Sunday, May 02, 2004

Amy Goes to Probate Court (Long Version)


What follows here is a cautionary tale about probating our family feud -- wherein I really let my bitterness, resentment and need for revenge overpower me. I'm not that way anymore. Honest!

March 24, 1999: My father died in December of last year. It's taken me this long to even be able to think about him, let alone dispassionately write up his story. Here goes.
Pop was a good man; a hard-working, idealistic man. Yet somehow the whole of his meaningful life became, in the end, degraded and reduced to a sleazy battle in probate court. "Even now," I told Amy, "the very thought of what happened during these last three months makes my blood boil." And the saddest part of his story is that what happened to him could happen to anybody. Probate courts suck! And greedy relatives are even worse!
I loved my father. He was my guide, my mentor and my best friend. What happened to him after his death has torn me apart. I am writing this cautionary tale in hopes that I can prevent such a nightmare from ever happening to anyone else.

October 24, 1998: "Did I ever tell you Pop's story?" I asked Amy as we were getting our Halloween costumes in gear. I as usual, I was going as Baby Spice (30 years later). "Did I?"
"Only about a hundred times."
"Wanna hear it again?"
"It all began a hundred years ago, in the frontier town of Talequah, Oklahoma," I said. "My great-grandfather, Louis Johnston, was a deputy U.S. Marshall for the Oklahoma territory, and my grandmother was a Cherokee breed named Mary Elizabeth Ballard." In the one photograph I have seen of this couple, he looked like everything a deputy U.S. Marshall should look like. And she just looked haunted. Surrounded by eight of her eleven children, her eyes seemed to burn out at me. Like, spooky.
The first time I saw that photograph of my great-grandmother -- my father showed it to me just a few years ago -- I was shocked. I was shocked not only by the sheer depth of Mary Ballard's being, her raw presence on the page, undiluted by either the mere mechanical conveyance of photography or by the passage of over a century of time: I was shocked because this historical frontier woman -- with burning eyes staring at me from out of some long-forgotten past -- looked exactly like my father. And like me.
"Here's one of my favorite stories," I told Amy. "Pop said that his mother used to tell it to him. The first time I heard it was back in 1975 and we were driving up the coast of Northern California on Highway 1." God do I remember that one. Highway 1 is this twisty, scenic, drop-off-the-edge cliffside road out in the middle of nowhere. "The surf was pounding below us and the fog was swirling around us like some old horror movie but we were safe and warm in Pop's old Chevrolet truck with an air-blast heater that could keep a blimp hanger warm. You remember that truck?"
"Sure. I remember everything!" Amy is right. She does remember everything. Ad nauseam.
My father was driving and to pass the time he began telling me about some of his childhood memories. "Back in the Oklahoma Territory," he said, "when my grandfather was the deputy U.S. marshall, he captured Frank James the outlaw. Jesse's brother. Brought him in and handcuffed him to the brass bedstead over night then took him and booked him at the Talequah jail the next morning."
"Your grandfather had Frank James handcuffed to his bedstead overnight?" I asked.
"That's what my mother said. And she was there. She said they took Frank to jail the next morning and that his brother Jesse rode into town that afternoon and broke him out again."
I laughed. "Really? They only had him there for lunchtime? Really?"
"It's true. My grandfather used to live with us when I was a boy. he was a really old man and my job was to escort him to the out house. He used to tell me these stories on the way out and back. Louis Johnston. He was from the Johnston side of the family. He told me that some of the Straitwell boys were hanged for horse thieves. My mother married a Straitwell boy. And her brother Walter married a Johnston. Their son Walter is my double cousin."
I nodded. "Just like Mom's side of the family." My mother and my Aunt Harriett were also double cousins. The two handsome and wild O'Connell boys, Jack and James, had swept into their sleepy little southern California town back in 19100 and swept the two Lawrence girls, Vivian and Florence, off their feet. I guess double cousins were pretty common in the small frontier towns of the American West back in the day. Families intermarried because there was nobody else around to marry.
"What else happened?" I asked. I loved road trips with my father. Alexander Edward Straitwell was a very private man and he seemed to think it was enough to show his love for his family by just keeping a roof over their heads. He was always distant and hard to talk to when I was growing up. Later I figured it out; that it was because he was just tired from holding down two or three jobs; days, nights and weekends.
But occasionally we would go on trips together and then, mesmerized by the curving white lines of the highway, Pop would open up and talk. These were my favorite moments. He would tell me all about his past and his boyhood and his World War II adventures and when I myself was a little girl and, of course, my favorite, all the family stories from the Oklahoma Territory.
"Wanna hear more family stories?" I asked Amy.
"Sure." So I told her about Mrs. Harris's goat. "When your grandfather was a boy, there was a lady living next door named Mrs. Harris. She was a big woman and mean. And that year Pop had been sick and stayed out of school all year long. And his brother, who had gotten his leg cut off in a mowing machine accident, had been staying home too. Mrs. Harris came storming over to yell at the boys for this or that and she bent over for some reason or another. And their goat took a run and butted her clear across the yard." It was Amy's favorite story. Mine too.

July 31, 1989: I remember the day my mother died. I had gotten home from school, put three-year-old Amy down in front of Sesame Street and sprawled out on a kitchen chair. I had been taking computer courses at the local junior college in hopes of being able to get a real job instead of my occasional sub-work at Amy's nursery school. An hour later, I checked the message machine. "This is your father. Please call me right away. Your mother has passed away." Oh my God.
"Then what happened?" asked Amy. The funeral. And trying to avoid speaking to my greedy sister Susan and her dick-head husband Jimmy -- and then the reading of the will. In her will, my mother had treated my daughter Elizabeth as a third child rather than a grandchild because Elizabeth had always been very close to my parents. In her will, my mother had given Susan thirty percent, me thirty percent and Elizabeth thirty percent too. "Susan was not a happy camper about Elizabeth getting such a big slice of the pie but since my father was still alive, there wasn't much for my sister to glom onto. She walked away with a couple of paintings when my father wasn't looking and that was about it."

July 1, 1990: Susan's husband Jimmy was a lawyer. Jimmy got it into his brain that when Pop died, it was going to be a different story. Elizabeth was gonna get 33% again? Not if he could help it! Jimmy persuaded my father to draw up a new will, making his wife Susan the executor. "Susan gets twenty-five percent," he told us. That's okay, I thought. That's seven percent less than in the last will. "You, Jane, get fifteen percent." Opps. "Elizabeth will get twenty percent." And I wonder who was going to get the rest. "The rest will split between our two children Lance and Missy and Jane's two youngest kids." So. They were bringing more kids into the will. Will padding? Humph. If they really wanted all the children to inherit, they would have mention my oldest daughter too. They didn't. Who designed this will? Let me guess.

March 5, 1991: Pop must have gotten antsy about Jimmy's will because he hired another lawyer, Howard Johanson, to establish a new trust and pour-over will. But this will is even worse. It had the same breakdown as the last one -- with my sister Susan as second trustee -- except that Susan now got half of some land that Pop owned up in Mendocino. Why is that? I found out later that Howard and Jimmy were best buddies since high school. Oh. That's why. "Hey, I'm a Berkeley person. What do I care about money?" Pop and Susan were tight. Let it go.

February, 1991: Pop called me up. "Guess what? I've decided to re-marry," he said.
"Oh, Pop! That's wonderful!" Not only that but his new wife had a son so I got a new brother! Wow! Susan, however, didn't see it that way and pretty much stopped speaking to my father, even after I explained to Susan that the new wife would make Pop have more money in his will not less. Pop told me that Susan and Jimmy gave wife number two a very cool reception. Susan broke off all ties with my father. Her last words to him were, "Now that you are remarried, who is going to put my children through college."

1991: Pop and his new wife, Ramona, moved to Reno to be close to Pop's brother and sister-in-law, Uncle Frank and Aunt Sandra. Me and Amy visited them often. Pop and Ramona traveled a lot and were very happily married. Things were going well. "What happened to Susan?" asked Amy.
"She never comes to visit, never even calls," replied Pop sadly.

August 19, 1992: Uh oh. Pop changed his will. The spit is gonna hit the fan now! "Elizabeth is now the trustee," Pop said. "And I'm giving Elizabeth all of my little piece of land in Mendocino. Joe will be second trustee." Susan had lost her trustee job! I was delighted. Sibling rivalry had once again reared its ugly head. She used to beat me up a lot when we were kids. She had almost put my eye out!

Fall, 1993: Another sad "Your mother has passed away" phone call from Pop. Losing two wives in four years just about broke his heart. My father wrote Susan a letter informing her of Ramona's death and telling her that, as a result, he might not have enough money to keep sending her son and daughter $250 a month each toward their college expenses.
Now that Ramona was safely dead, however, my sister became all friendly to Pop again. Too late. My father was still really mad. He point-blank refused to speak to her again but continued to send her two children each $250 per month for their entire college undergraduate years. "Lance wrote me a couple of nice thank-you letters," said Pop, "but the only way I knew that Missy received the money is that the checks were cashed."
Pop's brother also died shortly thereafter. "Apparently, your uncle Frank made your Aunt Sandra trustee of his estate and I am second trustee," Pop told us.

1994: Pop moved to Red Bluff, CA, to a mobile home retirement park. I and my children visited him there often. We would check out books-on-tape from the library, hit the I-5 and drive up to see him, stopping in Arbuckle on the way up to eat Mexican food at La Jalisience and play FoosBall. He and my Aunt Sandra continued to travel together after the death of their spouses.

1997: That spring, for some stupid reason, I decided to make peace in the family and went to visit Susan. Then I worked on Pop until he finally started speaking to her again. "Why are you doing this," he'd ask me. "I'll never forgive her for the disrespect she showed my wife." But I was determined.
"You gotta start speaking to her again, Pop. After all she is your daughter." Trying to get Pop and Susan back together? What was I thinking? Finally he called her. Later Susan thanked me profusely for bridging the gap. Why shouldn't she be happy? Not only did Pop have a bit of bucks himself but he was second trustee of his brother's estate and everyone in our family knew that Uncle Frank was the one in the family with big bucks.

October, 1997: On October 20, we went to visit Pop. "I sold that Mendocino land," he said, "and I'm going to put that money into a trust for you kids." Okay. It's his money. "I've written Susan, Missy and Lance each a check for $10,000. That's their share." Pop looked all satisfied with himself, convinced that he had done a good deed and attempted to reconcile with Susan (in the only way she understood -- hard cash.) Then he went to bed. Me and Amy did too. After I had played solitaire until midnight of course.
At 5 am, I could hear Pop thrashing around in his room. Hummm. I went in to check. "What's wrong, Pop?" Good grief! He sitting on the bed, struggling with his T-shirt, trying to get his head into one of the arm-holes. His eyes were glassed over and he wasn't making any sense. Yikes! I called the advice nurse. "What should I do?"
"Call 911!"
The paramedics said it was heart failure. He wasn't getting enough blood to his brain. Yikes! Pop remained in the ICU at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for five days and then was released into my care for the first week; Elizabeth took care of him the second week; and Sandra helped him out during week number three. After that he hired an attendant to help.

October 21, 1997: I called Susan from the hospital and she promised to come visit Pop. She set a date to come up. "We'll be right up," she said. "Next week. We'll be there." She canceled that date and set another and another and another and another. Finally, five or six months later, she and Jimmy finally came up. Once. This was the first and last time they had seen Pop in the last seven plus years. Boy was I steamed.
As soon as Pop was up and about, he called me up. "Jane," he said, "I've got to do something about my money in case I die. Please come up here so we can go to the bank. I want to change my accounts to joint accounts with Elizabeth. And I've written another will. This time you are going to be the executor. Is that okay?" Okay? My strapping 6-foot-two father had just shrunk four inches and wasted down to 140 pounds. I would do anything for him. Pop also obviously knew something was amiss. Financially speaking, he had started to circle the wagons. "I'm doing this because I want Elizabeth to get a nest egg so that she can get a good start in life."

1997-1998: Pop was in and out of hospitals all through 1998 and had lost 50-odd pounds and seven inches in height. But despite the fact that he was quite sick and wasted away, he had always been such a force in my life that I never took the possibility of his death seriously. I stayed in Berkeley. He stayed in Red Bluff. We talked on the phone every night. He sounded good to me. Big mistake.
In the fall of 1997, Pop told me, "I've transferred all my assets except for the mobile home into joint ownership with Elizabeth. The bank account, the car, the MasterCard, etc. When I die and you become executor, you won't have to worry about a thing." And I didn't worry. Why? I assumed that Pop was going to live forever!
Pop also told all his neighbors that he wanted to put the mobile home in Elizabeth's name as well but he never actually got around to doing it. He explained to her and to me repeatedly, "I want Elizabeth to have these things. She is like a daughter to me." I understood. Pop and Elizabeth were very close.

Winter, 1998: Pop went to Reno to visit Aunt Sandra, suffered another heart attack and got a pace maker installed up there. Amy and I braved a blizzard to drive up and get him and take him back to Red Bluff after he is released from the hospital. "Hang in there, Pop. We're a coming!" Worst blizzard in 50 years and there was Amy and me, squinting through the windshield, driving across the Sierras.
That year, Amy and I drove up and down the I-5 about 20 times as Pop underwent a prostate operation and got weaker and weaker. I finally considered moving to Red Bluff and started looking for jobs up there but Pop seemed to be getting better. To me, he always seemed to be getting better.

February 16, 1998: Pop called. "I've written another will." Okay. The key word here was that he wrote it. Not a lawyer, not a form from the stationery store. I found out too late that the will did not have a dispository clause. What is a dispository clause? That's legalese for where you name your beneficiaries. Pop didn't name any beneficiaries.
"Your job, Jane, will be to distribute items according to instructions that I will give you later." That made sense to me. What did I know. In this new will, Pop gave all his personal property such as jewelry, personal automobiles, household furniture and other tangible articles to me -- but only as his executor. "This will has a no-contest clause and a clause giving anyone who claims I died intestate the sum of one (1) dollar. This will is self-proved, properly witnessed," he said. And he strongly hinted that he had tried to make this will contest-proof so that Jimmy wouldn't give us any grief over it.

September, 1998: Pop went to his doctor. Bad news. "You are not doing so well, Alex. It's time to move down to the Bay Area to be near your family." Amy, Joe and I started visiting retirement facilities like crazy. Finally we selected Lake Park in Oakland, which had a $59,000 move-in fee which we paid out of Pop and Elizabeth's joint account.
A December 1, 1998 move-in date was arranged but Pop's neighbor called me on Election Day and said that Pop was worse. I speeded up to Red Bluff, helped him pack and moved him into Lake Park by mid-November. He liked the place. Good.
"I think I'll invite Susan, Jimmy, Lance and Missy up for Thanksgiving dinner," said Pop. Oh, okay. Why not. She was my sister for Chrissake. But they declined the invitation. Pop, Joe, Amy and I had a nice Thanksgiving dinner by ourselves. Lake Park had fabulous ice cream.

November 28, 1998: The day before Thanksgiving, a radiologist -- using a portable X-ray machine and unfamiliar with my father's history of heart failure -- misdiagnosed him with pneumonia. "But Pop! You don't have pneumonia! You have heart failure! You just had a pneumonia shot!" Desperately, I tried to contact his regular doctors for a second opinion to see if antibiotics were really necessary. Pop was highly sensitive to most antibiotics and starting him on a course of them was a Big Deal. But his doctors had all gone away for the holidays.
Reluctantly, we decided to start Pop on the antibiotics. By Friday night, Pop was in serous trouble -- the kind of trouble that involves 911 and an ambulance.

November 30, 1998: My father called me at home and at work four times, leaving messages for me to come to the hospital. "I have to give you the will instructions," he said. I got my butt over there as soon as I could. He then dictated five pages of things he wanted me to do after his death (his dispository instructions).
"Why are you doing this," I asked him as he lay there in the hospital bed with all kinds of tubes and monitors sticking out of him and weighing about 110 pounds. "You are not going to die. You are going to get well!" It never occurred to me that Pop would die and as a result I made very little effort to get the document witnessed. I went home, wrote the document up more neatly and brought it back to him the next morning. Five pages of detailed instructions. He read it and signed it. A nurse walked by. "Would you witness this, please," I said.
"Sorry. We're not allowed to be witnesses. Hospital policy." I didn't think anything else about it at the time because I simply did not think he was going to die.

December 1, 1998: A doctor from the hospital called me at work. "Your father has been transferred to the ICU and is dying." I ran off to the ICU.
"How are you doing, Pop?" He still seemed fine to me. Denial! Here he was in ICU and I'm thinking he's healthy as a horse?
"I want to review my instructions with you," he said. "I want to make sure they are perfectly clear." How can he be sick when he's making perfect sense? He gave me more detailed instructions regarding his finances and wishes as well as his bank PIN number and the combination to his safe. I held his hand. I even climbed up onto the bed next to him, cheering him on. And with tears in my eyes, I begged him to get well so he could go home back to his new apartment.
Trying for levity, I asked him, "Hey, Pop! The doctors got it wrong. You can't be dying. You haven't seen the tunnel. You haven't seen the light!"
"Forget about the light," he said. "Let's get back to talking about the Bank of America." I laughed through my tears. Still the same old Pop. Still taking care of business right up to the very end. Yet still his illness did not seem real to me.
At this point Pop was on oxygen and morphine and an IV drip. He's 20-30 pounds thinner than when he was admitted five days before, a stick figure of skin and bones. He started to wheeze and cough, gasping for air like a dying man. Desperately I begged the nurse for more morphine, anything that will put him out of his pain. "We can't," she replied. "Any more would kill him."
When the nurse said that, it finally dawned on me. Perhaps my father was not immortal after all. Maybe I had better make some calls. I called Elizabeth, Joe and Aunt Sandra, volunteered to call Susan. Susan had recently made it clear to everyone that she was no longer speaking to me for some unknown reason. But Susan wasn't home and so Sandra left a message.
An hour later, Pop's bedside phone rang. It was Susan. "Why didn't you call me earlier? Why did you have Sandra call me? And why did she just leave a message on my machine? I am the oldest daughter. I should have been told!"
"I'm sorry, Susan, but I just don't have time for your petty family feuds. I'm busy looking after dying our father." Then I hung up on her. Bitch.
At that point a nun came in. "What can I do to help?" What? Witness the freaking will? No. I didn't even think of that. I had other things on my mind right then.
"Would you call my family priest?" I asked her. She did. Father Samuel came right over. I was so glad to see him, so glad not to bear the heavy burden all by myself -- the burden of helping my father to die in the best way he could.
Then, miraculously, Pop rallied. And I went home all happy, thinking the crisis was past. Getting my father's directive witnessed and/or notarized was the last thing on my mind.
That night, Joe drove up from U.C. Santa Cruz at 1:00 am and visited Pop. They had a long and serious talk.

