Great Aunt Margaret
Having been an English major in college, when I first came to Baltimore I had worked my way through all the obviously available writing jobs in town- reporter, editor and so on- at an average salary of $47.50 a week. Neither sufficient nor encouraging. Since then I had been eking out a living in Bolton Hill as a contractor of all trades, an odd jobs-man. I had never stopped scanning the classified newspaper ads in search of the writing job that suited me. It never appeared, so finally I told Betsy that I was going to try to invent that employment. I ran a “Writer for Hire” ad in the Sunpaper.
I had an idea that every kook in town would be calling me with their deal: I’ve got a great idea for a book. You write it and we’ll split the profits. To a degree that happened. Some of their stories were very interesting, but without money those books weren’t going to happen. Business trickled in and I wrote resumes, speeches, advertising, P.R., brochures and so on. I also ghostwrote two books published by Doubleday and Prentice-Hall, ostensibly collaborations starting out, but those are two other stories to be told at another time.
I had a great aunt Margaret, Peggy on her good days. The family aristocrat on my father’s side. She started out during the Great Depression in the hardscrabble backwoods of Southwestern Virginia, like many of my other relatives from those scraggly branches of the family tree. I don’t know her personal background, but I am familiar with her general situation. Coming from hard country in hard times she developed an uncommon drive toward better times, better things in better places. She was allowed to continue her education and became a schoolteacher. She saved money and moved to a city. There, she managed to marry well. A large step up from common origins. Anything I could add to flesh in the details would be pure conjecture so I will not fictionalize.
I believe she married well three times, each marriage a rung up on the social and economic ladder. Her last husband, Arthur Cronin, had been an assistant dean at Rutgers University before he died. She was well off, but not from marriage alone; she was a hard worker and a tough horse trader as well. She liked to make and keep money. She amassed some property including a weekend home in Northeast, Maryland. During the week, she lived above her store in Newark, Delaware, Peggy Cronin Fashions, an upscale shop specializing in apparel and accessories primarily for University of Delaware girls. Her sister, my great aunt Merle, lived with her. Merle and I were very fond of each other. Also at the store site were several apartments.
I had seen her only a few times at family functions while growing up. On each encounter, she seemed more pretentious, condescending. Of course, everyone was super polite toward her, not wishing to offend; she had money. She had probably shed the worst of her cracker accent early in life, but transformation continued, no doubt influenced by the company she was now keeping. By the time I was in college the hybrid accent she affected seemed to be Boston out of Savannah by way of London. She didn’t want anyone to know where she had come from.
In my freshman year at the University of Delaware, my father arranged to rent an apartment for me from Aunt Peggy. Part of the deal was that I was to do odd jobs for her to defray the cost. One of the services I performed was to scrape a woman out of the bathtub in another apartment. Two art students had oil painted an anatomically correct nude in it, the vagina corresponding with the drain. My stay was short lived, ending when the second month’s rent was due, causing a dispute with my father. Margaret was as tight person as I have ever known. She went for the dollar and my father wasn’t one to part with money loosely.
Years passed. The first of the books I had ghostwritten had been published. Margaret had heard about it and when next we met at a family get-together, she asked for a copy which I mailed her. She did not offer to pay for it.
Years later, I got a phone call from her. She had a writing job she wanted me to do for her. She summoned (yes, that is the word) me to her home in North East. Merle was there and that part of reunion was happy. Peggy had begun compiling an Elder (her maiden name) family history, no doubt with assistance. She wanted me to finish it, to locate all surviving members of her direct lineage, and to write brief biographies of all that I could find. She wanted me to research, uncover and catalog all the living members of the Elder and Scott clans and make a book of it for her to present to everyone listed therein. My source material was to be everything she had, including her personal records, correspondence and memorabilia. She made no mention of paying me or even reimbursement of expenses. She assumed that I would comply.
My resounding mistake was that I failed then and there to negotiate the financial terms. At that stage I had no idea how much time and expense would be involved. I didn’t, for instance, know if I would have to travel to get some of the information. She did not have copies of much of the source information. Also, she said that I would not be allowed to take her records from her house; that part of the research would have to be done there. That would necessitate three hours travel time for each round trip. I didn’t want to do it, but I was young and no doubt intimidated by her imperious manner. Implying that I would do it I agreed only to think about it. I didn’t want to do it, but felt I needed to if it turned out to be a paying job. Bottom line: I just didn’t like her.
