Not long ago I was reading James Herriot’s Dog Stories, about his country veterinary practice in England. Herriot is best known for his book, All Creatures Great and Small. His stories of rural life during the era around WWII and the quirky clients he served, both human and animal, are charming and humorous. Those clients taught him many valuable life lessons as he began his career.
That got me thinking about the early years of my legal career.
My First Real Job, Where I Learned the Most
Fresh out of law school in 1983, I took a position as an associate in Grandview, Washington, a small agricultural town in the eastern part of the state with a population of three hundred. A speck on the map, at that time Grandview was best known for hops and dairy cows.
I grew up in a suburb of Seattle. I attended college in Seattle and law school in nearby Tacoma. I was a city girl. Yet I was ready for a change, to get away from the noise and traffic that even back then was annoying and stressful. Arriving in Grandview in December 1983, having just passed the bar exam, the local newspaper—a weekly consisting of a handful of pages—announced my arrival. I became the newest local oddity: a lady lawyer.
I was hired to take over the estate planning and probate practice of a wonderful man named Gordon Blechschmidt who was retiring after 40 years in the community. His partner, Jack Maxwell, was the city attorney and also had a thriving civil practice. Theirs was the only law practice in Grandview. Jack became my mentor, teaching me family law and appointing me assistant city attorney to gain some misdemeanor criminal trial experience. Gordon shared his wisdom regarding estate planning and probate, how to treat clients well, and made sure I was introduced around town. This was the perfect job for someone fresh out of law school. I learned a little bit of everything, fast.
Soon after my arrival, one of Gordon’s long-time clients, an elderly woman, made an appointment to “meet the new attorney.” When our receptionist showed her into my office – Gordon’s former office – the woman looked at me, stopped abruptly in the doorway, turned to the receptionist and said loudly, “I asked to see the new attorney, not a secretary!”
I was the first woman attorney to practice in a hundred mile radius. In an effort to appear worthy of my hourly rate, I adopted the fashion faux pas of women’s professional attire of the time: skirt suits with big shoulder pads and blouses with fluffy bow ties. I wore glasses rather than my usual contacts. I started going by Rebecca rather than my childhood nickname, Becky. Anything to appear knowledgeable and trustworthy.
A large part of the education I received in my first job as an attorney was a close-up view into lifestyles very different than the one in which I was raised.
For instance, I found myself frequently handling estates where the deceased husband had been in charge of the farm and all its details, keeping his wife in the dark about family finances. Her role was to raise kids, keep house, and put food on the table. As Gordon pointed out, these men might come into our office wearing coveralls, with cow shit on their boots, but they owned land and machinery worth a million dollars ($3.25 million in today’s dollars). Their estates were substantial, and sometimes complicated to settle. Still, I was shocked at the helplessness of the widows, unable to pay the bills after their husband died because they’d never written a check.
My father had an older sister in rural Kansas whose life was much like those of these women. Frustrated at her predicament, as I was growing up my father made sure I acquired the skills to be independent as an adult. He constantly emphasized to me the importance of never being financially dependent on anyone, even a husband. I hadn’t fully grasped the value of his message until taking this job and working with these widows.
It was our practice, upon opening a probate case, to write to all bank branches and investment brokerages asking if they held any assets in the name of the decedent. Perhaps because these men had lived through the depression, it often turned out that they had accounts and safe deposit boxes in several different institutions, most of which their wives were unaware of. Land, vehicles and farm equipment were often titled in just the husband’s name, requiring probate to transfer to the widow. The husbands weren’t hiding assets from their wives; it was just how those farm families operated.
One day Edith, a woman of about 70, came to see me. Her husband had just been involuntarily committed to Eastern Washington State Hospital – a state mental institution – after aggressively acting out. Apparently, he’d been falling into dementia for some time. Like so many farm families, he kept complete control of the family assets, and in Edith’s case, even forbid her to learn to drive. She was as helpless as any woman I had met. Their two daughters were grown and gone, one living in Hawaii. Edith brought me the household and medical bills that were piling up, asking for help sorting it all out. She was living frugally on their social security, barely getting by.
There was something special about Edith, something at the time I couldn’t quite put my finger on. She became my first pro bono client because I wanted to help her, even knowing she couldn’t afford to pay me. We started by diving into all the health insurance correspondence detailing what expenses were and weren’t covered for her husband’s care at Eastern State. It was a nightmarish pile of paperwork.
As Edith and I spent more time together, she shared that her husband had always been verbally abusive to her and their daughters. When I spoke with one of the daughters by phone, she confirmed this. The daughter felt guilty, leaving her mom to deal with her father’s illness alone, but she didn’t want anything to do with her father. As Edith began trusting me, she admitted to feeling relieved that her husband had been hospitalized. She was enjoying the sense of freedom at home, no one criticizing her. She felt some guilt about not visiting him more often, but not too much. I began to really like Edith.