December 2, 1998: Elizabeth and her husband Jason flew up from L.A. and spend the day with Pop and we were back to thinking that he was going to be okay. I even went to work that day. I was all dancing around the office, smiling and singing, "Pop's going to be all right!" That evening I went to the hospital. Susan and Jimmy actually came too. Susan actually made an effort to be polite and even actually apologized to me for being rude over the phone. "I'm sorry," she said, "but...."
That night, Susan and Jimmy spent 15 minutes with Pop. It was the second time they had seen him in seven years.
Apparently, Pop must have tired of them and asked them to leave because 15 minutes after they went in, they were back out again. As they left his room, Elizabeth heard Pop telling them, "You have your house. You will be alright." Jimmy then rolled his eyes and muttered, "Jesus," sarcastically, under his breath. I think that Pop had just told them that they wouldn't be inheriting big bucks.
No word from Lance or Missy.
Elizabeth and Jason spent seven hours with my father that day. My oldest daughter Shelia called in from L.A. Then my step-brother Mike and his friend Rachel visited with Pop as well. The whole day was like a party in the ICU. Mike and Rachel left at 9:00 pm and Pop was fine.
At 10:45 pm, I got another call from the hospital. "Come immediately," said the nurse. Elizabeth, Amy, Jason and I rushed there -- driving frantically into the night, racing down the hospital corridors -- but it was too late. My father had passed away just seconds before we arrived. I held his limp, precious hand. It was as warm as mine. We all cried.
Elizabeth bent over Pop and kissed his head. "Goodbye, Grandpa. I love you." She and Jason left and then it was time for Amy and me to say goodbye. We held his hands in silent vigil until it finally became obvious to both of us that the glorious spirit that was my father had gone away to another place and only a cold, unanimated lump of nothing human was left. I placed my ring on this cold body's finger, kissed it, wrote "Oh, Pop. What are we ever going to do without you?" on his left ankle, wrote "Go with God," on his right ankle and drew a heart on his chest so that when he got to Heaven, God would know that he had been loved, kissed his forehead and left.
That night I received a great boon from my father: He taught me that the true essence of a man was not his body but his spirit. And that the spirit, the essence of a man, obviously lives on. It leaves its body at the moment of death, leaving behind little more than a log or a rock. I saw this with my own eyes and now I will never, ever fear death.

With regard to my father's last directive: On December 2, Pop told at least eight people, including Jimmy and Susan, that he had dictated and signed a document that expressed his wishes regarding disbursal of his assets.

December 3, 1998: The next day, Susan called me up and we had a talk. At that point, I was under the illusion that Pop, according to his instructions, had left her nothing and I felt really sorry for her. "Missy has $50,000 in college loans," Susan told me over and over. Was that a hint?
"But Pop told me that he thought you all were financially secure and didn't need anything," I replied. But she kept whining until I felt obliged to give her something. I didn't want her to feel left out. I should have left well enough alone and made absolutely positively sure she felt left out!
But Susan knew that guilt worked really well on me and she was on a roll. Under pressure and totally wrapped in grief, I finally told her, "I can give each of your children $1,000 and maybe you could be in charge of selling the mobile home. You could get some money that way. I don't think we'll be getting the $59,000 back from Lake Park and there's not much else to the estate." Pop had told me in his oral instructions that we wouldn't be getting any Lake Park money back.
"I really would like some help with Missy's loans," said Susan and hung up. I wrote her two children out checks for $1001 each from Pop's checking account, felt all virtuous and thought nothing more about it. Big mistake.

December 4-7, 1998: All that week Elizabeth, Jason, Mike, Amy and I mucked out Pop's apartment at Lake Park and got rid of stuff and sorted through stuff and kept stuff and gave stuff away. It was a Herculean task. We could have used some help. No sign of Susan or Jimmy.
On Saturday I went to the cemetery to sign the papers for the cremation scheduled for the following Monday. "You have to have your sister, as the other remaining heir, sign the cremation papers," they told me. What? I called Susan and explained.
"I'm not going to sign those papers," she yelled at me. "You're going to get nothing out of me until I see a copy of Dad's trust." It was the very first time she had asked for any of that.
"I don't know about a trust but I'll look for it," I replied, "but I can fax you a copy of the will." She still refused to sign. Luckily, Elizabeth had power of Attorney for health care or my father would possibly still be in a refrigerator somewhere to this day. On Monday I faxed Susan the will. I also went through Pop's stuff further and found the trust.

December 11, 1998: Pop had been dead one week. Joe, Amy, Jason, Elizabeth and I were basket cases. All we did was cry, especially Elizabeth. "I loved him so much, Mom. I just don't know what I am going to do without him." No word from Susan.
Things were very grim that day. But unbeknownst to us there was something else that could make me and my family even sadder than we were. I got a large manila envelop in the mail from James Troth, Esq.
"Who the hell is James Troth, Esq.?" I asked young Amy. It was from Jimmy. Jeez Louise. Pop hadn't been dead for even a week and already that bitch Susan was mailing us legal document. That bitch Susan was actually suing us over the estate!
"What does it say?" Asked Amy.
"It says here, `Petition for Letters of Administration, Notice of Petition to Administer Estate and Petition to Establish Existence and Validity of Trust for an Accounting, for Hearing to Determine Location of Assets.'" I was stunned. "Oh my God! Susan is suing us!"
I took a closer look, stunned in disbelief. "Oh my God! Susan is alleging that I have taken control of the assets, including trust assets. That I have denied the existence of the Trust, and has declared that Alexander Straitwell died without assets." That was a big fat lie. I had already told her about the freaking mobile home. Could I sue Susan for libel?
In this weird out-of-left-field document in my hands, Susan seemed to be trying to make it appear that I had lied and therefore was not to be trusted as the administrator. And she had freaking gone to Probate Court and filed a copy of the trust which she had obtained from Pop's old lawyer, even though I had just faxed her the blooming will. "A hearing is set for January 11, 1999, Alameda County Superior Court, Dept. 23."

Mid-December, 1998: I am not a lawyer. But I do work in a law office. Begging for info, I circled the one lawyer in our office familiar with Probate. "Please please please tell me what to do!"
"If I were you, I'd cancel those two checks right now. Plus now your sister knows your father's bank account number." I cancelled the two checks that I had sent to my nephew and niece. Good grief. What was my sister up to? What did all this mean? How far was Susan going to take this. How much money did she think was at stake? Hundreds of thousands? Ha!
"I can't deal with this now," I wailed to Elizabeth. "My father just died. I have stuff to do. I'm in mourning. I'm in shock! I don't have time for Susan's temper tantrums and greed and I surely don't have time for Probate."
"What is prooo-bait?" asked Amy. Good question. We were all about to find out.

Mid-December,1998: I got a refund check from Lake Park for $53,000, payable to the Estate of Alexander Straitwell c/o Jane Straitwell. This amount was to be the bulk of the estate. I should have cashed the check but I didn't. Big mistake.

January 7, 1999: After checking with Elizabeth, I hired Emily Jackson, a young lawyer just out of law school, to represent the estate. Did she know what she was doing? I hoped so. But the main thing was that she worked for cheap.
Emily filed a Declaration of Jane Straitwell in Opposition to Susan Straitwell Troth's Petition for Authority to Administer Estate of Alexander E. Straitwell, wherein I declared that my sister's allegations were untrue. "I have never denied the existence of the Straitwell Family Trust," I declared. I only stated that I was unaware of the trust documents and their location shortly after my father's death. "Furthermore, with regards to the assets of Alexander E. Straitwell, I had not taken control of the same, rather, I and my daughter Elizabeth were given control of the assets by my father himself immediately prior to his death."
Emily then contacted Johanson and discovered the pour-over will and filed that as well. Emily went to court on Jan. 11, only to discover that Jimmy had asked for a continuation to February 23 and had not even let us know.

January 11, 1999: Jimmy subpoenaed the Bank of America for all my father's bank records, to be sent to the court. He also subpoenaed Lake Park, Po's insurance company, his credit card company, the Department of Motor Vehicles and God knows who else in search of Pop's assets. "Can he do that?" I asked Emily. Apparently so. The guy was a shark.

January 13, 1999: Susan filed an Amended Petition for Letters of Administration. "Apparently there is also a newer will," she stated, referring to the one had I faxed to her, "with what appears to be an unenforceable dispositive provision. It is believed the newer Will would void the earlier will, so the request for appointment of administrator is made." Oh. The new will is no good?

January 14, 1999: Emily sent Jimmy an informal request to cease and desist subpoenaing records because it was none of his business on the grounds that Susan had not been appointed the executor. Duh. Is this tacky behavior grounds for a legal harassment suit?

January 18, 1999: Emily, whose specialty is family law, felt that the case was getting outside her sphere of expertise and substituted out. I called up Johanson to see if he would represent the estate. "I can't represent you," he replied. "I have been life-long buddies with Jimmy since high school." What? This was the man who had written Pop's trust?

January 19, 1999: Emily filed a substitution of Attorneys, naming me as Propera Persona. I now represent myself. Scary.

January 19, 1999: I interviewed a local Probate attorney to see if he would take our case. He was kind and funny and helpful and probably the world's greatest probate lawyer but his message was simple, "Your father's will wasn't valid. Therefore he died intestate," meaning without a will. "You get half. Your sister gets half. I get $3,500. End of story." What? What about my father's wishes? What about my greedy pond-scum sister? What about grief? What about Justice? What about that "Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven" bit?
I really enjoyed talking with the probate specialist but at the sticking point I just couldn't bring myself to spend all that money and still have Susan get half the estate.
"And what about my father's wishes?" I asked him. "Don't they count for anything?" Nope. Not according to the law.
I supposed I should have sent the attorney some money for having the courtesy to spend over an hour with me but I'm a skin-flint at heart and didn't. I asked him to recommend a will contest specialist. He recommended Peter James.

January 20, 1999: I tried to hire Peter James. Same story. I also thought I should probably get cracking and deal with all the other stuff that having a parent pass away entailed -- such as checking to see if Pop's grave marker was properly installed -- but I was too tied up in the lawsuit to put much heart into that plan -- or any other plan for that matter. My life was on hold.

January 22, 1999: I went to the bank to cash the three CDs that my father had given us the night before he had his heart failure. They were part of my father's account and the bank was trying to figure out if they were part of the estate or not. "I'm sorry. We can't cash these without a court order," said the teller. Great. Now Jimmy and Susan could get their hands on them as well.

January 24, 1999: I called Aunt Sandra. "Can you call Susan for me and tell her that if she drops all charges and claims to the estate and pays all our legal costs and also kisses my butt, we'll invite her to Pop's birthday party?" Sandra just laughed.
"What about if I offered Susan the mobile home plus $12,000 plus the birthday party? No. Forget I said that. That's not what I want to do. What if I just sued Susan for libel?" Sandra listened to me patiently but did not make any encouraging comments on those ideas either. So we talked about how much we both missed Pop instead.
Completely frazzled, I went off and sat for an hour at the zen center around the corner and stayed in bed for the rest of the day. That helped. "I'm just going to finally have to let my anger at Susan go," I told myself, "But also, remember that my motivation here is to do the highest good I possibly can toward Susan by not allowing her to be a bully." Yeah. Right.

January 25, 1999: I wrote to Peter James. "Thanks for all your help, Mr. James, but I think I'm going to have to go Pro Per. I'll keep you posted on how things turn out." Ie., whether or not Susan drives me to Prozac.
Here is when I should have started reading a Nolo Press probate self-help book -- or at least start hanging out around a law library -- but I didn't. What was I thinking? That working in a law office as a legal assistant in the field of personal injury was going to somehow rub off on me and make me a probate specialist? That our being in the right was going to give me super-powers? Yes.

January 27, 1999: I was starting to panic again. Pro Per was not working out. I had no idea what I was doing. "I need a lawyer," I complained to Amy. "Right now. Today." I also told that everyone in a five-county radius that I could get to hold still for five minutes. I begged Emily to advise me. And I decided to petition for an earlier court date. "I can't wait until February 23. I can't stand the suspense!"
I talked to another lawyer friend of mine. "I'd take the case," he said. "I love a good probate battle. But I have a big case in Patagonia right now. I won't even be on the continent on February 23, let alone down in Dept. 23." He recommended several other lawyers. I called them.
"I can't take the case," said Charles Taylor. "It would take $75,000 to defend this case and the whole estate's not worth much more than $50,000." He said what all the other lawyers had said. "Give your sister half and forget about it." I remembered my father's wishes. I remembered what a bitch my sister was. And I just couldn't do it.
I called Mary Williams, another famous Probate lawyer. "Interesting case," she said. "But I'm a one-person office and you need about 20 man-hours on this case who should have started like last week and it would cost you. About $50,000." That's down from $75,000. "You need to file a petition of your own here." Oh. A petition. Hummm.
That night I started to work on creating my own petition.

January 26, 1999: I put a petition together out of whole cloth, making some of it up, copying some of it off Emily's Declaration, copying some of it off Susan's Petition, ad libbing a lot. Then I faxed it to my attorney friend. He called me back. "Fine. Excellent. Looks good. Go ahead and file it." I found out later that he was so busy packing for Patagonia that he hardly read it.

January 28, 1999: Amy and I headed up to Red Bluff to muck out the mobile home some more and to go bowling and to Wal-Mart and to the multi-plex again. That's what people did in Red Bluff. It was very comforting. Especially the bowling.

February 2, 1999: Back in Berkeley, I got to work reading law books. Then I filed my own Petition for Probate, Petition to Administer Estate and a supplemental petition to allow the 1998 will naming me as executor and Elizabeth as Trustee of the Trust. My Wherefore clause was a beauty, asking that Elizabeth be given back her $52,100 deposit money from Lake Park because it came out of her joint account with Pop. It was a work of art. Bunches of legal terminology. All kinds of exhibits. Filed by Fax and File. Go me.
"Boy, I would love to be able to see Susan and Jimmy's faces when they see this," I commented to Amy. Little did I know that they probably would have died laughing. It was a pretty amateur job. It is not for nothing that lawyers require three years of law school.

February 3, 1999: I had jury duty anyway so I went down to look at Dept. 23, to see what it actually looked like. It was scary. They had bailiffs and clerks and lawyers and judges and petitioners and witnesses and court reporters and whatever. I'm not going to do that again.

February 6, 1999: Elizabeth and I talked over the telephone about the possibilities of actually winning our case. "What if we get awarded the full $53,000? And the mobile home too!" I crowed. Right was on our side.
"I really liked your Petition," she answered. "It really says what we wanted to say. Maybe the judge will like it too." We talked about her work, about my work, about the upcoming hearing. We hung up on a hopeful note.

February 5, 1999: Jimmy filed a Disclaimer, disclaiming "any personal interest in the Estate of Alexander E. Straitwell". Yeah. Like he was not Susan's husband. Like community property didn't exist.

February 7, 1999: My spirits sagged again. Maybe I am bi-polar. "Come on, Amy," I said. "Let's treat ourselves to dinner -- in our official capacity as executors and heirs. This is definitely an Estate emergency. Pop would understand." So we took $20 out of Pop's checking account and went off to Bongo Burgers. I had the salmon plate for $4.95 and Amy had a burger and a ton of home fries.

February 10, 1999: Marie at the Red Bluff Bank of America called. "You have to send me a copy of the Trust before I can get a legal judgment from the bank's legal department as to whether the CDs are yours or the estate's." I faxed her a copy of the trust. Elizabeth hadn't had time to get down to the bank and transfer the Joint Tenancy account into her name. Elizabeth was working 16-18 hours a day on the set of the X-Files television program. But still. Now Susan and Jimmy could get their grubby little hands on it.

February 12, 1999: Susan and Jimmy filed Objections to my petition. Susan objected to "any grant of authority to Jane Straitwell to perform any act pursuant to the Independent Administration of Estates Act". She then went on (and on), claiming that I was "not willing to fully disclose the extent and character" of my father's estate." She underlined a lot of words. She said that "a Straitwell Family Trust exists and has assets even though" I had told her that "no assets exist."
Susan then went on to claim that I had given her two kids $1,001 each "ostensibly as some form of settlement for their right to receive gifts under the Straitwell Family Trust". That I had tried to buy them off? Bull dookie.
Susan's Wherefore clause basically called for transferring all assets to herself for her to administer. Sure. Yeah. Like I'm going to give that greedy scum all my father's money. When Hell freezes over.

February 16, 1999: I filed a fabulous Declaration in response to my sister's Objections to my Petition. My declaration would sort the wheat from the chaff! I called into account all the real things about my father, not just the dry things that a court will admit. Another work of art. At long last I figured out a way to admit my father's wishes as evidence to bring to the Court's attention; all the things my father said to me in his last days when he knew he was dying; to make my father real. To let my sister know that, whether or not she actually wins this case, she was and is wrong, wrong, wrong to go against the expressed wishes of her own father. And here all this stuff was; in my Declaration; written down in black and white for all to see. And Elizabeth wrote a Declaration. And Aunt Sandra even did too. And so did my step-brother Mike. We all said the same thing. "Alexander Straitwell was a great man. Here are his wishes. Let's see that they are honored." Humph.
In my Wherefore clause, I asked for the moon. And I hoped we'd get it too -- that Susan and Jimmy get one (1) dollar each; that Elizabeth be given the Lake Park money because it came out of a joint checking account with my father; that my February 2, 1999 Petition be granted in full.
For my exhibits, I showed how my father had already spent all his money on trips and new cars: Trips to Costa Rica, Europe, Nova Scotia, Norway, New Zealand, China, Hawaii (several times), Alaska (twice), Taiwan, Russia, Jamaica, Hong Kong, Brazil, Spain (twice) and Branson, Missouri. Plus all the new cars he bought -- one each year. I threw in photographs of him in some of those places and in front of the Red Bluff Ford dealership -- obviously a happy man who knew how to live and to live well. Good for him.
Another exhibit was his directive that said he didn't want to give Susan anything. As well as proof that the Bank of America accounts were in joint tenancy with Elizabeth and rightfully belonged to her.
I also mentioned that Susan may have mis-remembered our telephone conversations "due to her aggrieved state and her worries regarding the Troth family debts, totaling over $50,000." Mike suggested that I do a credit check on her to find out just how deeply in debt she really was. Ha!
I also reiterated my claim and my father's intentions by pointing out that he gave me his Power of Attorney, his PIN number and the combination to his safe. I was on a roll.
I sent the document out with Fax and File as well as mailing copies to Susan, Jimmy and their children. I had to open Susan's envelope four times before I got all the stuff inside arranged in the right order, with the right Proof of Service and the right postage. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted her to know that I was serious. I wanted her to stop bullying me and I wanted her to just go away.

February 17, 1999: The Petition envelopes came back from Missy and Lance. Apparently they have both just moved and left no forwarding addresses or else Susan has told them not to accept the mailings. I was disappointed. I wanted Missy and Lance to hear my side of the story for once. Susan has kept them incommunicado from me for most of their lives. I resented that. I never got the chance to be an aunt.

February 18-21, 1999: Elizabeth and Jason arrived from L.A. Luckily she had gotten time off. We were all nervous wrecks. We tackled the most important things first: Elizabeth and I carefully went over what we were going to wear to Court on the hearing date. She promised to french twist my hair so I would have Good Hair. I got knock-off Guccis and a Liz Claibourne power suit from the Salvation Army. I myself didn't want to appear in Court but Emily said that I had to. "But then I'll have to see Susan," I wailed. Even as the adult mother of four children, I was still scared of Susan.