When word of this proposed venture got out within the family the ka ka hit the fan. Everyone told me that I would not be paid, that Peggy was wasting my time looking for a freebie. One aunt in particular militantly did not want the history to be assembled or written, period. She said she had been Peggy’s part time servant for a years, running errands for her, at her side when she or Merle were sick, doing all kinds of favors. If I dredged up all those names that would lessen the share those that deserved it would get. She and others tried to make me promise that I would walk away from the project. Even my sister was adamant in her opinion that I was being used, that I would not be paid anything commensurate with what I would be expected to put into it, if I would be paid at all. The truth is that those closest to her felt entitlement to the lion’s share of her estate. They expected to be well paid for the time and attention they had given her. They absolutely did not want to share the spoils with a bunch of hillbilly, redneck nephews and nieces and cousins and other lowbrow relatives. I wanted more and more to wash my hands of the whole damned thing, but lacked the candor to conclude it one way or the other.
So I balked; I did nothing. At first I would get letters, even post cards from Peggy wanting to know when I was going to get started. I didn’t answer them. She would call and I would put her off with one or another contrived excuse. She persisted longer than I figured an intelligent person would. During all of this she never once mentioned paying me and I never once mentioned being paid. I didn’t realize that all I had to do at any point would have been to ask the question, “Are you expecting to pay a reasonable price for these services?” I didn’t realize how big a hole I was digging myself into.
More time passed.
We got a formal invitation to dinner at Peggy’s house in North East. I had learned that she was nearing the end of her days. She had Parkinson’s and other health problems and was under the care of a full time live-in nurse. I saw no good reason not to go, so RSVP’d. There was no indication as to who else had been invited. When Betsy and I arrived there were 30 or so people in the room, other than the serving staff, with more trickling in. There were no children. A tasty enough dinner was catered, followed by an excellent dessert. There was an open bar. Most people circulated around the room before and after dinner exchanging introductions and greetings. Nobody seemed to know that we were there for anything more than dinner.
Then Margaret was wheeled to a center table on which was an open notebook and several stacks of addressed business envelopes. Her personal companion who also seemed to be a sort of secretary as well as nurse called for quiet and a hush fell over the room. She said, because Margaret did not seem to be capable of much coherent speech, “Your names will be called one at a time. Please come up then and I will hand you an envelope, a gift from Margaret Elder Cronin.” Margaret was doing more than shaking uncontrollably, she was quaking; her hands were flapping. It was painful, even embarrassing to look at her, her stage of deterioration was that advanced. Merle had died years before and I always felt guilty that I had not paid her more attention, but I could not have easily visited one in the absence of the other. Our stalemate precluded further visits.
She called the first name and a woman came up and received her envelope. She was at a loss as to what to do next. “You may thank her,” the attendant said. The woman complied with a nervous smile, but did not even try shaking her hand or kissing her cheek. The woman scurried back to her seat and opened her envelope. A big smile filled her face and she hugged her husband, then showed the contents of the envelope around the table. Excitement broke loose, first there, and then became contagious around the room. It was a check for $10,000.
The next name was called and much the same ensued. The room hummed with excited conversation and whispering. Then the next name and the next. I felt the excitement vicariously, but I had an ominous feeling as the piles of envelopes dwindled without my name being called.
Finally, the last name was called. Mine wasn’t.
I thought, You bitch. I thought I suppose I deserve to be left out, but why did you invite me?
My sisters were there and they and I and Betsy attempted lighthearted conversation, but couldn’t keep it going. The real subject wasn’t discussed because I told them I didn’t want to talk about it.
Betsy and I lingered politely before leaving, saying a few goodbyes. It was unlikely that many in the room had noticed I had been left out, but I still felt obliged to keep up a stiff upper lip appearance. I was shaken.
I asked Betsy to wait for me at the door. I walked over to Margaret. She knew who I was.
I said, “Thanks for inviting us.” I held my hand out in front of her face, palm down, until we met and held eye contact. I kept it there as if to signify, see, rock steady. She got it.
I turned away and joined Betsy. We left.
I learned later that she had left that house to her companion. I wonder if she had paid her a salary as well.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.