Past, Present and Future

Sunday night, late.  Just going to jot down a few words, so I’ll have a place to start, perhaps tomorrow.

On the front page of today’s Times book review section were the openings of two retrospective looks at To Kill A Mockingbird.

I never read it.  Saw the movie, but did not read the book.

It was, however, Carol’s favorite book.

That’s the start.  Let’s see where it goes.

Tuesday evening.  Carol in bed and will soon be asleep.  Will try to pick up the thread.

When it became clear that Carol would no longer be able to read because her eyes would not stay focused on one line of type, I decided to see if she would listen to an audio book.  The first one I took out of the library was Mockingbird, to which she listened attentively, often smiling at something Scout, the young girl narrator of the story,  said.  I am fairly certain that her love for the book had everything to do with Scout.  Maybe she saw something of herself in that character.  Perhaps, to go a step further, she also responded to Scout’s attachment to Atticus as an idealized version of her relationship with her own father.

I don’t think she paid as much attention to the novel’s depiction of racism.  She was a little conflicted on that issue.  Of course, she deplored racism but she also loved her southern mother who proudly had the stars and bars on the front license place holder of her car.  Her mother does not have a mean bone in her body, but she did grow up in Virginia and most likely just accepted without malice the south’s treatment of people of color.

One more point, and I’ll try to indicate the relevance of all this.  After the success of the audio book, I brought home Go Set A Watchman, the then recently published novel, rejected when offered to publishers, but that when rewritten became Mockingbird.    Carol did not listen as attentively to that book.  I don’t think we got all the way through it.  I tried other audio books by her favorite authors, such as Louise Erdrich, but they did not capture her attention.

Mockingbird was special, in part for the reasons already mentioned, and perhaps also because hearing it triggered her memories of having read it.

It was, and perhaps still is, quintessentially her book.

It is not mine. Both reviews in this past week’s Times, while recognizing the book’s status and accomplishment, also take a somewhat less than positive view of how it deals with the racial issue.  I don’t intend to go into that argument other than to say it does not explain my relative indifference to the book.

For a variety of reasons, I was not drawn to it.  Although when it came out in 1960 it soon became almost universally installed on high school reading lists, at that time I was a struggling pre-engineering student at Brooklyn College.  I don’t recall paying much attention to it then.  Within a year I realized that I was swimming upstream in the engineering curriculum and switched to English as my major.  I focused on American literature, but Harper Lee’s book did not appear on any assigned college or graduate reading lists.

I can’t recall when I saw the movie, whether in a theater or on television.  I enjoyed the movie, liked the cardboard virtue of Atticus and the sass of Scout, but not in any intense way.  I just wasn’t moved to pick up the book, as sometimes I did, and do, after first viewing a film based on a novel.

When I saw the reviews in the Times, my first thought, quickly abandoned, was I’ve got to show these to Carol.

A futile idea of course.

And the beginning of where this piece is going.

Monday night.   I have not written much the past few days for several reasons, beginning with a weird allergic attack that caused my skin to break out in blisters, and that required steroids to quiet it down.  At about the same time I was preparing for the arrival of Tracy and her family Saturday night, getting them settled in on Sunday, and  then dealing with a thunder and lightning storm Sunday night that knocked out our power for about six hours.

Which brings me back to where I left off, the reviews of Mockingbird in the Sunday paper.  Those reviews, it would seem, would have been fertile ground for a conversation with Carol, but that is not quite the point because while we were both serious writers and readers, we did not often discuss books.  We just appreciated each other’s interests.

So, the idea here is not that we would have responded, each in our own way, to the reviews.  It is unlikely we would have dealt, except perhaps briefly, on the question of southern culture since Carol was, understandably, defensive about her mother’s southern roots when it came to the south’s legacy regarding slavery and attitudes toward people of color.

More likely, I would have been happy to bring the reviews to her attention, and perhaps move into a conversation about Harper Lee’s unusual career arc as a writer, which we would each view from the perspective of our own careers.