February 22, 1999: One day before the Probate hearing. A lawyer at work asked, "Did you call the Tentative Ruling line to see if there was a tentative ruling?" I was all disgusted with myself. I had never even thought of that. We always do it regarding cases at work. Why not for probate cases too? Gingerly, I took the phone and dialed. No tentative ruling. This was a good thing. I would have been too late to oppose it if there had been one. "Do you have an Order?" No! Stop. This is getting too out of control! I didn't have an order. I hurriedly designed an Order with as space for the judge's signature.
"Give me everything and Susan nothing," said the Order.
I also wrote a declaration stating why I hadn't declared Pop's 1998 Will in the first place. "It had been my intention to file the February 1998 Will. I was then informed by lawyers that I had consulted that this Will was an invalid instrument and could not be filed. Upon closer inspection by later counsel, however, I was told that the 1998 Will was a valid instrument." Another item checked of the list of legal points that I would have to prove in order to win my case. There sure were a lot of balls to keep in the air.
Then Bank of America in Red Bluff called. "The CDs do indeed belong to you," said Marie. But Elizabeth and I decided that it is too late to transfer them, what with the hearing being tomorrow. Another big mistake.
Then out of the blue, Emily called up. She had promised to go with us tomorrow and hold our hands in court. "Sorry, Jane. I have other legal matters pending tomorrow and I will not be able to make it to court with you." Okay. So. Elizabeth and I were to face the judge alone. We could do this. Right.
At 7:00 pm that night, I got a call from the Clerk of Department 23. "There are a whole bunch of things that are wrong with your Petition," she told me. "Fatally wrong things such as not checking the box to request probate; not arranging for a publication; not preparing a Letters Testamentary request; not filing the original will." Her list went on and on. Oh no!
I called Elizabeth in a panic. "What should I do?" I moaned. "We've lost the case." Elizabeth and Jason and I decided to brave it out. What else could we do? We should have hired a lawyer. But how? Charles Taylor, the expert in the field, said he would cost $75,000. Mary Williams, also an expert, said at least $50,000 was necessary. Peter what's-his-name said he would take us as far as the hearing for only $3,500 but we would still have to give Susan half of the Lake Park money and...and...we'd lose anyway. So we really had nothing to lose by going Pro Per and at least Elizabeth and I got to have Pop's story told to the judge. And it had been told well too. I sighed, washed my hair, laid out my Court suit and went to bed. Tomorrow was the big day and, no matter what happened, the gut-wrenching anguish and suspense would finally be over -- for better or for worse.

February 23, 1999: I drove over to pick Elizabeth and Jason at the friends' house where they were staying. Grimly Elizabeth did up my hair and made up my face, trying to make me look like a Yuppie type who knows what she is doing. Grimly we got into my car and made the long drive down to the Alameda County Superior Court. I let Elizabeth and Jason and a large box of documents out in front of the courthouse and then went to park the car at a metered zone several blocks away. Jesus. What is going to happen? Would Susan be there? Would I actually have to speak to her?
We arrived at Department 23 at exactly 9:30 am. We walked into the courtroom and Susan is there. And Jimmy. And Jimmy's mother of all people. Elizabeth turned to me and whispered, "Can't that man do anything without his mother? Did he bring his mother to court to protect him?" I avoided looking at Susan or Jimmy or his mother and went to check in with the court clerk.
"Go down to the probate office," he told me. "It's one floor below. Check in with the probate clerk. She'll tell you what to do." Elizabeth and I left to do that. Jason stayed behind to guard our stuff.
The probate clerk read us the riot act. "Here is a print-out listing all the things that you have failed to do." The list was long. I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Just then Jimmy came in and hovered behind us, breathing down our necks and trying to look like a professional lawyer out to make mincemeat of his lowly opposition. Then he stepped up to the counter and low and behold the clerk read him the riot act too. Yes! He also has made filing mistakes. I tried to cover my notes so he won't see what our defense is going to be -- mainly that Susan and Jimmy should get a dollar because they claimed Pop died intestate.
Properly chastised and quaking in our (high heeled) shoes (and nylons), Elizabeth and I took seats on the opposite side of the aisle from Susan and Jimmy. And there we sat, like bumps on a log, as case after case is called. A parade of lawyers and heirs went up to the bar and then left. Judge Mayes looked and acted like Judge Judy. She dispensed justice quickly and cynically. She raised her eyebrows a lot.
During a court recess, around 10:30, Susan buttonholed Elizabeth. "Hiya, Kiddo. How're ya doing?" she gladhanded. Elizabeth cringed away from her.
"This is WRONG, Susan, and you know it," Elizabeth finally stated but Susan just continued to chit-chat. As if everything were normal. Thank God I was in the bathroom at the time or I might have flattened my charming, loving sister.
"You know," Susan continued blithely to Elizabeth, "if they don't get their share of the estate, Missy and Lance will be SO disappointed." Disappointed, my foot. If they had been so afraid of disappointment, they would have spoken to their grandfather at least more than once in the past seven years. Maybe called him on his deathbed, for instance. But I digress.
Finally, at 11:45 am, our case was called. We were the last folks on the docket. Susan and Jimmy marched up and stood to the right of the long table in front of the judge. Elizabeth and I stood to the left. The judge looked at our bright orange portfolio, looked at us and frowned. She was not a happy camper. Her face was an open book and the pages are clearly saying, "Why are you wasting my time?"
Judge Mayes then listed all the myriad things wrong with our filing. She, thankfully, included a comment to Jimmy that he was NOT a disinterested party in this case. "But your Honor," Jimmy whined, "I filed a disclaimer." She raised an eyebrow at him in disbelief.
The judge then called for a continuance until April 26. Boom. Just like that. The session was over and nothing was settled, nothing was proved. No release of tension. And definitely no closure. Rats. I took the bull by the horns. "But Your Honor," I cried. "What about the Estate's debts? What about the rent on the mobile home? What about my father's income taxes? I have bills to pay, stuff to be taken care of. Your Honor, we can't wait until April 26 to take care of all that."
"No problem, Your Honor," says Jimmy. "We're in no hurry. We can wait." Of course he can. Like some reptile waiting under a rock for his prey. Plus he certainly hasn't volunteered to do any of the work or pay any of the bills.
The judge considered me. She considered Jimmy. "I am going to appoint a Public Administrator here," she finally said. It sounded good to me. An impersonal referee to handle the Estate. Jimmy also agreed.
The judge then told Jimmy to come up with Orders for her to sign to this effect. He agreed. Did the judge bang her gavel at this point or did she just nod to us to be gone? I was in a daze and couldn't remember. It all went so fast.
A professional-looking lady then bustled up to us all at this point, rounding us up and herding us out of the courtroom. "My name is Karen Smith," she said, "and I am the County counsel to your Public Administrator. Come with me." We followed her up some stairs, through some hallways, past some office workers, down some more hallways and through a doorway into a formica-and-florescent-light conference room. Susan, Jimmy and the mother sat down on one side of the County counsel. Elizabeth, Jason and I sat down on the other side. Ms. Smith then asked the Straitwell side some questions, looked at the case's orange portfolio and asked us some more questions, none of which I can remember. She then turned to Susan and Jimmy and asked them questions too.
Susan got all fired up and a glint of greed came into her eyes. "What happened to my mother's wedding ring," she demanded. "Where is the car my father used to drive? Where is the antique furniture? Where is the money from the sale of Dad's house before he moved to Red Bluff? What happened to the silver?" She named asset after asset that are long gone. Spent by my father. Sold by my father. Given to Elizabeth for a wedding present.

"She's talking about my engagement ring," Elizabeth whispered to me. Even Jimmy looks a bit abashed by his wife's greed. The County counsel, however, goaded her on. The County counsel looked like she at last has found the true story out -- that Susan is a saint and that we are trying to hide the estate. Right. Jesus. We tried to interrupt and tell the Counsel things, but she shushed us and kept her back firmly turned away from our side of the room.
By that time it was around 1:30 pm and Elizabeth hasn't even had breakfast yet. She was munching on a bag of airline peanuts scored during her flight up from L.A. I could feel her getting tenser and tenser. I felt so bad for her. This must be hard for her, to have her beloved grandfather's assets sorted through like they were jumble at a garage sale. Tears welled in her eyes. Oh, damn. I wish I could have prevented all this. I wish I could have protected her. Finally, Elizabeth stood. "This is stupid," she cried. She uttered one more heart-wrenching cry and ran from the room. Jason followed her, to comfort her.
Susan and Jimmy and the mother and the County counsel then got up and left. I just sat there in my chair, stunned by the turn of events the day has taken. I was also stunned as the words of the County counsel finally sunk in. "I will be charging the Estate $200 an hour," she had said. $200 an hour! That was what we had been trying to avoid. And now Susan's rapacity and greed had made Elizabeth cry and was draining the damn Estate at $200 an hour. It took me a long time and a lot of slow breathing before I was even interested in moving again.
Then the County counsel came back into the room and I -- I cracked. "My sister is a greedy monster," I cried. "She didn't give a damn about my father when he was alive." Sob. "She never saw him. Never called him. Never helped out. I did all the work. I was there for my father. And now she is counting the silverware. It's not fair! It's not fair!" I cried. "Pop wanted me and Elizabeth and Amy and Joe to have his money. Not that greedy creep."
Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut. I know that in a world of professionals, emotional outbursts are rarely if ever welcome. I know that I was being considered a pariah in the cool, men's world of professional law. And I didn't care. I wanted justice, not civility. I wanted justice!
But the day is not over. No. There is more to do. I went to the car. Whew. There was no ticket. I drove home, barely watching the road, barely noticing the cars ahead. There was a whole stretch of road that I truly don't remember driving. Scary. All the while, I drove and thought and thought and drove, thinking of all the witty, urbane remarks I could of made; lining them all up to the stupid remarks that I did make and dumb, inarticulate silences that I let fall in between said stupid remarks. As usual, my sister had out-talked me, out-gunned me and bullied me into submission. Sigh.
I got home, collected all my various documents, grabbed some bread and ham and bell peppers, sorted them together with some mayonnaise, popped them in my mouth on the way to the car and drove back down to Oakland, to the Public Administrator's office, located in the County Coroner's building down on Fourth Street. I spent the rest of the afternoon going over all my father's documents with our court-appointed Public Administrator, Ralph Berges. He was friendly, helpful, encouraging: Such a nice man. Such a difference between him and the County Counsel. He listened to my story, sympathized with me over my having lost the sister lottery big-time, clucked softly in all the right places and promised to help organize my father's estate. "I'll do the income tax, deposit the Lake Park refund in an interest-bearing account, sell the mobile home and get this show on the road for you," he said. He tells me not to worry, introduces me to his partner, reassures me once again. We shake hands. Wonderful.
"Thank you so much for your help and for your sympathy. At a time like this, I really, really appreciate it," I told him. And I really, really meant it.
"No problem," he replies.
As I leave, someone comes rushing in. "Good Christ, did we already cremate Mr. XXXX? Jesus. We weren't supposed to cremate Mr. XXXX! He was supposed to have an autopsy!"
"Not yet," replies Mr. Berges.
"Thank God," says the worried man as he rushes from the room in search of the corpse.
I should have realized then and there that a missing body in the Coroner's Office was not a particularly good sign as to the quality of work going on there. But I didn't.
Elizabeth and Jason flew back to L.A. I went home to my disheveled house, filled to overflowing with boxes of refugee stuff from my father's life. "What will happen next," I wondered. "When will this nightmare finally be over? And will my poor father ever get to rest in peace? And will I?"

February 24, 1999: I applied (or tried to apply) for reimbursement of burial expenses from the Veterans Administration. Like at the Office of Personnel Management and Social Security, there were a lot of "Please press 1" messages and about a half-hour of wait time. At last someone promised to send me a form.
I tabulated through all the money I have spent on bills so far and wrote up an accounting for Elizabeth so she would know where all her money was going to. Her joint bank accounts with Pop have now been frozen by the court. Can they do that? Yes they can.
Now that the damn hearing is out of the way, we could finally concentrate on the big birthday celebration coming up. A few weeks ago, I got a wonderful letter from one of the members of my father's Rotary Club. He wanted to have a dinner honoring Pop! Hurray! Something to do with Pop that didn't involve mudslinging, money-grubbing or subpoenas! The Rotary guy wanted to know if I was interested. Interested! I'd have kissed his shoe if he had been here in person. The Rotary was going to have a testimonial dinner of February 27, Pop's birthday. All the relatives are invited. Apparently Pop was a charter member, an ex-president and a popular hero in our old home town. He had been on the school board, the recreation commission and the city council. He had been the post master. He was a Lion, a Toastmaster, an American Legionnaire, an Optimist; he had even been a Girl Scout. My father had devoted much of his life to public service and now it was payback. And just in the nick of time too. I called Aunt Sandra and Mike and Aunt Harriett and Elizabeth and they were all just overjoyed. Everyone wants to go. All of Elizabeth's friends and everyone. I made a list of all the people to invite. And guess who isn't on it! Right. Like the wicked witch that wasn't invited to Sleeping Beauty's christening, evil Susan was going to get left out. What goes around comes around. She will be furious. Good.

February 25, 1999: Two days before the birthday celebration, I broke down and sent Susan an invitation. Because I can honestly tell the judge that I DID invite her in time (I'm so bad) and if it arrived too late, then too bad for her. She should of thought of that when she opened up this lawsuit. I don't imagine she said to herself at all, "Well, now, I'll just try and go against my father's will and his expressed wishes and, gee, that will make me instantly popular with all his friends."

February 27, 1999: Forget about Susan, forget about the troubles. Today is the day we rejoice that we had Alexander Edward Straitwell for a father and grandfather. Joe came up from U.C. Santa Cruz with his suit bag over his shoulder. "Hi, Ma!"
Amy got dressed. Joe got dressed. We drove across the Bay Bridge on a sunny winter day and everything was sparkling and perfect. Except that I was jagged and rushed as usual after coordinating everything and we were late, late, late. We arrived at the hotel where the event is being given, check which room Aunt Harriett and Uncle Winton were staying in and hurried on up. We opened the door--and there is a dream come true! All my wonderful family gathered in one room. I squealed and cried and hugged and hugged and hugged. There was Aunt Sandra! And Melissa. Down from Sacrament. And there was Aunt Harriett and Uncle Winton. He gave me a wink and a big hug. Everyone was saying, "Oh, look how Amy has grown!" and "Look how big Joe has gotten."
Elizabeth was there. And Jason. And Elizabeth's friends Lisa and Hannah. All crammed into one room. I felt like Queen for a Day. Elizabeth whisked me off into the bathroom and pulled out her make-up kit. She does wonders with my face and hair and I slipped into a simple black dress with a tailored brown jacket. Elizabeth looked tired. She was an assistant director intern on the X-Files. "I've been working back-to-back days and have only had four hours sleep in the last 36 hours." Still, she did a great job on my hair. She poked her head out of the bathroom and yelled, "Does anybody have any hair spray?" Melissa pulled a travel-sized bottle of spray gel out of her purse. Everything was set.
Then Amy announced, "I forgot my shoes." We all stopped dead in our tracks and looked down at her feet. She was wearing the scuffed-up purple boots that fit inside her rollerblades. Oh no.
Then I remember all the times my mother used to take Elizabeth shopping at Mervyn's department store. It was just across the street. I ran to Lisa and Hannah and shoved ten dollars in their hands. "Please. Go. Mervyn's. Shoes!" They grabbed Amy and ran out the door. Ten minutes later they were back in the room, with Amy, with shoes.
Amy modeled her new shoes with pride. They were black, they were low heeled, they were lovely, "and they only cost $2.95." We all then went down to dinner.
The dinner was a great success. The Rotary president was a fanatic fan of The X-Files and laughingly promised to do anything to get on the set. Elizabeth laughingly had to turn him down. "We can't take people on the set," she said, "but I can get you autographed pictures of Scully and Muldar." The president, a true gentleman, swallowed his disappointment.
My step-brother Mike was in the dining room when we came in. Big hugs all around. He and Uncle Winton took Amy off to treat her with endless rounds of Shirley Temples. She was in hog heaven. For dinner, we all sat at a round table that holds the whole family and it is hog heaven also. I got salmon and all the cheese cake I can possible eat -- well, three pieces.
After dinner we all gave speeches or listened to them. Representing the family, I gave my speech. It went like this: "I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for tonight. My father was my best friend. When he died I lost a willing ear, a loving faith, a boon companion. My father was the salt of the earth and I am just beginning to see how much I will miss him over the coming years."
Then Amy gave her speech. She told the room full of people all about how her grandfather had always been there for her; how he paid for her hockey, loved her and cared about her. Weeping salty tears, she stunned us all with her sincerity, her love for her grandfather and her mature self-possession in front of a large audience, composed mostly of strangers.
The vice-mayor of the city then presented our family with an award in Pop's honor.
After the dinner, we went back to Aunt Harriett's room and the wonderful evening was over. But not forgotten. I will never forget this evening. Never ever.

March 1, 1999: Elizabeth called. "I can't afford to take all this time off work, Mom. We need to settle this case. I just called Susan and offered to settle for $22,000 and Susan agreed."

March 2, 1999: Susan had called Elizabeth back. "We want $3,000 more than you offered. And we want no costs." No costs meant that Susan would not have to pay lawyers, the Public Administrator or any of Pop's estate expenses. It was a sweetheart deal for her. Elizabeth finally agreed to $22,000 and no costs just to be rid of Susan. But I was not willing to settle. I felt that Susan and Jimmy could not be trusted.
"Why should we give her bunches of bucks?" I asked. "Where was she when Pop needed her? And besides, we'd be taking a bath on this one."
"We still have to file an accounting," said Elizabeth. "This would get us out of doing that." An accounting was an exact record of everything in an estate, where it came from and were it went to. The average lawyer charged $3,000 to do one. "And we would still have to deal with probate which might possibly cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. If we could avoid all that, the settlement would be worth it."
I did not agree. "What if Pop's income tax needs large payments? What if he had large medical bills still to come?" I asked her. "The whole damn estate is only worth $60,000. Why should we give Susan a whole big chunk of that? You could be left with nothing. Nothing but bills."
"If," Elizabeth replied, "we can walk away from all this with no more legal work and no more lawyer fees, then settlement is a good idea." Jimmy agreed to draw up a Stipulation of settlement. Humph.

March 7, 1999: We took another clean-up trip to Red Bluff. I did not throw myself into the Sacramento River.

March 9, 1999: Pop is on just about every mailing list in the country. I got a brochure today from Overseas Adventure Travel, featuring a trip! Oh, if only I could go. I could carry Pop's photo with me and gently lay it on the steps of the Potola Palace. And ask all the lamas and monks there to pray for him, pray for his Enlightenment. Not that he wasn't already enlightened, no no no. I sighed. "I really wish we could go," I said to Joe. We'd never be able to afford it. But I could dream.

March 12, 1999: Amy and I went up to the Cazadero Performing Arts Camp work weekend again.

