exploring.
I was free to come and go as a pleased as long as I was home by dark, and I’d always left a note.
Close to the house was a park called Old Stone Fort. This archeological park could be accessed by ducking behind any of the houses at tracing the edge of my neighborhood.
Turns out that the place was built for unknown reasons, thousands of years ago the prehistoric natives from the area. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time.
I just knew that it was a dense forest, wilder than anything I’d ever known.
It was what you might imagine if someone said “the woods” as in, as I child, I loved to play in the woods.
There were winding riverbeds and trees so tall I couldn’t see the top of them. Sometimes I saw snakes or turtles or frogs. Birds of all kids. Deer, rabbits.
Apart from tormenting the wildlife, I loved playing in the water.
In some places it was deeper than I was tall.
In other places, little more than a creek bed.
These were offshoots of the Little Duck River, and perfect for swimming and splashing. And the water’s edge was trimmed by wide, warm stones on which to dry myself in the sun before starting the walk home.
I was free to come and go as a pleased as long as I was home by dark, and I’d always left a note.
All of this had made the tiny creek that ran behind the houses in my grandmother’s neighborhood look like a puddle. So it was easy to lose myself for hours investigating the underside of rocks, climbing branches for a better view of the wilderness around me, or running across fields with grass so high it came up to my chest.
Once after a particularly hard rain, my friends and I had gone into the woods only to find it saturated. By the time I came home, I was covered from head to toe in mud. And when I knocked on the back door, I had to beg Shay to let me in.
Her jaw dropped when she saw me, before she burst into laughter.
“My god, where have you been? Look. At. You. It’s like you’ve been tarred!”
She only agreed to let me in after she’d hosed me down—literally—with the hosepipe hanging from a hook on the back deck.
Another time, when I’d arrived home from school with hours of freedom stretching out before me, I’d decided I wanted to take a bubble bath.
The private bath attached to their room had a jacuzzi tub, with the jets that would sputter as long as the dial on the wall was running. Once the timer ran out, it would automatically turn off.
I liked bubble baths. So when I ran the bath, I added Mr. Bubble’s syrupy pink liquid to the gushing water.
I must’ve been very tired because I fell asleep to the low ticking of the timer, the warm jets pounding my little limbs.
When I woke up, there were bubbles all right.
They’d overflowed the tub and into the bathroom floor. Then they’d kept going.
As I leaded out of the tub, peering into the bedroom I saw that the bubbles had spread all the way through the bedroom and out into the kitchen.
“Oh no. Ohhhh. Nooooo.”
I clamored wet and naked out of the tub. Desperately trying to get the timer on the wall to stop fueling the traitorous jets. Once it did, I grabbed a towel and tried to soak up the bubbles.
This was useless. Two or three swipes soaked a towel and left me with a mountain of bubbles to contend with.
I was still naked, covered in bubbles when Shay and Mom came home from work. They found me in the kitchen with the broom as I was trying to sweep the bubbles outside onto the deck.
When they saw me, my lip quivered. Tears filled my eyes. I thought I was going to be in so much trouble for using the tub without permission.
But instead, once they recovered from the shock of seeing half their house filled with bubbles, they laughed.
They laughed so hard they were the ones crying.
One of my favorite memories as simple as it sounds was Sunday mornings. As I would wake up, Shay would look at me, smile, and say “let’s go!”
I’d race her the green mustang and ride shotgun as the two of us rode down to the Spring Street Market, a small grocery store down the road from us.
While there, she’d buy the Sunday paper, a fat, unwieldily thing that came with a comics section.
She’d hand the comics over dutifully and I’d read it at the kitchen table while eating my Sunday morning pancakes. I think I love this memory so much because it shows how steady, how calm this period of my life was. That I’d finally had things I looked forward to, that I enjoyed. I felt safe, mostly.
I felt loved.
And I think my mother had been happy too. That these were her good years.
All my memories of her smiling, of her enjoying herself are from the years we lived with Shay. I’d never heard her laugh before—in a way that wasn’t forced, showy. Never known her to spend so many days at a time in a manageable routine.
Of course, it hadn’t always good.