A week later on Monday afternoon, settling into the usual routine after a week’s visit from Tracy and family that filled the house with energy, warmth and good feelings.  Grandkids, not surprisingly, are growing, their personalities emerging and becoming clearer.  Watched two or three episodes of The Staircase with Tracy and found we did not see the murder case in that documentary the same way. Talked politics with Fred, and finally, enjoyed the antics of Dylan, their family beagle who formed a relationship with our Daisy, urging the old Golden to play.

Although my writing routine was predictably and happily interrupted during my family’s visit, I see that I did find the time to leave myself a note about an email from the Shaw Festival.  Will try to sew that thought into the Mockingbird thread.

At about the same time as  the reviews of Mockingbird appeared, a notice about the upcoming Shaw ‘Festival, which we attended some years ago, arrived in my inbox.  Both of these threads, Mockingbird and the festival, share a common thrust: they are intrusions from the past, insistent reminders of what has been lost.  Carol’s favorite book, on the one hand, and on the other a vacation trip made all that more special by the fortuitous circumstance of finding that our very good friends, Lowell and Sheila, on the grounds of whose house we were married, were also going to the festival at Niagara on the Lake the same time we were.

As is so often now the case, these memories are bittersweet, with the first part of that oxymoronic word more prominent.  I could not, in any meaningful way, talk to Carol about either the book or the festival.

There really is nothing more to be said on that point, and I don’t want to start wading into the waters of self-pity, so I will move on.

On the Friday before Tracy and family arrived, a draft copy of the trust I am setting up came in the mail.  This morning I emailed my attorney with a few question I would like answered.

I will pause here, take a figurative breath, and dive into this intensely difficult subject when next I sit down to write.

Mockingbird insists on getting my attention.  Its author appears as a clue in today’s Time’s crossword puzzle.   I have inserted Harper Lee’s name in the puzzle and will move on, which in this case means working the puzzle.

Wednesday, early afternoon, an unusual writing time, but Carol is asleep, and since breakfast was late, lunch won’t be for a while.  Yesterday was a full day, shopping, Ryan for supper, and so I wasn’t up for sitting down with my laptop late as I had planned.  Try to make up some ground today.

I am setting up the trust for the obvious reason that I want to be sure that Carol will be well provided for should I predecease her.  Of course, being ten years older, I thought that would be the case, and having designated my beneficiaries, starting with her, the only vexing question was where I was to be buried, in Michigan or New York.  That question remains, but Carol’s no long being competent and requiring care, opens up a whole range of unanticipated questions for which I was, and am, unprepared to answer, but which, nonetheless, insist on being presented to me.

I have discovered, not surprisingly, that this is a particularly lonely activity.  My attorney, and financial advisor, can tell me how to do what I want, but neither they, nor anybody else, can help me decide what I want.

So, I begin with the need for Carol’s care, and thus the trust.  A trust must have a settler, the entity—in this case me—that establishes the trust, and then a trustee—again in this case, me during my lifetime—who manages the trust.  As such I determine the assets that go into the trust.  Apparently, I will also create a pour over will to deal with assets that are not in the trust when I die.  In my case, I imagine these will be mostly personal items.

That’s about as much as I now understand, pending answers to questions, and/or confirmations of what I think I understand from my attorney.

None of the above is particularly troubling to deal with, even a bit interesting, as the law has always fascinated me, in part because as a word person I appreciate the law’s attempt to provide precise relationships between language and the world. I had a glimpse into that attempt  when Carol worked her way to her JD.

Seeing Carol’s JD on the wall is a painful reminder of the was, just like the copies on her bookshelves of the journals containing her stories.

But that is not what I am talking about now.  Perhaps I am letting myself be distracted.

So, to refocus, the technicalities, the legalisms, of my trust appeal to me on an intellectual level.

However, the decisions those technicalities involve are the ones that are emotionally fraught, and ones I need to deal with by myself.

They include successor trustees, who will be responsible for Carol’s care when I am gone, and the ultimate distribution of assets that will remain after that care is no longer necessary.

Those questions are complicated by the fact of there being children from two marriages, and an anticipated inheritance coming to Carol from her family.

I have always posited fairness and equal treatment as the cornerstones of my parenting responsibilities.  I still do.

The application of that doctrine in the present and future is the challenge.

And I must handle it alone.


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