March 13, 1999: I spent Saturday morning sweeping redwood tree leaves off cabin decks and grousing about my sister Susan. One of our fellow volunteers was a lawyer. I sobbed my heart out to her. "I feel so desolate about this -- not only because of the lawsuit but because I never had a sister to be close with. I never had a sister to giggle and gossip and chat with over the joys and agonies of our mutually-shared childhood." Why didn't I get a real sister instead of this dragon behemoth who plotted and planned away our childhood together, scheming of ways to make my life miserable and to make me feel bad about myself. I think about one of the women at work, who laughs and chats with her sister at least once a week; who flies to Vermont to visit her as often as she can. "I see my sister once every 15 years without fail...and now I will never see her." The lawyer shrugged. She was a criminal lawyer. Probate was not her field.
I helped prepare the food for the work crew at lunchtime and Amy, a past master of the industrial-strength dishwasher used in the summer to clean up after 250 campers, did all the dishes. She wielded the big dish trays and squirted the dirt away with the hot water hose and pushed all the buttons and adjusted all the dials. Everyone was all impressed. Even me.
After lunch, on Saturday afternoon, I scraped rot and mud and moss of one of the decks while thinking over the total INJUSTICE of the up-coming settlement. I felt like the little red hen. Now Susan is ready to come eat the bread now that the work has all been done. Or has it? There is still a lot of work left to do on the estate case. I cornered the criminal lawyer again. "Elizabeth and I still had to file an accounting," I told her. "And we still had to take the case through probate, still had to spend possible thousands of dollars in legal fees. What if Pop's income tax needed large payments? What if he had large medical bills still to come? Susan will walk away like a bandit and we will be stuck paying bills and putting in long hours consulting lawyers and in court. That sucks!" The criminal lawyer obediently nodded her head.
I scraped away at more moss and groused some more about the upcoming settlement. Hell, no. I'm not going to sign the damn Stipulation. And Amy isn't either. We can spend that money on lawyers. Why should Susan get to triumph once again? And her children -- Susan had said that "they would be soooo disappointed." Hell. They weren't disappointed enough to visit their grandfather when he was alive or even to give him a courtesy call when he was on his death bed. But they are certainly willing to be there at the bank now that the work was over and he was gone.
My knees ached and my back hurt and the deck was starting to look really nice and I had resolved to not sign the stipulation.
March 14, 1999: It rained at camp on Sunday morning and my scraping job became unfeasible as the deck was now under 1/2 inch of mud. Amy and I drove home, listening to Books on Tape (parts of Nothing Lasts Forever by Sidney Sheldon and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. I fast-forward the sex scenes). We got back just in time for her 4H rocketry class.
When I got home, I called Elizabeth and left a message on her voice mail. "Susan can't touch your joint accounts. She probably won't even be able to get her hands on the mobile home. The trust is safe. All she could get is one-half of the Lake Park refund. And that is what she will be getting now -- except we have to do all the legal work and pay all the bills. Jesus, Elizabeth. I just hate to see her get away with it."
Elizabeth called back. I was in the bathtub. I then call her back. She patiently and carefully explained it to me. "If we can walk away from all this with no more legal work and no more lawyer fees, then this settlement is a good idea. If we have to continue with all the accounting and probate then the deal is off."
"Oh. Okay." We agreed to ask Emily to call the County Counsel to find out what will happen next on their end before we do anything. In a way I was totally relieved to finally have all this nightmare resolved. And in a way I was ready to continue to fight Susan to the death.

March 15, 1999: Emily called the County Counsel and left a message to call her back regarding the possible settlement.
At 11:15 pm that night I was drowsily reading in my bed when suddenly, Amy burst into my room, tears streaming down her face. "Oh, Mom. I had the worst nightmare. I dreamed that Grandpa was dying and some hand with a knife in it kept stabbing him and stabbing him and stabbing him," she sobbed. "It was terrible. I tried to stop it but I couldn't. The hand just kept stabbing Grandpa." I held her and tried to calm her down. "I couldn't see a face. Just this hand, stabbing and stabbing."
"It's going to be okay," I muttered. We sat on my fluffy blue down comforter and sought to give each other comfort. "I know all this stuff with all the courts has been hard on you," I reassured her, "but it is soon going to be over." Amy truly loved her grandfather. For a while afterward she told me stories about him and how much he cared for her.
"He never used to like me all that much," she said, "but after his first heart attack we really got to know each other."
"Yes," I replied, "He would always tell me what a fine girl he thought you were. He loved you very much."
Amy shrugged. "And now he's gone. And I'm never going to see him again." Amy's deep sadness convinced me to finally go ahead and settle. Another big mistake.
I wanted to settle. i wanted Amy to be happy. However, I still didn't trust Susan so I also decided to file all the documents that the probate paralegal had recommended, including publishing my intentions in the paper, just to be one the safe side. That was a very wise move on my part.

March 16, 1999: The County Counsel called Emily back. The counsel was delighted that we were attempting a settlement. "I will help wherever I can," she told Emily and volunteered to do all the legal work to get the estate out of the hands of the Public Administrator and to stop the probate. "We'll both only charge you the minimum fees of $750 each," she promised. "This whole thing could be over within ten days after I receive the Stipulations." Emily and she worked out a plan to create a stipulation to have Susan and her wretched family sign that would eliminate the need for an accounting. Emily hung up and told me all about the conversation. It sounded good to me.
Emily then called Jimmy and talked to him about her conversation with the County Counsel. Jimmy was delighted. As well he should be. He was getting a really good deal here. "He sounds like he is eager to do this," Emily tells me later. I just bet he is. "He said he would draft the Stipulation regarding accounting and get it to us as soon as possible."
Emily also asked Jimmy if it is possible for me to FINALLY get started on doing Pop's taxes. He agreed. Great. Now at least I wouldn't have to add income tax evasion to my list of worries. I called the Public Administrator and he gave me permission to go forward. "It would be better for you to do them. We would charge about $500." I then called up an accountant and made an appointment for Saturday. Jesus. Another expense. They just keep adding up and adding up.
I decided to make a list of all the expenses we have dealt with so far. "Counting all the expenses of paying Pop's bills and clearing out his apartment as well as all the fees and bills from fighting the Troth blitzkrieg," I told Joe, "We have easily spent $16,000. So far." Yikes.
After Emily got done talking with Jimmy, I called Elizabeth with our latest update. Jason answered and I told him about the latest developments. "Looks like it's going to be over after all," I commented numbly, not really believing that it was finally going to be over. And not really caring either. Strange emotions for me to have. I should have been elated. But I wasn't. Elizabeth and I are a bit wary of each other now. And even Jason, Mr. Optimistic himself, couldn't even get up some enthusiastic dialogue here. This case has taken its toll. Sad.
Then I went home and told Amy that she would have to sign the Stipulation. I explained to her why. "Okay," she said. "But I don't want to."

March 17, 1999: St. Patrick's Day. Amy and I were wearing green. St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Okay. And I'm not driving the snakes out of my mind. They still haunt me. I still wanted justice, vengeance, revenge. "When this is over and the documents are safely signed," I plotted with myself, "I am going to hire a really good lawyer on a contingency fee and I am going to sue Susan's socks off for the pain and suffering she has caused me, my daughters and my poor, dead father."
Tonight Mike, my step-brother, called me to tell me that he received "a forty-pound bundle from your sister."
"Oh," I said. "That must be the proof of service of all the documents she never sent you. As a descendant of Alexander Straitwell, you were entitled to them all along. And you were in all my Proofs of Service. And she knew that. Ha! The court must have gotten on her case."
"Yes," Mike replied. "That's what it says. Proof of service." We talked some more about the arrangements for Pop's internment. The marker still hadn't been set out on his grave, which was actually a good thing because Skylawn and I both got the abbreviation for Lt. Commander wrong: It's LCDR. So it's actually lucky that Skylawn had taken three months to get the order in to the grave marker company. And I told Mike that Holly from Skylawn would be calling him to arrange for his mother's ashes to be interred next to my father. Mike still has them.

March 18, 1999: Amy was really sick. Too much swimming in cold weather for P.E. at school. And too much litigation. I debated whether or not to re-mail the documents that I sent to Missy and Lance which had been returned to me. I decided not to. I checked the "return to sender" handwriting, however, to determine if it is theirs. I would not put it past Susan to tell them to return them unopened. Sometimes I don't think she wants her children to know the truth about their mother's distortions re my father. Other times I think they know and just don't care.
I bought a copy of the Oakland Tribune from Fred's Market. Eagerly I checked the classified section, under Legal Notices. Yes! There it was! My name in print. "Petition to Administer Estate: Jane Straitwell..." etc. etc. etc. The Public Notice deadline has been made. One more item to check off the list of things that must be done before April 26. Now I had only to file the Letters, the Orders, the Proof of Subscribing Witnesses, and the Duties and Responsibilities.
I was doing all of the same stuff that I had done before but this time there was a difference! I had discovered Nolo Press's book on how to do one's own probate. Thank God for Nolo Press! If only I had bought a copy of that book at the very beginning of this damn will contest -- or whatever the legal term for it was -- legal blackmail -- we wouldn't have had to be so stressed out and uncertain. But now, thanks to Nolo, I was finally right on track. If we decided to let the settlement hang -- which I still sort of wanted to do -- or if Susan and Jimmy double-crossed us, then we would still be sitting pretty when the court-imposed deadlines came. What was that quote? "Most lawyers have suffered near-death experiences trying to meet court-imposed deadlines." I was beginning to understand that.
I also senT Mike and his friend Rachel some Subscribing Witness forms to fill out (including a self-addressed, stamped envelop) testifying how Pop had told them his intentions while on his deathbed. Then I would have the forms. Just in case. And that night I went back to the office when it was quiet and everybody had left so that I could type out the Judicial Council forms and organize my attack. Amy stayed home and watched Jackie Chan on the VCR.

March 19, 1999: Amy woke up with a bright red rash all over her arms and legs and hands. Just her arms and legs and hands. I got out the Reader's Digest AMA Family Medical Guide and started thumbing through. Not measles. Not German measles. Not chicken pox, she's already had that. Not allergic purpura, whatever that is. What in the world could it be? She ran a low temperature, had a dry cough. All the signs of German measles. But the spots weren't in the right place. I took her to the doctor. He didn't know. "What is it doctor?" I asked him.
"I don't know," he replied. I liked this doctor. He was honest. He asked a colleague in and they had a consultation. "We think it is an allergy," he said. "But I am ordering tests just to make sure."

March 20, 1999: I called Amy's Girl Scout leader to tell her that Amy wouldn't be selling cookies in front of the Safeway today. "Sounds like stress," she said. Stress. Yes. Of course. The rash went away Sunday evening. Then Amy got on my nerves and I yelled at her. The rash came suddenly back, in spades. Ooops. Stress.
I bicycled down to the accountant to have my father's income tax estimated. We sent for a form...
We agreed to wait to see what my father might owe before we settled...
I called Emily...
Emily called me back to say that she had already made a deal with Jimmy over the phone and it was not good for her professionally if I keep going back on it. "I know he is a scum-bag," she said, "but you have to keep to one thing."
I called Elizabeth...the scumbag theory...
We send the stipulation to Susan and Jimmy for their signatures...
We waited for the tax forms...
I got jury duty. Again.

March 25, 1999: I holed up in the Alameda County law library and searched the reference books for how to compose a trust accounting. I looked in about five different sets of tomes under accounting, trust accounting, trusts...nothing. California Judicial Council Forms, California Forms of Pleading and Practice, California Legal Forms, etc. Finally I discovered some references to accounting listed under "Probate", but I had to dig for them; to get three or four sources and patch them together into a mosaic cutout of a document. There was no clear-cut accounting form that I could just plug in and type up on my computer. Finally I achieved lift-off and put together a pretty good document that supposedly had all the elements an accounting needed to have to be valid.
Feeling all proud of myself, I faxed it off to Elizabeth. She is the trustee. It at least would give her an idea of what was needed in an accounting: If there are creditors, where the money came from, where it went, how much is left, and a WHEREFORE clause asking that her accounting be accepted and the accounts be closed.
I then start to work rounding up the documents. Quitclaims, bank statements, escrow documents, etc. Elizabeth called from work. She was off The X-Files and on a new pilot for television, The Wasteland, brought to you by the makers of Scream and Scream 2. "Can you talk," she asks.
"Can I talk? That's not the question. The question is, `can you talk'?"
"Yep. I'm on my lunch hour."
"They give you a lunch hour on this show? I love it."
Elizabeth stopped to give an aside to one of her co-workers in the background, "My mom loves your show because they give me a lunch hour." I heard laughter in the background. I then brought Elizabeth up to date on the accounting, the lack of news from the tax preparer, the probate file at court that mentioned that Jimmy hadn't filed his 30-day notice in time and hadn't made an effort to find Elizabeth's L.A. address. Elizabeth laughed. "Actually," she told me, "he did. Susan told me that they hired a private detective to track me."
"You're kidding."
"No. She did. She had a private detective following me around."
"That's my sister. Good old Susan. In any case, the court didn't like it one bit. They didn't like the fact that Jimmy arbitrarily elected which heirs to notify and which ones to leave out of his proof of services."
"Which reminds me. I got another big package from Jimmy too," says Elizabeth. "Like the one he sent Mike. To my L.A. address."
I wonder what that meant. Never say that they were going to break their end of the settlement. Why would they? I almost wished they would. "I'll do whatever you want," I told Elizabeth however, "and we'll end this thing. Barring a bad income tax report from our tax preparer...I said I would do whatever you want...but I can't help but wonder if the court would actually finally find in our favor and actually take into account what were clearly a dying man's wishes even if they didn't have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed."
"I still just want to get it over with," replied Elizabeth.
"Then that's what we'll do." And this time I meant it. The ball really was in Elizabeth's court now. That's one thing Pop would have agreed on. He was so very proud of her. And I am too. When I retire in ten years I am going to move to Hollywood and play little old ladies in all of her movies.
At 3:00 pm, I got off work and went to do something really far out and ground-breaking and earth-shaking, something to totally shake up my life, get me out of my rut and away from the dregs of this last few months' nightmare; something most people only dream of; something that will hold me in the palm of its hand for the rest of my life and give my life a pilar to stand upon and make me feel that I will have at last accomplished something that will finally set my existence on this earth apart from those who never tried: I went to the bank with my earned income credit money, got a cashiers' check, slid it into an envelop and dropped it into a mailbox -- a down-payment on a trip to Tibet!
As Country Joe and the Fish used to say, "Who am I, to sit and wonder, to wait -- while the wheels of fate slowly grind my life away." Fuck fate.

March 26, 1999: It was one of those days I dread, those days that seem to take over my soul and I lie like a floundering fish, unable to move, to think, to laugh. I could see all the things I needed to do march tauntingly before my eyes yet I could not raise myself from my bed, could not do anything. "Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?" I asked myself in despair. At 6:00 pm I finally rose from my bed, disgusted with myself. I got up, ate something, growled at Amy and crawled back into bed. Useless, worthless, hopeless. The pitiful waste of a day. Fridays are always like this, I remind myself: It always takes me such excruciatingly painful down-time to recover from a week's activities, and this week has been more active than most.
At 8:30 pm, I called my father's old phone number and just listened to the "if you have reached this number in error..." message and cried.

March 27, 1999: I was right! My debilitating funk of yesterday was only temporary. Thank God. Woke up this morning all full of hope and plans and energy. Thank goodness. I bounded out of bed, was actually kind to Amy and started in immediately to work on getting stuff ready to sell. Amy helped. She went through all the kitchen cupboards and sorted out stuff we didn't need any more. We wanted to have a yard sale or a garage sale or some kind of sale today -- to get rid of all this stuff that was still cluttering up our house.
Amy and I decided to combine several tasks today, and finish them all off at the same time. So we went out and sold both Girl Scout cookies and excess stuff in front of the new Berkeley Bowl Marketplace.
The new Bowl is fabulous and the new customers trooped in and out, but no body bought our cookies. Nobody. Even when Joe came over and helped out. "Last chance to buy Girl Scout cookies in this Millennium!" he shouted, waving a giant pasteboard cookie sign.
We also lumped all our stuff into one large pile and added a sign that said, "Genuine Stuff For Sale: 25 cents an item." The Genuine Stuff sold briskly for about 20 minutes -- the electric heater, the chenille bedspread, the dining room chair went quickly, creating happy buyers. Then the sale of Genuine Stuff dwindled and did not pick up, even though I touted it at the top of my lungs all afternoon. By 5:00, we had only sold 37 boxes of Girl Scout cookies and only $5.75 worth of Genuine Stuff.
I dropped Amy off at some friends' house, talked them into buying four boxes of cookies, could not talk them into buying any Genuine Stuff, drove home, left the rest of the Genuine Stuff in the trunk of the car, checked the mail and went inside to call Elizabeth. "That $2,345 refund check from USAA has just arrived," I told her, "made out to the Estate of Alexander Straitwell. I guess I'll hang on to it until we hear about the income tax."
"Have you heard anything?"
"Nothing, nope, zip, nada. The tax person filed the form online so she should be getting a quick response, but I suppose we'll have to wait at least a week."
"Do you think he'll get anything back?"
"Probably. I don't know," I replied. "I still don't know how this is going to end." I told her that I would do whatever she decided. We both once again agreed that the main goal was to get Susan out of our lives now and forever. A week ago, I would have never said that. I would have said that the goal of the case was to see my father's wishes honored and to shove vengeance down Susan's throat with an mailed fist.
But that was last week. Emotions change a lot. Emotions are like quicksilver. They are mercuric and uncontrollable and unpredictable and, well, scary. I only wanted peace-of-mind now. I didn't want to be in the power of or at the mercy of Susan-generated emotions. But I was not the only one scared of emotions. Lawyers are too. The whole purpose of legal procedure, as far as I can see, is to keep emotion under control in -- hell, entirely absent from -- the courtroom.
Elizabeth and I chatted some more. She told me about her wonderful experiences with the assistant directors from The Wasteland. "They are all Italian. I am the only not-Italian. And they like me a lot. I guess I'll have to change my name to Straitwellacetti or something that ends with an `A'. But they really are nice and I've really learned a lot working with them."
I laughed. "How do you say `Still water' in Italian?' You could have `Aqua' put in the credits. Or is that Spanish?" I went on to tell her that Aunt Sandra and I had talked.
"You know that Susan talked about Aunt Sandra, don't you," Elizabeth asked me.
"No. When?"
"When I called her up and offered her that settlement. She tried to dish Sandra to me. She said that Sandra had no right to squander Susan's inheritance."
"You're kidding. She said that? She actually said that Sandra was squandering her own money? That she should not be allowed to spend it? That she should just sit there and wait quietly to die so that Susan could have it? What is my sister thinking?"
"She had the attitude," Elizabeth answered, "that Sandra owed her. And that Sandra also owed Grandpa money too."
"Susan thought that when Uncle Frank died that he left a bunch of money to Grandpa and that all that money should go to her."
"Yep. But Grandpa told Frank and he told Sandra too that he never wanted Frank's money. You know Grandpa. He would never take a dime of Frank or Sandra's money. It was a matter of principle with him. He refused to be mentioned in Frank's will. That was Sandra's money."
"Yep. And Susan thinks that all that money from the land Frank owned in Los Angeles should have gone to Grandpa. And. Susan doesn't even realize that when Frank's buyers went bankrupt, Sandra lost almost all of it."
"Lord. Susan would have known all this if she hadn't managed to alienate every other member of her family so badly that nobody is even speaking to her anymore."
"And there's more," Elizabeth continued.
"More. Susan actually said that it's all Melissa, Melissa's doing. According to Susan, Melissa has would Sandra around her little finger."
"Oh, God."
"And that Sandra is under Melissa's influence and that is why Susan isn't getting Grandpa's share of Sandra's money."
"Did you happen to mention to Susan that the reason Sandra likes Melissa so much is because Melissa is truly and genuinely NICE?"
"You couldn't get a word in edgewise, right?"
"Right," Said Elizabeth. "Whenever I start to tell her my side of a story she always says, `Whatever. I don't want to talk about it'."
"And this is the reason why we are so willing to spend lots of money to get her out of our life."
"And this is the reason why we are so willing to spend lots of money to get her out of our life," agreed Elizabeth. We both knew that the woman was totally greedy. Now we both knew that fighting greed was time-consuming, costly and maddening. Entirely not worth it. "But that is how bad guys win," I sighed. "They just wear you down and make you want to get on with your life instead of always trying to stop them from getting away with things."
I am losing my train of thought here. And the train is switching tracks and coming back at me head first. Am I now saying something to the effect that Lord Chamberlain did the right thing when he tried to buy off Hitler? Am I saying that Susan, like Hitler, will only come back at us stronger, in some other form, if we give her the $23,000? Am I once again being bullied by my sister? Grind, gnashing of teeth. Let me get on with my life!

