Beryl had her first brush with death when she was twelve. She wasn't fighting still another attack of bronchitis, but her 94-year-old great-grand Aunt Fiona had just passed, and Beryl's Mom asked her to help settle the estate.
Fiona had outlived spouse, children, and siblings, and her dozens of living relatives generally kept their distance. Mom was the only one to visit on a regular basis. Fiona's once-huge nest egg had shrunk to the size of a pinto bean, and her will left all her money--three thousand two hundred and thirty-seven dollars in a credit union account--to Mom.
The old lady also named Mom executor. It was Mom who had to dispose of the chairs, tables, sofas, beds, china, glassware, paintings and myriad knickknacks Fiona had accumulated during a long, acquisitive life and stuffed into a one-bedroom apartment.
Now Mom had a heart as big as Texas, but the organizing skills of an adolescent gnat. Confusion beset her. "What shall I do now?" she asked her terse, logical daughter.
"Hold a memorial" was Beryl's short, snappy answer.
And so it happened that two weeks later, dozens of nephews, nieces and cousins of various removes shoehorned themselves, and sometimes their children and dogs, into Fiona's cramped flat.
These relatives immediately noticed the years had transformed what once seemed like a pile of dated rubbish into a gold mine of collectibles. Some pieces even qualified as genuine antiques. Nearly all these goods translated into wads of cash so family members clamored for keepsakes they never planned to keep.
The uproar sent Mom into a second, deeper, state of confusion. Who deserved what? How could she choose? She had no idea, and before she took the time to think out the problem or turn to Beryl for guidance, she blurted, "Take whatever you wish."
Those four words unleashed a tornado of greed. In the miniscule dining area, husky, deep-voiced Cousin Clementine grabbed a china creamer in the shape of a cow at the very moment willowy, soft-spoken Great-grand-niece Mary Alice did the same. Although both women already owned creamers, they lusted for the cow. Clementine's greater heft and deeper voice won the day and the ceramic bovine.
At the same time, Skippy, a peppy six-week-old terrier with a keen sense of smell, sniffed a platter of salami canapes and broke away from Tommy, his five-year-old master. The puppy ran and Tommy gave chase. Both hit a pair of women arguing over a cut glass fruit bowl. The women lost their hold on the dish, and it crashed to the floor.
Nor were the male relatives indifferent to the wealth of goods. Great-grand nephew Oswald and Fifth Cousin Bertram, who both ran antique shops, tussled over a fan-back chair they suspected dated back to the 1820s. Oswald held the shaky back and Bertram the loose legs. They huffed and they puffed until the chair fell apart.
Scenes like these repeated themselves all over the apartment. Lifelong friendships turned into enmity. There was little bloodshed, but the floor was strewn with chips of mahogany, shards of glass and china, and shreds of lace and linen. After the others left, Mom asked Beryl, "Why did it come to this?"
"Lack of planning," the girl said. "Everyone should make a list of every item they own, and next to it, the name of the person they would like to receive it. This way you avoid confusion and confrontation. The whole point is to die neatly."
Mom objected. "Many people won't go to the trouble."
"I'll talk to them."
For ten years Beryl did nothing of the kind for she was so comely young men occupied all her spare time. At twenty-two she met Bud. He was as smart and attractive as she and much more charming. Within a month, he proposed marriage, and she said yes. Matrimony would give her the time to lecture the whole family on post mortem planning.
Mom was Beryl's first convert, but then the girl turned to Grandfather Nigel. She asked if he had written a remembrance list for settling his estate. When he answered no, she delivered her litany. "Everyone should write down every item they own, and next to it, the name of the person they would like to receive it. This way you avoid confusion and confrontation. The whole point is to die neatly."
Nigel chuckled and shook his head. "Imagine someone your age worrying about a death that may not occur for decades." He launched into hearty laughter that turned into a coughing fit. Beryl explained she and Bud had a wedding to plan, and she kissed Nigel goodbye. A year later, he died of lung disease.
His widow Honoria almost perished of grief. Beryl asked about her health.
"Not so hot," Honoria said.
"Then shouldn't you make plans for settling the estate?"
I've made a will."
What about all the goods you leave behind Beryl said.
That matter will take care of itself, Honoria said.
Beryl delivered her litany. Everyone should write down every item they own, and then, next it, the name of the person they would like to receive it. This way you avoid confusion and confrontation. This way you avoid confusion and confrontation. The whole point is to die neatly.
I trust my family. Everything will progress smoothly. Honoria drew lips into a tight line. The matter was closed.
Seven months later, Honoria was dead. The memorial turned into the usual family fracas.
Mom was distraught all over again, Beryl looked like virtue rewarded. "I'll have to make my speech to Aunt Felicity."
She caught her mother's sister, who reported on the world scene, just before an assignment to Katmandu. "I have only fifteen minutes to catch my plane," her aunt said. "Talk fast."
Beryl delivered her litany almost as one word. "Everyone should make a list of every item they own, and next to it, the name of the person they would like to receive it after death. This way you avoid confusion and confrontation. The whole point is to die neatly."
"Sounds great," Felicity said. "I'll do it when I have time."
Five months later, a bush pilot ferrying Felicity to a remote Alaskan village realized his small plane was out of gas just as it plunged into the Bering Sea. From then on, Beryl"s aunt had an eternity of time.