There was the incident where she forgot to come to my musical. There were the evenings when she would come home from work, bone tired, and irritable and start drinking even before dinner. On some of those nights I’d wake to Shay yelling, and run from my bedroom to theirs, expecting the worst, only to find my mother, in their closet, pissing into the dirty clothes basket because she was too drunk to find the bathroom.
Or on the nights when, after a hard day at her factory job, she’d call me into her room, and ask me to pop and squeeze the blisters on her fingers while issuing grave warnings like “Stay in school, Kory. Work with your brain, not your body.”
Or pointing at her grayed teeth and explaining—the lithium did this. They put me on it when I was just a kid and it messed up my teeth. You want your teeth to look like this? You better brush them!
There were also the moments when my mom would cheat on Shay, either leaving with a random person from the bar they’d gone to together, or sneaking around with someone at work.
When this happened, they’d fight. Once Shay packed all of my mother’s things into the green mustang and had thrown them into some guy’s yard.
They always got back together, smoothed things over.
But even with more good times than I’d ever seen before, we couldn’t fully escape my mother’s sadness.
It could be felt like a thick, consuming mist that dampened everything.
One day, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I’d come home from school and found that my mother and Shay were already home. They were on the back deck, them and their friends, Drinking, grilling. Talking over each other and the music blaring from the stereo.
My mother was so morose, tears openly spilled from her eyes.
That’s when I’d remembered that her court date had been that day.
I could tell by her face alone, by the way she tipped the bottle back, that she’d gotten bad news.
Yet everyone was trying to cheer her. Make her smile.
“Come on, Leitha. Four months is nothing! I’ll pass by in no time!”
“Yeah, they could’ve been so much stricter with you, hon!”
That night, when Shay popped her head into my bedroom to tell me goodnight. I’d quietly asked, “What’s going to happen to me?”
She frowned, coming into the room and closing the door behind her. “What do you mean, hon?”
“When Mom goes to jail. Where—what am I going to do?”
Her face softened. “You’ll be here with me.”
The relief of not being sent away, was almost enough to soften the blow of a Thanksgiving and Christmas without my mother.
While the other kids at school had chatted excitedly about the family they’d see, the food they’d eat, the trips they’d take, I was in store for a very different experience.
On Thanksgiving morning, before we ate, Shay and I drove down to the Coffee County Jail. We were pat down, checked over, then escorted to the visitor’s area.
“You first hon,” Shay said, after we were informed that only one person could see her at a time. “She’ll be glad to see you.”
But my mother didn’t look glad, as I settled down onto the wobbly metal stool on my side of the plexiglass.
When she lifted the plastic phone from its receiver, and I did the same, she looked embarrassed.
“Well, here we are” she began, forcing a smile and the practiced vivaciousness, which I understood even then, was a mask for the pain beneath. “Tell me what delicious things you ate today. The food here is terrible.”
“I haven’t eaten yet,” I tell her. “But Shay got a small turkey and a box of those mashed potatoes we like. And a pie.”
My mom smacked her lips, following through with her show of good cheer.
“Enjoy yourself, baby,” she said. “For both of us.”
I run through these memories with Shay, sharing the laughs. She tells me she has a photograph of me as a teenager. She was on the riding lawn mower, in the middle of cutting the yard and I’d stopped her, leaning over the wheel with the most ornery face.
“You were gettin onto me about somethin,” she says.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m sure I was an asshole as a teenager.”
“No, hon. You were a good kid. Always reading. And I guess it paid off, didn’t it?”
“I just don’t understand why Nana would cut Mom out of the will? Why would she do that? Why does she keep throwing her own daughter to the wolves?”
“She’s always been like that, ever since Leitha was a kid. At least as far back as the 70s, after what Hank did.”
Hank. When she says this, I assume she means my mother’s half-brother, my grandfather’s son from a previous marriage. The brother who’d climbed into her bed at night and molested her.
“She didn’t believe her about what her brother did?” I ask. Wondering if now, at long last, I was going to get the full story of what happened.
“Not Hank, Jr.” Shay corrects me. “Hank, Sr. Your granddad.”
“Papaw?” I ask, alarm spreading through me. “What did Papaw do to her?”
There’s a pause. “I don’t know if you need to hear this, hon.”
As if I’d give up so easily. With conviction I say, “Tell me.”