March 28, 1999: Oprah did a special on sibling rivalry. I am not alone.

April 7, 1999: I called Joe. Joe was a wonderful son: a great listener and a great sympathizer. "Hi, Joe. I'm thinking of killing myself again." Kidding-on-the square. "This has been a long, cold, lonely winter."
"Ma! How many times have I told you! You can't kill yourself. I'd miss you too much."
"I know. But damn! This damn Probate thing is reaching on and on and on."
"Well, think of something that would cheer yourself up. Come on, Ma. Don't you have anything to look forward to?" Yes! I did! Tibet.
"Uh, Joe, what would you think if I..."

April 17, 1999: Amy and I drove up to another Cazadero Performing Arts Camp work weekend.

April 19, 1999: While pulling the nails out of dry-rotted planking of the foot bridge over Austin Creek (everything in the redwoods there eventually rots -- Redwoods come with their own micro-climate and Cazadero has one of the highest rainfalls in the United States -- I was flooded with inspiration for one last volley in the war against injustice in this damn lawsuit. Amy had been complaining a lot about how she hadn't been represented in the settlement agreement, didn't want to sign the settlement agreement, hated the settlement agreement, etc. Why not ask her to do a Declaration of her own?
"Wanna do a Declaration?"
"Jessica and I want to go swimming in the creek."
"No. I mean later. When we get home."
"What would it be like," she asked.
"It would be like this," and I outlined my plan.
"What good would that do?"
"It would make me feel better. It would make you feel better. And it would make a great courtroom drama at the end of the screenplay I plan to write when all this nightmare is finally over." I had finally given up on the idea of ever beating Susan in court and saving the family honor, not to mention the $23,000 and the clock (In addition to her ransom money, Susan was now demanding a clock). Now I only saw the case as a courtroom drama. Perhaps even a movie of the week. Pop would have hated it. Or perhaps he wouldn't have. Perhaps this whole thing was his special gift to me because he knew I was an author and now I had a story to write that I just couldn't keep from writing.
"A writer is someone who can't not write. It's in their blood and has to come out," a famous writer once said. So perhaps Pop had given me just the story that I would be driven to write. Thanks, Pop. I'll take it from here.
"Amy, this is what we'll do...." And I outlined my idea to her: "Tell your side of the story, girl." And she did. And it's brilliant.
When we got home, she talked and I typed. Soon we had a document that made me cry just typing it. And reading it made me cry too. Here's a copy of it:
I, Amy STRAITWELL, want to declare:
1. ALEXANDER STRAITWELL was my grandfather.
2. I am 12 years old.
3. My grandfather was a wonderful man. I loved him very much.
4. He took me bowling and came to my graduation and I went to visit him a lot in Red Bluff and I was there when he had his first heart attack and I went with him to the hospital and stayed with him the ICU and I helped him move down from Red Bluff and we both like coffee ice cream and after he died I held his hand and drew hearts on his chest so that the undertaker would know that here was a man and that his family had really loved him. And when he died his mouth kept falling open and I tried to shut it so that he would look nice because I really, really loved him and now I miss him so much and whenever I see the Winnie-the-Pooh he gave me I feel all happy that I had such a wonderful Grandpa and all sad that I will never, ever see him again in this world.
5. My Grandpa loved me very much. He told me so. And he loved my mom and my brother Joe.
6. And then we got sued by my mother's sister Susan.
7. Ann and my Grandpa had been fighting for years and years. My Grandpa told me that Susan had dissed his new wife and told him, "If you marry her, who will put my children through college."
8. My mom worked on Grandpa for years to try to get him to speak to Susan again and finally he did. And my mom told Susan after he died that Susan could have his home in Red Bluff and $2000 even though she knew that Susan wasn't mentioned in the Will and my mom had to fight Grandpa just to have him leave her a chair.
9. Then Ann refused to sign to have Grandpa cremated unless she saw the Will and that was the first time she asked for it and then she sued us without even talking to us first and she made me and my mother suffer.
10. My mom had to make me sign the settlement just so we could get the case over with.
11. I think it is unfair that me and my mom and my brother Joe did all the work to help Grandpa and the Troth family were only there when it was time to get the money. Missy and Lance didn't even call Grandpa when he was dying. That whole family is totally annoying.
12. When we tried to settle they said, "No. We want more money." Why should we give them more money? They should at least pay legal costs. Susan should just leave us alone. What has she done to help Grandpa? Or me? I'm sorry but she is one sad excuse for an aunt.
13. Susan Troth doesn't even know how to spell my darn name right.
1. Thank you for giving me a chance to finally tell my side of the story.
2. Go ahead and give Susan the money if they need it bad enough to go off hurting other people's families. If she's that desperate for money, give it to her.
3. Mom refuses to write down point three.
4. Most of all I want the judge to order Susan and Jimmy and Missy and Lance to go down to my Grandpa's grave and tell him that they are sorry for causing his family so much pain.
5. I want them to do this now for their own good so that Grandpa can forgive them now and they won't have to face my Grandpa after they are dead because by then you just know that he's going to be really, really pissed.
6. I want this case to finally end.
7. I want to remember my Grandpa as the wonderful person he was and not just as someone who got dragged through court by unpredictable relatives.
8. I want to go put flowers on my Grandpa's grave and say, "Grandpa, guess what! I got a big part in the school play and I got an `A' on my history project and our ice hockey team finished in first place this year."
9. More than all this, what I really, really, really want is that I want my Grandpa back.

As I re-read Amy's declaration I realized that there had been a subtle change in our opinion of my niece and nephew. I had always used to think that Susan had brainwashed them with regard to my father and myself. But, re-reading Amy's Declaration, I realized that, yes, they hadn't called Pop or talked to him since forever. Even when they had both been living in Los Angles, away from their mother. Even when Pop was giving them money. Even when he was dying. They are both adults. They must have chosen voluntarily to not become involved with their grandfather. To their own great loss! Hell, he wouldn't recognize them if he saw them walking down the street. And, sadder still, they would not have recognized him. What a great loss of time and years that all has been.
I've been watching Oprah Winphrey in the kitchen while I wash dishes lately (the television is under the kitchen table) and one of her guests just said, "Some people register discord as intimacy. They have learned to interpret yelling and arguing as closeness" or words to that effect. How aptly that description fits our family. Even Amy and I fight all the time. That is the easiest way, we have learned, for us to get close to each other. And with Susan and -- perhaps this battle is one of hundreds, thousands of battles begun as the only way we can establish deeply-felt contact with each other. Except now Amy and I play a card game called "Jacko" and that seems to work as well or better than yelling at each other. Perhaps if Susan and I could get together and play "Jacko"?

April 19, 1999: I just hired myself, on behalf of the estate, to take Pop's photo to Tibet.

April 20, 1999: Amy and I went down to the courthouse to file her Declaration. I went to pick her up at her school at 4 pm and she was waiting out in front on one side and I was waiting out in front on the other side. So I left in frustration and she left in frustration and we met on the corner and she jumped in the car and we zoomed down to Oakland to get inside the Courthouse before the Probate filing counter closed at 4:30. We made it with time to spare, even after searching for a parking place and going through the metal detector.
Having never actually in person filed anything before -- I've always used Fax and File -- I was afraid that the clerk would look at it and say, "You're not a real lawyer. We can't take this." Timidly I handed the Declaration to the clerk. She took it! She stamped it! She filed it and handed me back my conformed copy! The law is egalitarian after all. Good. And Amy was there to see it all and be empowered because it was her Declaration that was actually being filed. Awesome.
Then I went over to the Administration Building across the street and cruised the Probate Office and read our file. It was four inches thick and included the Petition from the County Counsel which was newly filed.
"Can we go now?" whined Amy. "I'm hungry". So we spent 10 minutes downstairs at the snack shop rummaging through the ingredient lists on the various snacks and finally settled on a bag of Lay's potato chips without partially hydrogenated whatever and then she didn't want those and we fought over who would pay for them. "Grrr," she said and didn't speak to me all the way back to the car.

April 21, 1999: Got the Petition in the mail from Karen Smith, delineating the settlement agreement. Emily read Amy's Declaration and laughed. "If I had known you were going to file this, I would have tried to stop you," she said.
"That's why I didn't tell you," I said. "I know I'm breaking all the laws of lawyering. That's why I'm Pro Per."
"And that's why I'm not representing you," she agreed.
"The client from Hell," I added. Emily, lady that she was, did not argue with me.

April 22, 1999: First thing this morning I called up Nolo Press and told them how much their book, How to Probate an Estate, had helped me. "In all this long, drawn-out case, you were the only ones who gave me a true picture of where I had been, where I was now and where this whole probate nightmare was actually heading. And, most important, you gave me a small sense that I might have even possibly, someday gotten the process actually under control. Thank you, thank you, thank you!" And I got a really nice call back from them too. It was on my answering machine when I got home from work.
"We really appreciated your message," said Nicole from the book store, "and I passed it on to Jennifer in the editorial department too." Good. I am greatly in debt to Nolo Press and would recommend them to any one. I can't believe that just four short months ago I didn't even know what PROBATE was. Oh, to be that naive again.
Last night I worked over what it was that I wanted to say to the judge at the hearing on Monday. I put it in the form of a legal document. The gist of it is this:
"Having just endured experiences with probate that I will remember for the rest of my life, I, Jane Straitwell, with the court's permission, would like to make some suggestions as to how the probate procedure might be improved upon:
"I would like to see a grace period of perhaps 30 days after the death of a relative wherein no legal action can be taken, giving the family time to grieve before they have to deal with lawsuits, courts, lawyers, probate, accounting, creditors, `unpredictable relatives', etc.
"With regard to this case, I consulted 15 different lawyers and each one had a different, and usually contradicting, interpretation of how to plead my father's case. Could more standardized rules be formulated?
"I may be wrong, but probate seems to be a money machine for lawyers. One lawyer even told me that he would not take the case because to defend this approximately $60,000 estate properly would cost $75,000. I also received another estimate of $50,000.
"All of the lawyers mentioned above told me articulately, eloquently, logically and in detail exactly and precisely why my father's intentions had to be ignored because he had not hired a lawyer to express them for him. No one told me about the possibility of subscribing witnesses and other ways to handle problems.
"My one source of truly consistent, reliable and helpful information in this matter was Nolo Press's How to Probate An Estate.
"The court probate paralegals were very very helpful, but were very very overworked as well. I got invaluable help from them at 7:00 pm the night before my hearing, but it was far too late to make any changes and the hearing had to be continued. Please hire more of these wonderful people.
"County Counsel Karen Smith was very skilled, qualified, experienced and helpful.
"When the court offers to appoint Public Administrators, please make it clear to heirs before the heirs agree to their appointment that the Public Administrators charge $200 per hour.
"An information handout to heirs working in Propria Persona would be invaluably helpful to them and would also simplify the courts' work as well by cutting down on the number of errors, continuances, etc. It could list information regarding the court paralegals' availability, tentative rulings, being able to view our records in Room 109, deadlines, etc.
"Thank you for your consideration of these matters. I hope my suggestions will be of help."

So. Now I am an expert on and a critic of probate. That's learning a lot in four months. I'm proud of myself. But I am very, very aware that most lawyers think I have profaned hallowed ground by introducing emotion into the Temple of Logic; that I have fought dirty and even gone a bit crazy or should keep my musings solely confined to the pages of Ladies Home Journal. Too bad for them. Rational minds own the world. They can't own my court case too.
Is this my court case? No, it is my father's. And my father thinks exactly like a lawyer. I realized that today. If it hadn't been for the Great Depression and the scarcity of jobs and money and education, Pop could have been a lawyer. And he would have been good at it too. No wonder Susan and I both ended up in the legal profession. But Pop isn't here to defend himself and so I must do it and I must use what weapons I have to do the job. And rational logic is just not one of my tools. But I am a hecka good writer and I am a hecka good spinner of stories and tales. "Lawyers are wordsmiths," I heard on a paralegal audiotape I was listening to last week. I am a wordsmith too. They may shame me into thinking I am wrong but, until then, I'll match them word for word.
Then Elizabeth called. She had read the Petition from the County Counsel that I had faxed her. "Strange," she said. "I am one of the three major parties involved and they didn't mention me once."
"I guess it doesn't matter," I replied. "I'll sign all the money over to you once we get it and it's probably too late to have the County Counsel change the wording now. But I'll call her and tell her to at least write the checks out to you." I sighed. "It really is like I said, Elizabeth. I really am not in this for the money. How's Madonna?" Elizabeth was now working on a movie with Madonna.
"I haven't met her yet. She's still in rehearsals. We don't start filming until Tuesday. Oh, and Jason is coming up on Sunday for an A.C.T. audition. And he's bringing the clock."
"Great. And I can give you the USAA refund check too." I sighed again. "I wonder what is going to happen in court on Monday. You know there is an outside chance that the Judge might have actually read our petitions and might even grant us costs."
"Who knows," Elizabeth replied.
"Anything's possible. But I really am reconciled to Susan getting the $23,000. And the clock. Amy's Declaration pretty much finally got all the emotion wrung out of me. Now I'm back to just wanting to settle it and get it over. Except of course if you could just happen to lose the key to wind the clock, that would be okay."
"I never had the key," answered Elizabeth. "I have no idea where it went. But Susan could use one of those ratchets or something."
"Oh well." That was her problem.
"Oh, well. Gotta go," said Elizabeth. "I've got to be at the L.A. airport for filming at 4:30 tomorrow morning. Talk to you later."
"Good night."
"Good night."
Amy's Declaration did pretty much get all the emotion wrung out of me. And that is what I had wanted and needed to happen. And if I had let all the lawyers do all the work, I would still be all pent up inside and with no outlet for my frustration and with the estate's money all gone to lawyers. I'm so glad that me and Amy wrote all our petitions and declarations and gave it all our best shot. I'm so glad that I went Pro Per. Now it's only time to wait and see what the ending will be like.

April 22, 1999: I borrowed bunches of money and bought my plane trip to Tibet! I still can't believe it! I'm going to Tibet! The land of my dreams, the place I've always wanted to go, the holiest of shrines in all the world outside of Lourdes or Bethlehem. And I'm going. And I'm taking Pop. C'mon, Pop! We're going to Tibet! I leave September 10. I'll be gone a month. What in the world will I do with Amy?

April 23, 1999: Today is my friend Carolyn Grant's birthday party. Carolyn is Elizabeth's god-mother. Amy and I were getting ready to go to it when the phone rang. It was Joe. "I got Amy's Declaration," he said. "It was a bit much. It sounded like you wrote it."
"Well, I typed it out and maybe, a little, some of it is mine. But unpredictable relatives' is pure Amy."
"You didn't think of that?"
I swear," I answered. "That was Amy."
Joe paused. He is a tactful young man and likes to phrase his wording politely. "This may not really help our case..." he said.
"The hell with the case," I replied. "The case is over and done with. This is just to make Amy feel better and to give it all a dramatic ending. It's therapy, Joe. Purely, therapy."
"Oh. Okay." Then I went on to chat with him about the latest hot gossip both there and here. Amy got in trouble at school today. Joe is absolutely penniless and had to borrow money from his friends and still is accruing fines on his parking ticket of a month ago.
An operator interrupted our chat. "You have an emergency call from willard Middle School..." It was Amy's teacher and she was truly angry. Amy had finally struck back at a boy that had been annoying her all year -- and she had done it in such a way that everything had truly appeared to be her fault. Oh, Lord. Being a mom is not a smooth road at all. Duh. Don't never let anybody tell you different. Three more days until court.
Later: Carolyn Grant's birthday party was a big success except as usual I ate four pieces of birthday cake (including a corner piece) and five scoops of ice cream. Then I bicycled home into one of the warmest, loveliest April nights imaginable.
When I got home there was a message from Elizabeth on my machine. She said, "Hi, guys. It's Elizabeth. Listen, I just got this thing in the mail that Amy -- the petition...that...I am so mad...I can't -- I don't even -- I debated whether I should call you or not because I can't see anything but red right now. I'm so furious about this." Oh, Lord. Elizabeth is trying to tell me yet once again how wrong I am. "Do you know," she continued, "that you just left it wide open for them to sue us for slander and...and using your 12-year-old daughter to say what you need to say is so outrageous. Mom. I can't -- I -- I -- I don't even know as an adult how you -- are you trying to get closure for Amy? That's fine. You don't file it through the courts. What are you using the courts for? I mean you just can't let it go and I can't believe I'm leaving this message on your answering machine," but she is, "but I am so mad I can't not leave this message on your answering machine. I'm just outrageously furious.
"And -- I -- I don't know where to go from here. I'm giving up. I'm just fucking giving up," Elizabeth continued, "This is -- I -- I -- when do we grow up here? When do we grow up? When do we become adults? This had just been just a string of idioticness that I can't stand any more. I just can't take. And plus the fact that it was perfectly obvious to me through this how much I am not a part of this family. You know. Hello. Mom, Joseph and Amy, and I'm so happy that you guys were able to nurse Grandpa back to health and I am sorry that I couldn't be there." I could hear the tears of frustration in Elizabeth's voice. And I almost felt sorry for her. "But what the fuck," she continued. "What the fuck. This is idiotic and stupid and if they sue us for slander, I'm glad you left my name out of it. And..." and my answering machine cut her off. Or she cut my answering machine off. One of the two.