Some weeks later, Edith dropped by to tell me her husband had died while still at the hospital. The hospital staff asked her what she wanted to do with his body. She cried, sitting there in my office, not because she missed him, but because it’s always sad when a life ends, and she realized that her own life would now change dramatically. I sensed a huge amount of relief, too.
I was 27 years old. I had never been involved in end-of-life arrangements. But for Edith, I was willing to learn. I called the local funeral home, and they arranged for the body to be transported to them in Grandview. Edith didn’t want to spend any more money than necessary; she had little to spare. Besides, she didn’t think anyone missed him enough to come to a funeral – her daughters certainly weren’t coming. Cremation would do.
Eventually, the funeral home called me to say the cremains were ready to be picked up. Not a call I got every day. My heart raced a bit as I imagined what the cremains were like. I drove out to get Edith, and together we picked up what was left of her husband. Some paperwork was signed before the funeral home director pointed to a cardboard box, roughly a foot square, on a side table. I anticipated something a little more elegant, but then, Edith was on a budget and had no sentimental energy to waste on her departed husband. No urn for him, just a simple cardboard box. Edith was petite and frail, so I picked up the box, discovering it was much heavier than anticipated, another small shock to my sensibilities.
Carefully putting the box on the back seat of my Subaru, I wondered, “Should I buckle it in? Sure wouldn’t want to have it spill….” Refocusing, I got Edith situated in the front passenger seat and we set off for her farm. It was a quiet ride, because I was mentally drawing a line in the sand: “I am not going to offer to help her spread the ashes, if that’s what she’s planning on doing.” I hoped if I didn’t bring it up, she might not ask. I was a little wigged out by this errand, thinking maybe pro bono work wasn’t for me after all.
We arrived at her farm. At the end of the dirt driveway, there stood an old two-story farm house, small, in need of paint and maintenance, but sound. There wasn’t any livestock, or nearby neighbors. “What a sad, isolated life Edith must have led here with her husband, especially after her daughters left,” I thought. Edith was quiet and contemplative, in no hurry to get out of my car. Feeling sorry for her, I voluntarily crossed my line in the sand: “Edith, is there anything else I can do before I leave?” I asked as I reach out and lay my hand gently on her forearm.
“No, you’ve done enough; I can handle it,” she replied. Relieved, I helped her out of the car, retrieved the box of cremains from the back seat, and carefully handed them to her. Walking to an old table in the yard, Edith set the box down. I gave her a hug, said goodbye, and promised to call her soon.
I got in my car and after starting the engine, looked up. Edith was walking—with the box—just a few feet off the dirt driveway into the adjacent field. She had opened the top of the box. I stared transfixed as she upended it and dumped the entire contents into the dirt and the wind.
She had returned her husband to the land he farmed.
Acting as though I hadn’t seen what she’d done, I drove away. I understood. In fact, I was proud of her. I really, really liked this woman.
The Benefits of a Country Practice
In his Introduction to Dog Stories, Herriot writes, “It wasn’t the kind of dog practice I had dreamed of as a boy. There was no operating room, no white-coated nurses. But there was one tremendous bonus. My dog practice, though widely scattered, was never big enough to become impersonal. Whereas a city practice could consist of a never-ending canine wave flowing through the consulting rooms, that never happened to me. I knew every patient by name.”
That describes how I feel about my first two years practicing law in rural eastern Washington. It wasn’t glamorous by a long shot. I went there to learn, to have those close, personal interactions with clients. I knew their names, their children, their joys and their sorrows. I was proud to become a part of their lives, something that rarely happens in a big city practice. It was a wonderful experience, but in my twenties and single, I needed a better social life. I returned to Seattle a year after I last saw Edith.
Several years later I received a letter, forwarded from my former law firm. Edith had passed away. One of her daughters wanted me to know, and thank me for being there for her mom when the old man had passed. I have that letter tucked away, somewhere, a reminder of one of my favorite clients.
While I didn’t stay in Grandview long, like Herriot I treasured the people I met while working there and the lessons they taught me.
It’s only now, though – some 35 years later – that I fully understand why I felt so connected to and protective of Edith. She was teaching me a uniquely valuable lesson about family. I just didn’t know it at the time.
I do remember being amazed that I connected so easily with Edith, when even then I was having so much trouble connecting with my own mother, with whom I’d been estranged while in college.
My mother recently passed, in May. She was 92, and tired of life, chose to die by stopping all her medications. She and I had been estranged more than once over my adult life because her narcissism was so toxic to me. I didn’t always understand the psychological reasons why – I didn’t learn about narcissism until I was in my fifties – but I knew at a gut level even in my twenties that I needed to set strict boundaries with her, build some high walls, to protect myself. Our last and longest estrangement began in 2009 and lasted almost until she died.
In 2018, I was told by a kind sister-in-law that my mother said she wanted to see me, so I visited, and we talked on the phone a couple of times after that. But true to our family dynamic, we never talked about the real, emotional stuff; it was all fluff, weather and family gossip. Still, I felt, that was better than nothing, a rapprochement.