The news shook Beryl. Death was always on the prowl. She would have to shake Bud out of his usual indifference. "You know the speech." She began, "Everyone should write down every item they own--"
Her husband cut in, "And next to it, the name of the person they would like to receive it after death. Yeah, I've heard you recite that litany to your grandparents, your aunt, our kids and the spouses of our kids. Let me see the list you've made out. Or is it a case of "Do what I say, not what I do?"
Beryl turned red with rage. How could he doubt her? "I took care of my own stuff years ago. I keep the list in the top right-hand drawer of my desk. Have you drawn up yours yet? Bud shook his head. "Then you'd better start."
Bud turned back to his newspaper. "That will take a lot of thought."
Beryl was furious. She also felt an attack of bronchitis coming on. "Bud!" she shouted.
Her husband lifted his head from the team standings. "I have plenty of time. During my last physical, Dr. Harris said I should live to be a hundred."
As it turned out, Dr. Harris had more skill with his stethoscope than his crystal ball. He failed to foresee a huge truck crashing into Bud's puny hybrid with Bud inside it.
Bud and Beryl had enjoyed a good marriage. He was her friend, confidante, lover, and the chief taster and critic of her fanciest dishes. Their children were grown and gone now. Beryl had no one to cook for. The stove stood unused, the kitchen implements untouched. What was the point of broiling a steak without Bud to point out it needed a sprinkle of sea salt?
Beryl decided to go to the senior center for lunch and sociability. The food turned out to be only marginally tasteless, but some of the women she met there were bright and interesting. She enjoyed their company.
One day, as the women were discussing same-sex marriage, a wisp of a man introduced himself as Waldo and asked if he could join in.
Man-crazy Roz flashed an incandescent smile and patted the empty chair beside her. People-pleaser Annie murmured, "Yes, of course."
Beryl sized up the little fellow as gay and asked, "Have you had any personal experience?"
"With marriage, yes, but in matters of the heart, I still prefer the ladies."
There were sighs of relief all around the table.
Waldo became a regular, adding rough-hewn common sense to their high-flown discussions. He was polite to everyone, but perhaps a bit more so to Beryl. In the ladies room, Annie smiled roguishly. "I think Waldo has an eye for you."
Beryl examined herself in the mirror over the sink and laughed. "Men don't have an eye for gray hair and wrinkles."
Annie shook her finger at Beryl. "You're still a very pretty woman."
Beryl dismissed what Annie said until Waldo asked her to join him for coffee. Annie was right. The man did seem to like her.
Cups of cappuccino led to glasses of Chianti. Finally, Waldo screwed up the courage to ask her to dine at his place.
His small bungalow was a shrine to rough-and-tumble male housekeeping. Dust kittens and piles of clothing lay everywhere. Waldo caught Beryl looking at the large unmade bed. The man said, "I wanted to see which sheets you wanted."
Beryl bit her tongue and guided him through basic bed-making. Waldo rushed over to embrace her, grabbing her so hard she lost her balance and fell onto the bed.
At that point she discovered that his hair and build might be wispy, but one crucial part of him was not. In short, they became lovers.
Sex was no problem, but what would they do in the brief time between sessions of love-making? She swam; he played tennis. He liked bowling; she favored art movies. Reality shows glued Beryl's eyes to the TV screen; Waldo preferred sports.
They decided to devote more time to sex and compromise on the rest. Beryl bought a tennis racket and Waldo found swim shorts; she learned to bowl and he napped while his sweetheart read subtitles. Finally she asked him to move into her tidy house. Neither wanted to marry, and they agreed to leave their wills as they were.
A month into their unmarried bliss, Beryl realized the two of them had never had a conversation longer than three sentences. She was dying of boredom. She felt the first inklings of a bronchitis attack, and soon afterward she developed a case of pneumonia so severe it warranted a stay in the hospital and a round of antibiotics
A week later her doctor took Waldo aside. "None of the pills seems to have any effect. I can only prescribe medications to keep her comfortable."
He turned to leave, but Waldo caught him by the sleeve. "Isn't she going to get well?"
The doctor shrugged. "We can always hope.'
Waldo wiped away tears and returned to Beryl's bedside. Suddenly, she asked about his remembrance list. He blurted out the awful revelation: Waldo had not handled the chore, nor had any member of his family.
Within seconds, Beryl threw back the covers and struggled to her feet. There was no time to waste. She would ignore her symptoms and instruct these people how to die neatly. Now she had plenty to live for.
Beryl went to work with a vengeance, but all the proselytizing wore her out and eventually shortened her stay on earth.
After the funeral, Waldo rushed to her desk. Eager to get his hands on Beryl's own remembrance list and carry out her wishes, he unlocked the top right-hand drawer and found bills, canceled checks, and finally, a slim folder marked "Remembrance List." Inside there was a single page with only a few entries and the cryptic instructions, "Find time to write more."
Now Waldo faced the problem Beryl wanted to avoid. Day after day, he pondered and he wondered what was the right thing to do. Finally he set upon a course of action Beryl had never considered but squared with her kind, giving nature. He kept for himself whatever he could use and packed the rest neatly into boxes he donated to charity.