April 24, 1999: Dialogue! The key to good writing is dialogue. Here's some dialogue: I forgot to call the probate court paralegals on Friday. "Amy!" I wailed. "I can't believe I forgot to call the damn court paralegals on Friday! It wasn't as if I was doing anything. I was just damn sitting around the house reading a damn book and sorting through my damn laundry." Despair, despair, despair.
Amy said nothing.
"Well, maybe not everything is lost. I'll go down to the library and see if they posted anything on the internet. And I'll stop by the bank to open an Estate of Alexander Straitwell checking account so we'll be all ready for Monday when the case is finally settled."
Amy said nothing. I went to the bank.
"Hello," I said to the young bank account executive. "I want to organize things and open an account for my father's estate. Here is his social security card, here is his will naming me executor, here are his tax returns showing me as his personal representative."
"Hummm," said the account executive. "This will's not notarized. Do you have a notarized copy?"
"No. I'm a notary," I answered. "But I can't notarize any document where I myself am the beneficiary. But that is a real copy." Real copy, good thinking there, Jane. What was I supposed to say? This was an imaginary copy? I smile. The account executive smiles.
"Let me call our legal department," the account executive said. She did that. "We need your letters," she told me as she hung up the phone to the legal department.
"But I don't have letters," I answered. And I wasn't going to get them either because the up-coming settlement provision stopped everything in its tracks -- it was going to be as if the estate never existed, if I understand Ms. Smith correctly. There will be no Orders, no accounting, no letters, nothing. No executor. Nothing. I had wanted to get a jump on things by opening the account today, but it looks like I won't be able to open an Estate account ever, because I will never ever have Letters. I smiled at the account executive. She smiled back. We shook hands. "Thanks for your help," I said.
At court on Monday, I will ask Ms. Smith -- or the judge if I can get a word in edgewise -- if I can have some sort of proof or letters or something so that I can carry on Estate business. Otherwise how would I be able to sell the mobile home, etc? Hummm.
At the library, there was a long list of internet users signed up. "Can I get on a waiting list, in case someone doesn't show up?" I asked the librarian.
"Sure. But they always do."
Not always. One person didn't. I was in. I got to the court's web site, Dept. 23's web site, Estate of Alexander Straitwell's web site. "Please use a diskette to download this information," the screen read. I didn't have a diskette. Minutes ticked by. My half-hour was up.
I went home and on the answering machine was a message from the computer consultant at my work. He had been trying to get me onto the internet at home for the last four years, actually. If he could do it today...I'd be forever grateful. "Hi," I said. "I really, really need to get on the web..."
He came over and this time it all actually worked: New mouse, new modem, more memory, another Net provider. I was in! I got to my father's information. It was there, it was actually there. Ironically, I had tried for years to get Pop on the web. And now he had finally made it.
"Case summary, Alameda County Probate Examiners, yada, yada, yada." The probate paralegal stated:
"The parties propose that the funds be distributed in accordance with the terms of the settlement, that probate of the estate be terminated and that the Public Administrator be discharged. The parties have agreed that the public administrator and his attorney be allowed minimal statutory fees in the amount of $750 each (four months had lapsed since the first publication of the notice of hearing on the petition to administer the estate. No creditors claims have been filed -- Inventory and Appraisement has not been filed -- account? Public administrator has received approximately $53,000 in estate funds)".
The paralegal then listed five points to bring to the judge's attention. They were:


This was fascinating stuff. I felt like a little kid successfully easedropping on grownups while they talked about sex. Here was information I needed to know. I immediately called Elizabeth (I had decided to pretend that her phone message of yesterday hadn't been received). Jason answered the phone. "Hi, Jason," I said. There was silence on the other end of the phone. I think he was waiting for me to go ballistic. I didn't. "Look on the internet under It tells us exactly what to expect on Monday. And by the way, is Elizabeth there?"
"She went to the movies with her friend Alexis," Jason answered, beginning to relax just a little.
"Tell her I called. See you with the clock Sunday night." He was going to drive up with the now infamous non-brass Navy clock to give to my sister on Monday. We had offered Susan a wonderful old ship's clock. She had replied that we had given her the wrong clock. Cheated her out of the real clock. done it on purpose too. Through Emily, I had reassured her that the clock she was now getting was worth more money than the other clock. That shut her up.
"Okay," said Jason. "See ya".
I hung up. Amy came into the room. "It looks like the court thing is going to be just the judge saying the settlement is approved," I told her. "That will be about it."
Amy said nothing.
"Looks like you won't be asked about your declaration." I looked at the summary in my hand. "Humm. They did mention you here, though. Maybe they will ask about your declaration -- maybe that's why they want to know if I am your guardian. Interesting". I looked at Amy. "If the judge did ask you about the declaration, what would you say? Would you say that you wrote it?"
"Would you buy me a bag of potato chips if I did?"
"What kind?"
"Forget it."
Amy and I bartered for a while and finally decided, yes she had written it, yes she had dictated it to me and I had typed and edited it, no she didn't want the case settled (that had been my point in the WHEREFORE clause) and yes she could have barbecue chips. A small bag only though.
I was getting really excited about the up-coming court date. The suspense was all churning up inside.

April 25, 1999: One more day. I woke up this morning with new thoughts in my head. I must have dreamed up stuff in my dreams last night. I called my lawyer friend Bob Treuhaft, hoping I wouldn't beg him too badly about going to court with me. "Hi, Bob. It's me, Jane. You wouldn't like to go to court with me tomorrow would you? I could pick you up and drive you there".
His voice sounded hesitant. "Well, I've got things to do...would I have to wear a tie?" I think that was code language for, "Would I have to represent you?"
"I was just thinking it would be nice to have someone on my side".
"Is Amy coming?"
"I loved her Declaration. She'll help you. And what about the press. Will they be there?"
The press. Brilliant idea. "Oh my God, I could put out a press release. Thanks, Bob..." He said that I probably shouldn't, it's too late, not a good idea, etc. but my mind was already racing ahead, planning strategy, figuring out how... "Amy! Wanna come to work with me while I put out a press release?"
"Nah. I wanna stay here and do laundry." Doing laundry was less dull than putting out a press release? Never.
My mind racing ahead of me, I ran to work, started churning out copy, looking up fax numbers, stuffing the fax machine full of pages and pages and pages. "There will be a hearing tomorrow morning in Dept. 23...
"This case has been fascinating. If I had not been a participant, it would have intrigued me. As it is, the case was a tragedy -- and I am holding a press conference after the hearing to discuss our current system of will, probate, inheritance, lawyers, Nolo Press, etc.
"What happened to my family after my father's death could happen to your readers, listeners or viewers. What happened to my family could happen to you".
I faxed the release off to five newspapers, four television stations, three radio stations and the Daily Cal. I called Amy from work. "I did it! Has anybody called?"
"Okay. Oh well. I'm coming home. See you soon." I had truly enjoyed the afternoon. Hell, I hadn't had so much fun in a long, long time. And as I rushed around doing this and doing that, I noticed how good I was at it. One thing I had learned, learned well, learned to the bottom of my bones during the last election campaign I had helped work on, was how to get out a press release.
I wondered if anyone from the press would actually show up. I wondered for the thousandth time what would happen tomorrow. I drove home quickly, but all that evening there were no calls from the press. Amy and I discussed what we would wear to court tomorrow. "You need to wear a dress."
"No. No way. You can't make me." Then we shopped for groceries, made dinner, watched Siskel and Ebert, took our baths, laid out our clothes and went to bed.

April 26, 1999: Well, the press didn't show up. And neither did Susan and Jimmy. And Amy and I had battled all morning over the clothes thing. "Please wear this dress. It looks so cute on you. Why do you want to wear that?" She had on some weird-looking shirt thingie and some raggedy jeans.
"I like it. And this is what I am going to wear. It is not too tight. Period". And Amy got her I'm-ready-to-do-battle-to-the-death look in her eye, never a good sign.
"What about the dress you wore to Pop's testimonial dinner?" asked. "That looked really, really nice".
"I can't find it". And so for an hour we tore apart the inner dingy corners of her closet and toy box and dirty laundry pile and under her chair. We couldn't find the dress.
"Oeuw. What's that?" I said several times. "Oeuw. What's that?" Finally Amy found a long black skirt with a slit up the front and some platform sandals. "No! Amy! Listen to me. We are going for the innocent look here. Pig tails. Lollipop. Maybe even a pacifier. You gotta look like a kid here."
"But I threw out all my other skirts. I never wear skirts. I hate skirts". finally we settled on a nice, simple knit shirt and her Pipes wide-leg jeans. She looked like -- well -- Amy. I myself wore the suit Elizabeth had picked out for me to wear at her wedding, and sandals with socks. "No socks, Mom. Nylons." Finally we were ready for court except to fight over which Book-on-Tape to listen to on the drive down.
While we were looking for a parking place in the 8-story garage, we ran into Ms. Smith. She flagged us down, gave us her parking place and said, "I have to go over to San Francisco today. Someone else will be representing me at court. And she is going to ask for a continuance."
Oh, Lord. A continuance? Our third one? "No!"
"We have to file a guardian ad litem for Amy," Ms. Smith explained.
"But I have one. But I already filed one. Jimmy Troth drew it up, mailed to me, I signed it and mailed it back to him. I really don't want another continuance. My heart can't take going through all this again." Neither could Amy's wardrobe.
"If you do have a guardian ad litem on file, tell the judge you don't want a continuance." She looked at her watch, smiled and waved.
"Thanks for the parking place," I said as we rushed off to court. We went to the probate office first.

"Your file has already gone upstairs," the probate paralegal told us. We went upstairs. We put our little slip of paper with our names on it in the box so the judge would know we were here. Alexander Straitwell was number two on the list. We chatted with the clerk about styles of blue jeans on kids now as compared to two or three decades ago. Then we took our seats.
A young Asian lawyer came into the room and looked timidly around. "Alexander Straitwell?" he said to the clerk.
"Are you from County Counsel," I asked him. "I'm Jane Straitwell, Alexander Straitwell's daughter.
"I'm representing James Troth," he said. Oh. "I'm here to supervise the settlement approval." He indicated three or four pages of settlement agreement he held in his hand. I in turn indicated three or four inches of filed documents in my hand.
"It's not that simple," I said. He groaned. I took him to a chair, sat him down and explained the case to him. He looked sick. It turned out he was from Lawyers on Call and Jimmy had hired him sight unseen, had sent him the settlement and turned him loose in the lion's den with no more instructions than that.
"Estate of Alexander Straitwell," called the judge. No sign of Ms. Smith's substitute. "We'll put this off until she arrives," said the judge. She arrived 45 minutes later and our hearing began. Amy and I and the Lawyer on Call took our places before the bench. The judge was really nice this time. But the bottom line was, "No one filed a guardian ad litem for Amy. We will have to continue the case".
N-o-o-o-o-o! "Your honor! I signed one. I gave it to Jimmy to file. It's not in your papers? Can we please, please, please settle today. I have creditors. We're losing money. Can't I please just have Letters? So I can pay off the bills?"
The judge looked sympathetic but indicated a pile of books to her right. "I'm sorry Ms. Straitwell. I have to go by the books. And Amy must have a guardian ad litem. Please file a petition and an order."
I was persistent. "Your Honor. I filed all the Orders and Accounting and Letters and everything necessary. Won't you please just appoint me Executor?"
"I won't do that as long as the families are in contention. As long as you are in contention, you will have a Public Administrator. And Ms. Smith is excellent. And the settlement is fair."
"Your Honor, I was delighted when you appointed a Public Administrator and Ms. Smith is truly wonderful, but when you appointed her, you didn't tell us that she would cost $200 an hour. And the settlement is not fair. Out of a $53,000 estate, Susan gets $23,000 and no costs and we get stuck with $13,000 in costs so far."
"If you want to oppose the settlement, you may do so. But this case is continued..." the judge looked at her calendar "...until June 3rd." Oh, no. Not June 3rd. Not another time. Not again.
"You are to draw up a Petition for guardian ad litem, submit an Order and call Ms. Smith," the judge said.
"Yes, Your Honor," I said. "But that phone call is going to cost me $50." Behind me I could hear people in the court room laugh. We gathered our documents and left. But once we got outside, I turned to the Lawyer on Call. "Please tell my idiot brother-in-law," I told him, "that he forgot to file the Guardian Ad Litem." Then Amy and I went downstairs and she bought barbecue potato chips and ate the whole bag on the way home in the car and I ate a chocolate bar and shook all over.
We went back home and called relatives and creditors and told them what had happened. And that was our day in court, y'all.
The settlement went down the drain. Again. I was simply no longer interested in settlement. Jimmy had blown it. Jimmy had truly pissed me off. I was ready to demand a jury trial!

May 2, 1999: Sunday night, right after Siskel and Ebert, Joe called up. We chit-chatted about this and that. College life. The dinner I had just returned from. What to do for Mother's Day. Stuff like that. Then he cleared his throat and said, "Uh, Mom. About all this court stuff..."
"You've been talking to Elizabeth, haven't you."
"She called me. Look, Mom, I agree with Elizabeth. You've got to drop this stuff before we all lose out -- before the lawyers all gobble everything up."
"Joe. I really don't think it's in our best interests to drop this. And what makes you think that lawyers are going to eat up all the money? Who's going to pay them? Certainly not me. I wouldn't hire a lawyer if my life depended on it..."
"Elizabeth said you were going to demand a court trial," replied Joe.
"So? I plan to do the trial myself."
"Mom, that's suicidal. Listen to me. I'm supposed to be the rational one in this family, remember? You gotta listen to me on this one. I'm siding with Elizabeth here."
"Don't tell me you're threatening me too," I said. "Elizabeth threatened to side with Susan, then she threatened cut me off without a cent..."
"Mom. This whole thing is really hurting Elizabeth. If you don't drop it right now, you're going to lose her. And you're going to lose me too."
"And Susan gets off scot free. And Susan gets all the money and gets to win at her little game of legal blackmail and now she gets to win again by dividing our family..."
"Mom, now you're beginning to sound just like Susan."
"And why wouldn't I? We were raised in the same family," I replied.
"But it's time to stop being like Susan, stop being so unbending. Do you want to lose all of us?"
"Hey, Amy," I said. She was sitting next to me, watching the Simpsons. "Are you going to side with Elizabeth and Joe against me too?"
"Uh, I guess," she answered, her eyes never leaving the screen.
"Listen, Joe," I said. "All my life I was bossed around by Mom and Pop and Susan. And then I had Elizabeth. And then she bossed me around. All the time she was growing up, if she didn't get her way she threw a tantrum. And she's still doing that now. Joe, she told me that if I didn't drop this case she would side with Susan! I hung up on her. Frankly, I'm too old to be bossed around."
"Then it's about power," replied Joe. "Listen, you and Elizabeth can have your battle about power. Just don't do it in the courtroom.
"You have been talking to Elizabeth. That's just what she said. And it is about power. And it's also about money too, isn't it? Elizabeth wants the money."
"But you do too..."
"But Elizabeth already told me I'm not getting a cent of it..."
"But not if you just drop this now..."
Yeah. Right. Like Elizabeth had any control over the money. That's probably one of the things that pissing Elizabeth off. The deeper we got into this, the more it looked like the puny little bit of bucks that Susan will have left us would go under my name once the settlement was reached. Ms. Smith had said as much in her petition to request settlement. And that was what was probably pissing Elizabeth off the most. Elizabeth just could not stand to see me in control. But I didn't tell Joe that. But I did say, "All her life, Elizabeth has selectively chosen to turn her nose up at me and look down her nose at me too, if such a thing is possible. And this is no exception."
Joe took another tack. "Mom, you know that this isn't what Grandpa would have wanted. You know he would have hated to see Elizabeth in pain." Ha. How well I knew that one. Just like I came along and displaced Susan in his favor, so Elizabeth had come along and displaced me. And on the surface, I had gone along with it. But, like Jan Brady, I had long ago gotten sick of hearing "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha." But that too was my evil little secret and I didn't share that with Joe either: What if he had answered, "The reason Grandpa liked Elizabeth better was because she was so much more wonderful."
Oh, Lord. I was becoming just like Susan. Or had been like her all along. And yet I still wanted to fight the damn case with all my being and all my soul. And win it too.
Getting back to Joe, I said "I'm sorry, Joe, but I still want to do this. I want to make a stand against Susan and I want to make a stand against injustice. And against being bossed around too. Plus," I added truthfully, "I've never had so much fun in my life, I feel like I'm in a Bruce Lee movie and I'm the good guy and I finally get to kick butt. I LIKE doing this. I haven't been this interested in anything since Elizabeth was born. Frankly, I don't WANT to stop."
"Even if it costs you your kids?"
That was harsh. I sighed. At that point in time the choice between the case and the kids was all too easy to make -- in favor of the case. Tactfully I kept that thought to myself. "The best I can do," I told him, "is promise a moratorium for a week."
"Thank you," he replied.
"I had decided to do that yesterday." I added.
"You mean I didn't just persuade you?"
"No, I had already told myself yesterday to let things slide for a week, to give myself a chance to get more perspective."
"Well, could you make it ten days?"
"For you, I'll make it ten days. But just this once," I said, kind of jokingly. But not really all that. Because I knew that I wasn't going to let this thing go unless something very major changed in the next ten days. Something very major. And if I lost the kids over it, hell. A mother loses her kids sooner or later anyway. That is the way of mothering. And sometimes a good mother loses them sooner rather than later. And I hated Mother's Day anyway. Which is just as well. It surely looked like I wasn't going to get any breakfast in bed from Elizabeth. And probably not from Joe either.

May 3, 1999: What is the worst thing? The worst thing is waking up at 2:30 am and not being able to go back to sleep. That's what happened last night. I had the old Starving Kitten dream and then I was wide awake. Forever. So I made use of my time and composed a letter to the Public Administrator:

"As you may have heard," I gently instructed him so as not to upset yet another power figure, "our settlement agreement was not approved at the April 26 court hearing, apparently due to an filing error by Respondent Troth." I gently -- heroically -- forbore from saying, "the damn bastard was incompetent and should be sued for negligence."
"I am enclosing some unpaid Estate bills," I sweetly continued. "Could you please pay them as soon as possible?" Like yesterday. Like two months ago. "Thanks."
"With regard to the mobile home," I told him, "please sell it as soon as possible. Back in February all the heirs, myself and my sister included, agreed to sell it." As well you knew yet did nothing about. And now, you dolt, you have cost the estate over $1,000 and you too deserve to be sued. "Thank you for your assistance in this matter," I added politely. "Please keep me informed. Very truly yours."
There has not been one good thing about this whole court-probate business. Even the Public Administrator that we were paying $200 an hour for can't even walk and chew gum. I wasn't a very pleasant person at 2:30 am.
By 5:00 am, I had worked out in my head what I was going to do about Elizabeth.
That afternoon, I went to the bank and opened my own darn "Estate of Alexander Straitwell" account. I showed the banker the will, the publication in the Tribune, the death certificate, my Petition to Administer the Estate, my request for Letters and my father's driver's license. I felt guilty and larcenous and kept averting my eyes and blushing, but I still went ahead and got the damn account. I wanted that account. I wanted it to say some way, some where, "Jane Straitwell, executor". Even if it wasn't true. Even if I was only executor over my own money. I had used my own money to start the account. Hell, Susan (and Elizabeth) would probably find out about it and snatch it from me anyway. Hell, I'd probably go to jail. But somewhere, in some little part of me, I had finally won -- won out against bureaucracy and law and courts and greed and injustice, etc. It was a small victory. And probably Pyrrhic. But it soothed me, calmed my need for revenge and made me able to maybe, perhaps let go of my settlement opposition. Yet again.
Joe called that night. I said, "Well, I've decided what to do about Elizabeth".
"The true story about Elizabeth and me -- and about Shelia and me too -- is that basically I was just their hippie gene pool. I'm your mom," I told Joe, "and Amy's mom, but with Shelia and Elizabeth, no. Someone else raised them, I just supplied the genetics. Or, in Elizabeth's case, I warehoused her during the week while she waited around to go to my parents' house on the weekends, to be with them, her real mom and dad. And letting go of the fantasy of me being Elizabeth's mom is not all that difficult. I probably never was".
"Does that mean you're going to fight the settlement?" asked Joe.
"Okay, okay, okay. I'm getting to that. What I'm saying is -- I'm your mom, Joe. And I've decided not to fight the settlement because of you." I took a deep breath. "I don't want Elizabeth's money and it's going to take me forever to stop being mad at her so don't you go calling her and telling her everything is sweetness and light right now, but I won't fight the settlement either."
"Good one, Mom".
"Joe, there's one thing I've learned and that's this. When we first heard about the money and how I was going to get money, I was all excited and thrilled. And happy. It just seemed so very important to me. Then Susan went haywire and started suing. Then Elizabeth and I were at each other's throats and suddenly all this money wasn't making me happy at all. It was making me miserable. Here I've been really rock-bottom poor all my life because I was an idealist. And a flower child. And a fool. And now I think I was right. Money doesn't make people all that happy. Look at my sister. She's one of the most miserable people I've ever met. Forget it, Joe. Elizabeth can have it all. I just don't even care".
"You know she'll give you something," answered Joe. It didn't matter. I couldn't take it anyway. Not and avoid being under her control for the rest of forever. If one takes money from someone else, one is under their control.
"I won't take it," I replied. Then Joe and I talked about the mid-term he had taken that day and how he had not gotten into the USC film school.
"They said they had a whole ton of applicants," he said. "But it's okay. The UC Santa Cruz film school is turning out a lot better than I had thought. I'm starting to meet people and get better classes and find a place for myself here". Good.
Joe once again volunteered to take Amy off my hands occasionally as she reached her teenage years. "I want her to come down here when she gets Malcolm X's birthday off in two weeks."
"That would be great. Maybe we could meet half-way and exchange her. Maybe we could meet at Grandpa's grave."
"Yeah. And bring him some pizza!" We both laughed. For years we had been bringing Grandma pizza on her grave. Or Chinese food. Or salami sandwiches. It was a "day of the dead" family tradition. "Does he have a grave yet?" asked Joe.
"Yeah, he's got a grave. Amy and me went there. No marker or nothing, but he's got the darn grave. And we could tell him all the news. All the stupid, weird stuff that we've gone through." Yes, it was definitely time to go see Grandpa at his grave and talk all this weird shit out. Joe and I discussed Mother's Day stuff and then we hung up. The plan for Mother's Day revolved around food. I was back in the mother business again. Yet another Mother's Day crisis had been averted.
And after the Estate thing was all settled and over, I could still sue Susan and Jimmy for damages for negligence.