I fully expected my mother to live to age 100 or older, as her own mother had. I had also expected, should we remain estranged, that she would disinherit me, because, well, she had always been mean and vindictive toward me. C’est la vie.
By April 2019, however, she decided she didn’t want to live to 100 and had other plans – to die – which, apparently, she didn’t want me to know about. My brothers did what she told them and didn’t say anything to me. The kind sister-in-law again gave me a heads up, and I called my mother, asking if I could visit. She said that was fine. I did, and thought we had a good visit, reminiscing, although again, it was all fluff. As I was leaving I told her I was proud of her for taking her fate into her own hands, given she’d commented so often to me about how her own mother spent a decade in a nursing home bed wishing she would die.
All for naught, as it turned out. My mother remained angry, unforgiving and mean to me to the very end.
But then, I knew when I visited that last time that I was doing so mostly for me. I was forgiving her, even if she couldn’t ever forgive me. So really, I shouldn’t have been surprised at what transpired.
See, I had grieved for the mother I wanted and needed, but never got, back in 2009 when I cut off all ties after a last-straw incident that I couldn’t ignore or condone. The next three years were a terrible time of guilt, shame, and anger on my part, but a necessary process. Coming out the other side, I realized I didn’t miss her; she hadn’t brought any warmth or comfort to my life for…forever. Life was better not dancing to her tune.
Still, when my mother died, I was sad. I didn’t grieve like I did ten years earlier, though; I’d done my grieving then. But I found myself racked with terrible shame and guilt, questioning whether it was my fault (as she clearly believed, and convinced the rest of the family) that we didn’t have the mother-daughter relationship so venerated by our culture.
I had already learned about narcissism, and lack of empathy, and realized that my mother embodied both psychological pathologies (they’re entwined). After my mother’s passing, I started learning about DONMs – daughters of narcissistic mothers – and finally, finally started to let the shame and anger go, realizing I wasn’t alone in my experience, I wasn’t to blame, that I had done my best to be the perfect daughter she demanded until I no longer could live in that crazy-making world and made the choice to cut ties.
I just wish I’d learned about DONMs a decade or more earlier. It would have cushioned the blow of my mother’s final act toward me, because her death wasn’t the end of her narcissistic meanness.
It’s this part of the story where Edith’s life lesson from 35 years ago finally comes into play.
A month after my mother passed, the brother handling her estate sent me a package. I had to sign for it at the post office, so I knew it held something of legal importance. Inside was a portrait of me as a baby that had hung in my mother’s room beside those of my brothers. There was also some necessary correspondence about a life insurance policy on which I was named beneficiary along with my siblings.
Included in the package was a note, sealed in an envelope with my first name on it. My mother wrote it a day after my final visit to her, several days before she passed and obviously in anticipation of soon losing competence as she went off her medications. My brother was instructed to not deliver it to me until after she had passed.
Her note was brief, telling me that my recent visits were insufficient and she was excluding me from her estate.
Not an unexpected action, but still, such a narcissistic move, to take the knife and twist it, one last time in such a personal way.
If I had wondered before, I now had proof, written in her own hand: she never really loved me. Narcissists can’t love others. To her, I was never enough, always a disappointment, and she wanted to make absolutely certain I knew it.
I now understand that such lack of love is the legacy of a narcissistic parent. It was silly of me to ever think she loved me, or could. But I was slow to grasp the full import of narcissism, to admit that my mother was a narcissist, because even that was shameful, and so it still came as a shocking gut punch to have her confirm it in her own shaky handwriting, reaching from beyond the grave.
I ran to my bed and lay there crying, first thinking What sort of parent does that? and then saying to myself over and over, “I am loveable. I am loveable.”
Cheesy as it sounds, the shock of her note brought complete clarity in an instant: she was a narcissist; I did grow up feeling unloved, and was still struggling with the negative legacy of such a parent; it wasn’t my fault. I am loveable.
Thankfully I had a father who made sure I always knew that.
I’m still haunted by the visual of my mother writing that note, shaky and frail, knowing she’d be dead soon, fully intending to hurt me to the core, almost with her last breath.
Yet, oddly, my mother’s final act toward me, her note, ultimately set me free. I’m now free to speak my truth, where before, all my life really, I barely whispered it, because of the shame and guilt, because it would upset her.
I no longer care, and she’s not here to complain.
Among the paperwork in that package was this question from my brother: did I want some of my mother’s ashes?
Edith’s story instantly came to mind.
No, I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine any appropriate, respectful thing I would have done with them because my mother didn’t leave me with a loving legacy. Instead, she held me back most of my life, caused me untold emotional pain, had me questioning my own sanity, set the rest of the family against me, and took the opportunity to stab me in the back one last time after I extended an olive branch.
Edith’s lesson, the one I didn’t fully understand until recently, was this: abusers can’t expect their victims to mourn their passing.
Let their ashes blow away in the wind. They’re gone. Good riddance.
A new way of living begins.
Thank you, Edith.