May 5, 1999: I filed a Petition for Guardian Ad Litem for Amy today. I mailed it to the Court with a self-addressed stamped envelope. I wondered if they would file it. I had chosen not to do a proof of service because...because it had some very incendiary language tucked back in its back pages among the "Petitioner is the sole guardian of Amy Straitwell" and the "Amy Straitwell is a grandchild of the Decedent," that I wasn't ready to have Susan and Jimmy read quite least until I had solidified my thinking on what I would do next after the Settlement was approved. The evil thing I said was, "Petitioner is filing this Petition for Appointment of Guardian Ad Litem on her own behalf, in lieu of the Petition for Appointment of Guardian Ad Litem she signed and returned to attorney James Troth and/or his paralegal/legal secretary Susan Troth on March 10, 1999 (See Exhibit 2); which document they failed and neglected to file in a timely manner, causing the settlement to be delayed from April 26, 1999 until June 3, 1999 (See Exhibit 3)". Well, maybe not all that vicious-sounding, but it would be the basis for any further lawsuits against Susan and Jimmy.
And besides, a Guardian Ad Litem didn't need a proof of service anyway.

May 6, 1999: Aunt Sandra sent me a signed "Proof of Subscribing Witness" form in the mail. I was touched by her willingness to help us out. I called her and left a message on her machine, "Thank you so much for signing that form. I know how much you hate courts." Then I left her a brief account of how Elizabeth was being so torn apart by this case and wanted it settled so very badly... "I'm probably not going to file the form because it still looks like we'll settle." And I tucked the little white form safely out of sight.
After dinner, Amy and I went to Emerson School's annual Family Fun Night. I won the cake walk for the fifth year in a row (it only took me three tries) and I also won an 18-inch pizza from Fat Slice by playing Bingo.
Later that evening, I went back up to UC Berkeley to lend moral support to the Ethnic Studies Department hunger strike. It was a warm, balmy night in front of California Hall. A news reporter told me the good news. "The strike's over," he said. "They won all their demands." That made my heart feel good and I went to hug the lean, gaunt strikers themselves -- inspired by their bravery. Perhaps I could hunger strike until the Probate Court reformed itself? I'd be long dead if I did that.
When I got home there was a message from Bob Treuhaft. "Hello, Jane. Bob calling. To thank you for your terrific help the other night." I had helped him with a party he gave for his visiting son Ben on Wednesday. "I read your brief," he continued on tape. "And I'm impressed". All right! How morale-building of him to say that. I had forced a copy of the Ad Litem upon him earlier. One of the hazards of being a lawyer, I guess, is that you are forced to read listen to all your friends' law symptoms.

May 8, 1999: Took my notary public renewal test today out in Walnut Creek. I hope I passed it. "How hard is it to pass?" I asked a proctor.
"You've got to get 70 per cent." I knew I had gotten two wrong but I didn't think I had gotten seven wrong. Perhaps I did pass. I hoped so.

Tomorrow is Mother's Day, I thought to myself as I woke up this morning. Should I let Elizabeth call me or not? Not. "Amy, if Elizabeth calls tomorrow, tell her I'm not home," I said. But there was a card from her in the mail so it looked like both of us graciously avoided the Mother's Day issue successfully without being rude. I knew that I would speak to Elizabeth again sometime before Christmas, but probably way after Thanksgiving. This damn lawsuit had certainly took a deadly toll on our family.
Got a court-stamped copy of my Guardian Ad Litem petition back in the mail today. Funny. I used to use Fax and File to file my documents because they were good at it and they knew what they were doing.
Then I used to take my documents down to court to file them myself because it was cheaper and I had learned how easy it was to file a document: One just went to Room 109 and handed in the original (two-hole punched at the top) and then got the first page of one's copy stamped too. It was cheaper than Fax and File by about $60.
And now I was just sending the document and copy to the court by mail, with a self-addressed stamped envelope. That was cheaper and easier yet.

May 12, 1999: Amy's grades had slipped something terrible. Her teacher, Mr. Mahan, called and said, "Amy is getting a progress report in the mail. She hasn't turned work in, she daydreams, she doesn't do her homework".
"But I've arranged all these tutors and programs and God knows what all else for her," I replied tonelessly. "She did this last year. Not again!" Slowly I hung up the phone. "Amy," I yelled. "Come down here. We need to talk. You are in deep dog dookie with Mr. Mahan. And Mrs. Johnson too as far as I can tell."
"It's not my fault," replied Amy. I did not for one moment accept that theory.
I called her brother Joe. "Listen, Joe. Amy is getting bad grades again. Can you talk to her? She listens to you."
"Sure. I can her down here and really grill it into her". We arranged for an Amy exchange half-way between Berkeley and Santa Cruz.
"Let's meet at Grandpa's grave. And I'll bring some food."
"Food is good," said Joe. He lived on a student income that was on the far side of pitiful and he was thin as a rail. Amy came on the other line and we discussed what kind of food Grandpa would like.
"He always liked Skates," I said. "But that's a bit over budget. How about La Fiesta?"
"La Fiesta is good," stated Joe. "Anything is good." We arranged to meet on Friday and exchange the prisoner and see Grandpa at the same time. "I'll make sure she studies," Joe promised.

May 14, 1999: Amy and I picked up Chinese food at King Dong. "Chow fun!" Amy exuded.
"Something with broccoli in it," I replied.
"Sizzling rice soup with shrimp!" Amy countered.
"Broccoli chicken."
"Broccoli shrimp," Amy demanded.
"Okay. What kind of chow fun? Chicken?"
"Shrimp." So off we went to visit Grandpa and to bring him lots and lots of shrimp. Joe wasn't there when we got there and I asked Amy to wait in the car so I could talk to my parents alone for a few moments.
"Oh, Mom," I cried. "So much more has been happening." I told her all the news from the past few months. My mother always seemed to be so THERE at her grave. And it also looked like someone had polished her marker. Perhaps Susan had actually come up and asked my parents' forgiveness after all. Wiping tears away, I said, "I'm still trying to do the best I can, Mom. I'm still trying."
At Pop's grave (I assumed it was Pop's grave -- there was no marker) I got a whole different feeling. "You're not here, are you?" I told him. "You finished your life and now you are gone somewhere else much more pleasant and that was the way I felt about you when you died and it's still that way, isn't it?" No reply. "I'm happy you went away. It means that you left this life readily."
I sighed. "You were so different from Mom, even in death." Then it hit me. The difference between Mom's death and Pop's -- Pop went willingly. "But I bet you that Mom had to be dragged screaming from this life." I suddenly understood something. Mom had died completely involuntarily. Knowing Mom, she had probably tried to kick Death in the teeth.

"I remember what you said," I continued. "You found Mom dead in her chair and you said that it was an image you would never be able to wash out of your mind." I kissed my finger and touched his grave, just as if he were the icon of a saint. Then I went off to get Amy from the car.
It was a cold, windy day. And still Joe had not shown. Amy went up to give her regards to her grandparents' graves and I went with her. First she visited my mother and wept on her grave and then she visited my father and wept on his grave. "Where's his marker," Amy asked. "It's been months and months."
"It's a mystery to me," I replied. "I long ago stopped trying to make Skylawn do what they are supposed to do. I imagine that somewhere in the next five years it will be sure to arrive. And probably spelled wrong too".
Amy gave Grandpa some shrimp and Grandma some shrimp and then one of the Skylawn gardeners riding a tractor-mower came by and mowed the shrimp away. So we gave them both some rice and went back to the car and ate Chinese food. I ate a whole big bunch of chow fun and Amy ate a whole big bunch of sizzling rice soup and we both waited for Joe. "I guess he's not coming," I said finally. We had waited 45 minutes. "Let's go up to the Skylawn office and call him".
Joe wasn't home. We asked politely about my father's grave marker. "It usually takes about six weeks," the receptionist told us. It had been almost six months since Pop died. But they let us use their phone for free so I dropped the subject for then.
"I'll give you a call on Monday," I told the receptionist. "It could be that they are waiting for his wife's ashes too," and made a mental note to call Mike to see if he had brought the ashes down yet. Then we left. "I guess you're not going with Joe," I told Amy. "Jesus. What are we going to do with the rest of all this chow fun?"
But luck was with us and just as we left, Joe came speeding up with his friend Alice in tow. We all went back to visit the graves yet again. Then we all ate Chinese food again. Then Joe and Alice took Amy off to teach her about college life.

May 16, 1999: It's Shelia's birthday. I got a message from Amy on the phone when I got home from church. "Hi, Mom. It's me. We're having a good old time. Joe almost took me to an adult party. But he's talking about finding me a 12-year-old party." I could hear Joe in the background explaining that they did actually have kids over in the student housing. "I would doubt that," Amy's message continued. "But that's there and I don't exactly want to go. So call back. I may be here or I may be over at Alice's. I may be asleep. Bye, Mom. Talk to you later."
Then Joe called. "I Just dropped Amy off at 4H," he said.
"And I just got a progress report in the mail with four D's. did she study at all down there?" I replied.
"No. But she had a good time and we went on the roller coaster at the Beach Boardwalk and she got along really well with Alice and Nichole."

May 20, 1999: I called Tsering, my Tibetan friend. "Do you know anybody who could stay at my house and watch Amy for a month?"
"No. But I could ask around. Why? Where are you going?"
I took a deep breath. "Can you keep a secret?"
"Sure". I knew she could, too.
"I'm going to Tibet!"
Tsering screamed with joy. "Tibet! Oh! You are actually going there! I have never even been there. How wonderful for you."

May 21, 1999: Amy was on a field trip and didn't get home until 6:30 pm, so I spent the afternoon puttering around the Alameda County Courthouse, checking up on my case.
But in the morning, I was up to other stuff. Aunt Sandra had signed a Proof of subscribing Witness form on May 4 and we had talked about it over the phone. "I won't file it unless we need it," I had said.
But the damn thing was burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted to file it so badly I was doing a rain dance up and down the stairs; biting my fingers to keep them off that particular document. And here it was May 21.
Plus it was always a good idea to not let Susan and Jimmy get too complacent. It was always a good idea to make them a little nervous, to pull their tails a bit.
The temptation was just too great.
I filed it.
"Curses," I said to myself. "I'm home and all the good computer equipment is at work." Curse it. "How am I gonna get a Proof of Service out?" By jury-rigging what little computer equipment I had at home, of course. I wrote the P.O.S. on my trusty 1989 McTec 386 PC. Then I printed it out on a slow and lazy printer that only coughed up half a page at a tine. Then I taped the parts and bits and pieces together until it was almost nice; I raided the house for stamps. I cursed again and finally got one whole document in one piece, on one page. Then I started calling neighbors.

Julie wasn't home. The maintenance man was out eating lunch somewhere. Then I called Adrienne. "Adrienne! It's Jane. I'm still struggling to get my father's damn court case settled. I have a document I want, ur, need to file today and it needs a Proof of Service".
Adrienne said nothing, I took that as assent. "It doesn't get you involved with the law or mean that you're swearing your life away or anything. It just means that you are over the age of 18, are not a party to the action, live in the county and will put some letters in the mail. Please?"
"Sure. Bring it over," said Adrienne. I gave the printer once last chance to cough up a complete document, cursed again, got Adrienne's signature, stopped by a copy place, got 12 copies made, jammed them in envelopes, got Adrienne to delegate me to mail them for her, headed off to court to file the original with the County of Alameda Superior Court, found a parking place after circumnavigating the courthouse only twice, discovered they had moved the probate filing window since last week, filed the document and got it stamped.
"Thank you," I smilingly said to the clerk. I liked the County clerks. They were friendly and they didn't hold it against you if you were of another race. They were there to help and if you needed help, you got it. That was that.
Then I went over to the part of Room 109 where the files were kept. "Can I see the Estate of Alexander Straitwell file please?"
"That a probate case?"
"Just a minute". The clerk returned with an orange file four inches thick.
"That's a thick file," I said.
In the file, I learned that the County Counsel had asked for a continuance -- I knew that -- but that it might not have been necessary because, several days before the April 26 hearing, the probate department paralegal had actually recommended to the judge that an Ex Parte Guardian Ad Litem be filed, to prevent having to have the case continued.
An Ex Parte document, I think, was one that could be created on the spot. I could have written one up on the back of a match book right there in the court room, had I only known. We could have settled the case back on April 26 and not lost a bunch more money. Damn.
These little trips to review court notes were always enlightening.
The paralegal had also written, "No order." Did that mean that the County Counsel hadn't written an Order for the judge to sign? But she had. I had seen it. What ever was meant by "No Order" was a mystery to me.
The judge then added her comments: "Told Straitwell to file a Petition to Set Aside Settlement if she doesn't want to go forward." Boy, did I not want to go forward. But I had promised Elizabeth and Joe.
"Straitwell also needs," the judge continued, "to file a Petition to be appointed Guardian Ad Litem." She then set the hearing date for June 3, 1999 and mentioned a "Petition for Final Distribution and Settlement". Jesus. I assumed that County Counsel would take care of that one. No. I think that I already filed one. Better check when I got home. NO MORE SURPRISES. Please.

May 22, 1999: Amy's copy of the Proof of Subscribing Witness arrived in the mail. She looked at it. I looked at it. "Holy sheep dookie," I said. "I forgot to mention what document Aunt Sandra was subscribing to." Being one's own lawyer had it's dark side. I had fouled it up again. I could just hear Susan and Jimmy's comments on my lawyering skills. But at least I had not forgotten to file the Guardian Ad Litem. Forget them. I was in learning mode now and getting a free education in the Law at their expense. Everything was good.
"Can you fix it?" asked Amy.
"I think I can. One can always file an amendment," I mused. "That's it. I'll file an amendment." But what kind of an amendment could I file? What would it look like? What would it say? Would I need Aunt Sandra's signature again? I'd be too embarrassed to ask her. So the amendment would have to be done separately from the subscribing witness form, and it would have to include Pop's last directive as an exhibit. "Watch the dinner, Amy," I said. "I've got to go create the damn amendment".
"How will I know when the artichokes are done?" Amy replied.

May 24, 1999: I rolled over the many, many ways I might possibly compose the Amendment again and again in my brain and then after that I worked over several more ways to compose it on the computer. Finally, after many revisions, I came up with just the thing. "Supplement to the Proof of Subscribing Witness Declaration of Sandra Straitwell". I typed it, printed it out and read it to my ever-present (if not ever-willing) sounding board Amy while she painted her toenails on the stairway, fourth step up from the bottom. "Petitioner Jane Straitwell," I read, "requests to supplement the Proof of Subscribing Witness declaration of Decedent Alexander Edward Straitwell's sister-in-law Sandra Straitwell as follows: Then Aunt Sandra said that Pop had told her too about how he had dictated a document to me.
"Do you like this color?" asked Amy. "Kendra down the street gave it to me".
"It's totally nice," I replied. "Shut up and listen. This stuff is important.
"In her Proof of Subscribing Witness declaration," I continued, "witness Sandra Straitwell declared the following: that Decedent Alexander Edward Straitwell acknowledged in phone communication with her that the Decedent's name was signed on the instrument by the Decedent personally (See Exhibit 1).
"The instrument and signature that witness Sandra Straitwell referred to in her Proof of Subscribing Witness was an instrument that the Decedent dictated to his daughter Jane Straitwell shortly before his death (See Exhibit 2)."
"Yes, Mom, that's all totally exciting."
"Quiet. I'm just getting to the good part."
"Yeah. Sure. Whatever," said Amy as she switched to painting her finger nails.
"Petitioner alleges that the Proof of Subscribing Witness declaration signed by Sandra Straitwell, in combination with Proof of Subscribing Witness declarations signed by Jane Straitwell and Amy Straitwell (See Exhibit 3), is proof that the document referred to in Exhibit 2 is indeed a true codicil of Alexander Edward Straitwell's February 16, 1998 will and reflects his true intentions.
"There you go. I've finally proved beyond a legal doubt that Pop's will and codicil were valid."
"And any trial jury in the land would willingly and gleefully rule that the will and codicil were my father's true intention!"
And I burst into tears. "And it's too late. Oh, Amy," I sobbed. "It's all too late. And it doesn't even matter. No one even cares any more. All the relatives just want it done. Hell. Even Pop doesn't care any more." Hell. Even I was starting not to care, starting to wonder too if I was starting to go too far. Tears trickled down my cheeks. Amy patted me as best she could without getting her nail polish smudged.
"It's okay, Mom," she said. "I wouldn't mind if you cut Susan's guts out and fed them to the gophers one by one."
"Gee, thanks, Ash," I said. "That's the kindest thing you've ever said to me."
"No. Really. One word from you and Susan's dead meat."
"That's okay," I said, patting her back. "And don't feel that you have to torch their stupid little suburban split-level either."
"And just to show I haven't totally whimped out and given up my bitter and cynical craving for horrible, bitter, terrible revenge and haven't let you down by becoming all weak and sentimental in my old age," I laughed through my tears, "I'm still going to take Susan and Jimmy down once the settlement goes through. What the hell."
"Go, Mom".
"And I really did tone this document down. I really did. A lot. I was going to throw in all that stuff about taking it all to trial. Just to watch Susan and Jimmy squirm, wondering what I was going to do, wondering if the thing would go to settlement next week or not, wondering if they were going to have to spend the rest of their life in court, wondering if they would have to mortgage their home and go into the witness protection program...."
"I get the picture".
"But I didn't do that. I made the document just simple. Then when the settlement passes, just a short trip to small claims court, just a small tap on their hands to remind them that I'm still mad and that I could have had Jimmy's law license revoked if I were really a vindictive sort of person and if I really wanted to get Susan back for all those years and years and years of beating me up I had to put up with...Young Amy, I am such a virtuous Christian."
"Yeah, right".
"Did I ever tell you the time that Susan threw a pair of binoculars at me and almost put my eye out? Wanna see my scar?"
Amy dutifully looked at the scar.
"Remember the time we were home alone one day and she kept teasing me and taunting me and trying to get to me until I just couldn't stand it any more and after all those years of abuse the worm finally turned and I threw a chair at her and she ducked and it went through the wall? There was a big hole in the dining room wall. It was a big chair".
Amy shrugged and started to paint my toe nails. I kept forgetting that Amy hadn't been born yet and of course did not remember. "Did you hurt her?" she asked.
"Hell, no. She just laughed at me. She just turned around and laughed at me. I was so mad I took a hammer and chased her all the way down the driveway."
"What did she do then? Well? Did you finally hit her?"
"No. She just kept running backwards in front of me and laughing at me. I was furious. And that was the only, only time I ever, ever stood up to her."
"Until now."
"Yeah. That. Want to play Jacko?"
"We can't. Your nails are wet".
"Oh. I forgot. Want to do homework?"

May 25, 1999: I woke up that morning realizing that I still wasn't happy with Aunt Sandra's Proof of Subscribing Witness supplement. There was still some element missing. What was missing? "Hummm," I muttered aloud as I was wont to do. "Humm. Maybe a Wherefore clause?" I tried to remember. What would they have done on Law and Order? The Practice? Perry Mason? I knew what most of the lawyers I knew would have done: Take no prisoners, go for the throat. But I was not courageous. I was only a writer.
Amy walked into the room. "Morning, Mom. Can I use your brush?"
"My tooth brush?" I asked incredulously.
Amy laughed. "No, silly. Your hair brush".
"Oh. Sure. Go ahead". I watched her brush her long brown hair but my mind was already starting to slip elsewhere, sideways, into the land of daydreams where writers often go. It was a foggy land, lived behind glazed-over eyes and one that I had been intimately familiar with since before I could remember. I got up, washed up and turned on the computer.
After several revisions, this is what I wrote:
WHEREFORE: Petitioner Jane Straitwell prays:
1. It has taken five long months, but I think I have finally done what I set out to do in this damnable, avoidable, wasteful, harmful court battle: To create a preponderance of evidence that would move any stout-hearted jury in the world to say, "This document has been clearly proved to be a true codicil of Alexander Edward Straitwell and truly reflects his intentions."
2. Regardless of what has happened already or will happen on June 3, I myself know that my father gave me the great honors of naming me executor to his estate and solemnly commissioning me to carry out his wishes.
3. I have done my best to discharge my duties and obligations as his chosen representative: To protect and defend his estate. 4. I pray that I have succeeded in representing his wishes, hopefully with justice and temperance; and that he, in Heaven, will understand that, under the circumstances, I have tried to do the best that I could on his behalf.
With these words, I had said what I wanted to say; I had achieved what I had set out to achieve. And I realized that, while most lawyers typically filed documents to debate points of law and to puzzle together pieces of evidence, I had been filing documents for other reasons, in an effort to reach other goals: All these months I had been filing document after document in an attempt to distill my thoughts and feelings down into their essences. To make sense of this case to myself. To clarify what my father's thoughts and wishes had actually been. To make myself feel better. To distill my pain and to put it behind myself. To do what every artist and writer is good for, to make the unconscious become conscious. To create art.
With this document, I had created art. Now, the next question was, "What do I do with it?" I decided to wait a day or two before filing it. To wait to see if everything still felt right after having slept on it for a while: A cardinal rule I had learned the hard way about filing documents was, "Always wait a day." If for no other reason than to run it through spell check again. And also I thought that I must dream answers and ideas because when I woke each morning after creating a document, I always rose with the immediate knowledge of what little extra touch that particular document needed.
I put the new Wherefore clause on the sinkboard next to all my other life clutter, left it there next to yesterday's mail, etc. and bicycled off to work.
When I got home from work, there was a particularly large manila envelope in the mail box for me, ominously stamped with "Law Offices of James W. Troth" stamped in the upper left-hand corner. It was two inches thick.
Amy and Jessica and Juan rode their bikes over to say hello. Juan wanted to tell me about the kittens in Thelma's front yard. "There are two kittens there," he cried. "Come see them," but his words were wasted on me. I sat down on the weather-beaten wood bench in front of my house and read.
My jaw dropped.
I read some more.
My jaw dropped.
Juan and Jessica and Amy tried to pull me over to the kittens. I brushed them off and went on reading.
My jaw dropped.
Finally, I could breathe and focus just a little. "Amy, listen to this..." I read her my sister Susan's Declaration. Susan had come up with 15 pages of absolute garbage, total lies and mendacious defamation of character -- all directed at me. Maybe some of it was directed at Amy. All of it was vitriolic and false.
Amy's jaw dropped.
Then we went and scooped up the feral kittens and took them upstairs to the bathroom and fed them for the first time in days, I would imagine.
"Look at that one," cried Juan. "He looks half dead". And he did. He was all bones and hair and large goop-filled eyes, on the verge of starvation. And he ate so fiercely that Amy named him "Chomper". We named the other kitten Alice.
"Alice looks twice the size of Chomper", said Juan.
"Chomper's the runt of the litter," I replied. The runt of the litter. According to the tone of my sister's Declaration, I too had been the runt of the litter. And perhaps my sister thought that, like other family runts, I too should have been starved. And drowned.
That night, my step-brother Mike called. We went over the high points of the Declaration together. Quotes from it.
We both decided that the document was too ludicrous to act upon. "It's too crazy. It's too Byzantine. I would have to spend the next year of my life just gathering evidence to refute it and, if I really wanted vindication, I'd have to haunt the Alameda County Superior Court like the ghost of Christmas Past until I was old and gray and had great-grandchildren. Unless I want to see the underbelly of the law from now until forever, I think the best thing I can do is to just ignore it".
"I think you're right," agreed Mike.
At that point I also decided not to file Sandra's supplement. It was no longer appropriate. I was glad I wrote it and it had made me feel better and been my friend, but now was finally the time "to debate points of law and to puzzle together pieces of evidence." Instead, I would send Susan and Jimmy the cold, well-documented, legally phrased Proof of Service on the Guardian Ad Litem I had filed earlier -- the one with the subtle Paragraph 6: "Petitioner is filing this Petition for Appointment of Guardian Ad Litem on her own behalf, in lieu of the Petition for Appointment of Guardian Ad Litem she signed and returned to attorney James Troth and/or his paralegal/legal secretary Susan Troth on March 10, 1999; which document they failed and neglected to file in a timely manner, causing the settlement to be delayed from April 26, 1999 until June 3, 1999".
"That will make Jimmy worry," I told Amy later. "Failing to file and delaying the settlement like that was a big legal blunder on his part. Downright negligence."
"Downright negligence", she agreed.
"Maybe I could get him disbarred," I added hopefully.

June 2, 1999: I was feeling all queasy and alone, almost as alone as the day that Pop and I stared death in the face together last December. Tomorrow was the hearing. Elizabeth and I still were not speaking to each other. It made me sad to think that she wouldn't be there encouraging me on. It made me even sadder to realize that my stubborn, fatal flaw once again kept me separate, kept me from forgiving or reaching out to her. Or to anybody else, for that matter. It made me triplely sad to know that I really didn't even want Elizabeth to help or even to call. Hell, I had even put the answering machine on just in case she did.
Yes, my own stubbornness and inability to reach out to people was separating me yet again.
I was going to beard the dragon alone again. I sighed and resigned myself.
I also resigned myself to having the judge somehow say, "We will have to have a continuance." She had said it twice before and both times my heart had died when I heard her. And this time I almost counted on hearing it again. "Continuance, Jane. Continuance." I was prepared. This was the doomed case that would last forever.
And there had been more problems that day. My boss had told me that he had to be in court himself on June 3. "I'll be gone all day tomorrow. Someone has to watch the office." My boss was always extremely good about not forcing any of his employees to do anything, but we always wanted to help him out just for this same reason. Guilt consumed me. Plus I really did not want to go. Frankly I never, ever wanted to see my sister again. Ever. Except in court when I was suing her for libel. And slander. And judiciary malfeasance.
Getting back to the reality of the moment, I said, "I can help out if I get a pre-grant." A pre-grant is when a judge rules on a case before the hearing and then nobody has to show up at court. If that happened in my case, there would be no problem. I would be able to watch the office while Don went to his settlement conference. And if a settlement was reached in his case then there would be no major trial on Monday and no gigantic weekend push to get ready for it.
My boss looked puzzled at my use of the term pre-grant. "You mean a tentative ruling?" he said.
"Yes -- but in probate court they call it a pre-grant. Let me just call the court." Quickly I dialed the number and got the probate department's one and only, excellent and grossly overworked paralegal. I gave her my case name and number.
"Alexander Straitwell...Alexander Straitwell.... Oh. Here it is."
"Is there anything I need to do before tomorrow?" I asked gingerly.
"The Order for the Guardian Ad Litem needs to be taken care of."
"I already did that. I filed it last week."
"Then it looks like everything is here. It looks alright".
I held my breath. "Do you think there will be a pre-grant?"
I could hear her softly laugh. "No," she said. "There's no pre-grant. There is definitely not going to be a pre-grant in this case." Then she added, "It will have to be reviewed by the judge on this one." Oops. No pre-grant for us. And probably a bit of notoriety in Dept. 23 as well.
I hung up the phone slowly. "No pre-grant," I shrugged. "Let me call around. Maybe I could get someone to go in my place." I called Bob Treuhaft and left a message on his machine. I called Ms. Smith, explained the problem to her and asked if I really needed to be there.
"It's up to you, of course, but if you want things to go smoothly it would be a very good idea. I'll tell you what," she added helpfully, "I'll ask the judge if she can hear the case first thing".
"Could you? That would be a help."
I explained to my boss that perhaps I could find someone to go to court for work the office for me...I could maybe be in by 10:30.... I paused long enough for him to say, "Oh that's okay, Jane. I completely understand...." But he didn't. "You should have told us earlier," is what he actually said. And he was right. I did tend to push the envelope regarding my working hours at that office -- but mostly it was for trips to the dentist for root canals.
"But this is worse than a root canal," I muttered. "This is my sister." I dialed Bob's number again. Then I left work to go home and cook dinner, feeling guilty as hell that I had let my employer down. Guilty and sad and alone.
We had lamb chops and sweet potatoes and salad for dinner. "Do you want to go to court with me tomorrow?" I asked Amy, after having told her a dozen times that she wasn't going because she could not afford to miss any more school.
"The judge may ask you about your declaration," I continued. "She may ask if you actually wrote it. Or what was in it."
"Let me read it to you again." I read her the part about "Susan Troth is one sorry excuse for an aunt." She nodded her head and gave me thumbs up.
"Do you understand that part about offering Susan the mobile home and her turning it down?"
"You said it."
"I did?"
"Come on, Amy. You are going to get me in trouble." I explained it to her, about how we had offered Susan the mobile home...perhaps Susan's accusation was right and I had written it for Amy after Amy has just forgotten. I read her the whole thing.
"You forgot the part where I should kick her butt."
"No, I left that part out." Then I went off to wash my hair and debate whether to wear it up or down...if I was going to be Berkeley's oldest living hippie, I had better wear it down. Then I debated whether to look Susan in the eye directly with a masterful stare or to avoid eye contact altogether. Finally I fell asleep.

June 3, 1999: I woke up feeling wonderful. It was a sharp, cold day outside. We had sweet potatoes and turnips for breakfast. Or at least I did. Amy had Cherrios. I have been on the sweet potato-turnip diet for several weeks now. It was getting to be addictive, believe it or not.
We fought over what Amy was going to wear.
We fought over what I was going to wear.
We fought over how Amy was going to behave.
We fought over what book-on-tape we were going to listen to in the car.
We were ready.
We drove to the courthouse and parked at a meter. "I'll take care of the meter," Amy said. She plunked in a quarter. I plunked in six more. We went through the gun check point. We got in the elevator. I was wearing a suit and a scarf and nylons. Amy wore a dress. We carried documents and briefcases and evidence. We looked like Berkeley's oldest living hippie and her 12-year-old daughter disguised as lawyers. It was just the right look. We were ready for court. We headed for the probate office.
"Where is your Guardian Ad Litem Order?" the paralegal asked.
"It's right here," I replied, pointing to the Petition for Guardian Ad Litem. We had gone through this all at the last hearing. I never wanted to hear the words "Ad Litem" again. "Here it is."
"That's the Petition," replied the paralegal. "I need the Order."
"The Order," I dumbly repeated. "The Order."
"The Order." Hell. There was no Order. All that time yesterday when I had been hearing the paralegal say "Petition," she had in actuality been saying "Order." I was sunk.
"Can I write one out?" I said.
"It has to be typewritten. There's a typewriter over at the law library. You could use that." The law library was two blocks away and the hearing started in ten minutes. Jesus. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have forgotten the Order? Whenever you ever wanted judges to do something, you had to give them an Order. Judges did not, not, not just go out and write their own Orders. Fact of life, Jane. Had I not learned this in February when I had been forced to write an Order the night before that hearing?
This was turning out to be a very, very long day. And it wasn't even 9 am yet.
I grabbed Amy, ran to the County Counsel's office, got down on my knees and begged them to let me use their typewriter. "Please, please, please..." I begged.
My heart pounded in terror as the receptionist called back into the labyrinth of cubicles and cubby holes behind me. She nodded her head and smiled. "Okay. It's in the back room."
I tore to the back of the office, photocopied my legal captions off another document, tore the copy's titles and text off with my teeth, photocopied the cleaned-up cations again, raced over to the typewriter, typed in "Order for Guardian Ad Litem", typed in the line for the judge to sign on and tore back to court, dragging a bewildered Amy with me.
We arrived in the court room just in time. I was breathing heavily as we sat down. "There's your Aunt Susan," I managed to wheeze out to Amy. "Bitch," I added under my breath. And sure enough, there she was. Without one hair out of place. And her sleazy lawyer husband too, looking for all the world like the sleazy, smooth-talking shyster that he was.
Amy made a face at them.
But then the hearing started and things went well. We were first on the docket. The judge asked us a few questions, signed the Order, had me sign the Stipulation again in my new capacity as Guardian Ad Litem. "I'm going to approve the settlement," said the judge. Jimmy and I both blandly nodded.
"Yes, Your Honor. Thank you, Your Honor." Jimmy and I both behaved ourselves.
As we turned to leave, the judge smiled. "Good bye, Amy," she said. I poked Amy and Amy said good bye back. It was a nice gesture on the part of the judge. And it showed me that the judge had indeed read Amy's Declaration.
Then we followed Ms. Smith over to a conference room to hash out the details of the settlement. "I will work up the settlement documents," she said. "You should be hearing from me with the settlement checks in about two weeks."
I ignored Susan and she ignored me as we all sat in the same small room together. "It's not a brass clock," I told Ms. Smith. Susan said nothing, ignored me, pretended I hadn't spoken.
How could such a short period of time drag on so interminably? Time dragged and dragged. And finally the conference was over and no one had slit anyone else's throat. "Our purpose here," stated Ms. Smith," is to try to reconcile family members. And I hope we have achieved this today. Then, looking from the Troths to me and Amy and back again to the Troths, she let out a small sigh and added, "at least we have achieved a settlement here that everyone can live with." She did not look at me when she made that statement. I in turn appreciated all her generous efforts to try to make things work. But they didn't. They did not. Work.
I made a gesture anyway, for Ms. Smith's sake, and asked her if she would ask Susan and Jimmy if they wanted to see Pop's family album. She replied, "I'm sorry. That's not the role of the County Counsel." Susan and Jimmy again pretended I wasn't there. The meeting was over. They stood up and left.
I remained behind. "Would you like to see the pictures?" I asked Ms. Smith.
"Sure." She reverently leafed through the album. I could tell that she enjoyed seeing Pop's pictures, getting a feel for his life. "Oh, I see he was in the Navy," she said, and "Look, here's the pictures of your mother. And there's Elizabeth. He must have loved her a lot."
"In a way I can't blame my sister for being the way she is," I told her. "My parents lived in the same house for ten years and never spoke to each other. It was a miserable way to grow up." Then I realized, sadly, how easily Susan and I had snubbed each other just then; had been in the same tiny room for 30 or 40 minutes and had never said anything to each other or even made eye contact. I realized right then, how, back in the old days, how well we had both learned the art of not speaking to family members, even in the intimate setting of family life. And I realized that right there in the conference room I had learned more about my childhood than I could or would ever learn if I had actually asked my sister what had actually happened back then, back there; what it had really been like. I now knew what it had really been like. Cold, lonely, loveless and sterile.
Amy and I left the conference room. I was in a bitter-sweet mood because, as I had told Ms. Smith as my sister left the room, "That will be the last time I ever see my sister again ever."
Ms. Smith, a wise, wonderful and optimistic person, had replied, "Ever is a long, long time. A lot of things could happen...between now and ever."
So. I was being bitter-sweet because of my sister and because the probate and settlement and hearing was actually, finally over. Actually over. This had been the end. Ms. Smith had promised. "We'll have the settlement check to you in a couple of weeks," she had said.
"You mean to Elizabeth," I had replied, but I don't think she heard me.
So. I was being bitter-sweet, but Amy was being hungry. "Doritos," she said.
"Oh, okay. Doritos. But you know they have three inches of ingredients in them, mostly unpronounceable chemicals."
"Okay. Then Jolly Ranchers."
"Okay," I sighed. "Doritos. It's been a long day, a long probate and you have been extra patient." We went down to the lobby and bought Doritos. It was very de javu. But at least it was all finally over.

June 4, 1999: My sister's birthday. Humph. And I still hadn't found anyone to keep Amy in September. Tsering hadn't either. So, buoyed by the Dorito experience and feeling totally benevolent toward Amy, I decided to take her with me.
"Overseas Adventure Travel," said the travel facilitator on the 800 number.
"Got any spaces left on the September 10 trip to Tibet?"
"Let me look..." I held my breath. Now that I had conceived of Amy as going, I really did want her to go... "No. No spaces left." So much for Amy in Tibet.

June 17, 1999: I went off to the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, with the first two chapters of this book in my brief case. I stopped by Mission San Miguel on the way down and bought a key ring from the mission gift shop. "You certainly do have a lot of key rings," said the volunteer at the gift shop who sold it to me. And I did. I had about twelve key rings connected to my few scrawny keys.
"Where's a good, cheap place to spend the night," I asked her.
"Try the Motel 6." I did. I watched HBO and practiced spending time with myself for the first time since last summer.
"People at war with others need to make peace with themselves", I read somewhere. Probably in my Franklin Planner. On the road to Santa Barbara I listened to the book Lindberg on tape (by one of the speakers at the conference) and tried to make peace with myself in the precious few hours before I jumped into the whirlpool of writers and more writers. And I stopped of at the little Danish tourist village of Solvang, near Santa Barbara, the next day.
"What is your absolute favorite pastry in the shop?" I asked the lady of obvious Danish ancestry standing behind a counter filled with baked goods to die for.
"These," she said, pointing to some giant cheese-custard danishes.
"Fine. I'll have one. And an eclair too".
"Whipped cream or Bavarian cream?"
"One of each." Then I told her the story of my ancestors: "My mother's grandfather was Danish. My father's grandmother was Cherokee. Some days I look very Danish. Some days I look very Cherokee. It all depends on how I wear my hair". She dully nodded her head, smiled mechanically and gave me my bag of Danish; warning me to eat or refrigerate the eclairs immediately as the weather was hot. I dutifully ate them all right there.
By the time I pulled into the Miramar Hotel in Santa Barbara, I was nauseous. I registered and went to my room. And my roommate turned out to be a lawyer.