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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Where There’s A Will, There’s A Relative–The Endless, Inevitable Family Massacres After One Is Dead And Gone

The Packers were the most loving, tightly-knit, congenial, and happy family that anyone in Ballard Heights had every known.  Bill and Mary were loved, respected, and admired by their three children  for their achievements (Mary was a novelist and Harold a doctor), their kindness, and their unequivocal support.  There was nothing their parents could do wrong, and the children were devoted to Mom and Pop well into their late middle age.

Most of their friends and neighbors who were grappling with insolent adolescents, testy wives, and errant husbands took great hope from the Packer family.,  Not all families had to be like their own – coming apart at the seams, loose-hinged, and wobbling on unsteady, cracked foundations – and if the Packers could not only stay together but do so in a Fifties marvelously romantic way, then perhaps marriage and family was not the ill-chosen, often penitential institution it seemed to be.

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Life went on this way for a number of years.  The Packer daughters grew up and started their own families but always maintained close contact with their parents.  Lucy, the youngest sibling called Pop every day to check in on him, on his heart troubles, on his beloved petunias, and on the weather.  She was dutiful and loving, caring and generous with her time.  The other children were no less concerned and solicitous and the eldest, Robbie, who lived close by saw her parents every weekend, took them out to dinner, cooked for them, and sat on the verandah and talked about old times and life in general.

When Mom died, the children were all distraught.  Losing a parent was one thing, but to lose a mother as so devoted and close to them was another.  They grieved openly for months and seemed inconsolable.  Thanks to cousins, their local priest, and their many friends and colleagues, they managed their pain and slowly emerged from it.  They realized that now their duty was to Pop and to make his life as happy and as carefree as possible.  The children, eager and able to help, drew up a shared visitation plan.  Pop would never be alone and hopefully would live for many more productive happy years.

There were some frictions in the execution of the plan as might be expected – minor irritations about pulling one’s weight, absences, and even a lackadaisical almost indifferent attitude on the part of the middle daughter, Elsie.  Nothing that couldn’t be handled, of course, given the bond that existed among the siblings and the love they had for Pop, but disconcerting.  They had never disagreed on anything, were all in complete consonance and harmony, so even the slightest aberration from this pattern was worrisome.

Their worries were well-founded but not uncommon.  Each of the children by now had their own families, lives, and preoccupations; and as much as they loved and respected Pop, it was inevitable that their responsibility to him might fall behind that to their own families  Again, not surprisingly, the husbands of the three Packer girls were not always in complete agreement with the arrangement negotiated by them.  Why they should have to trek all that way to see Pop every single weekend was beyond them; and why didn’t he hire an accountant to handle his finances; and why on earth should they have to cater meals for him?

Image result for seven deadly sins jealousy medieval paintings

Slowly but surely the fissures within each of the children’s families became great fractures between them; and before long the children were barely talking to each other.  The seeds of mistrust and doubt had been sown, and on the fertile ground of jealousy, suspicion, and doubt, it was no wonder they didn’t come to blows.

When Pop died, the entire structure of the Packer family came apart.  The legal battles were long, incessant, and vindictive.  It wasn’t so much the money itself – all the children had done well on their own – it was the principle of the thing.  Pop’s will was not the equally-divided, fair, equitable distribution of resources the children had thought.  It was surprisingly inconsistent and arbitrary.  Large sums were given to charities no one had know the old man had ever supported.  The youngest child received far more than the other two because when the will was drawn up she was at loose ends, in a bad relationship, floundering, and helpless.  The fact that she had rebounded and recovered her balance and was at least able to take care of herself made no difference.  Pop had shown favorites, and now that he was dead and gone the other siblings had no way to plead or argue with him.

Added to the unequal disposition of the will was the middle daughter’s insistence that she had invested far more in the parents than her sisters, and was angered that Pop had, in surprisingly glowing terms for a legal document, cited her sister as the most able and independent of the children and therefore more deserving of his largesse.  So Betty Packer was caught between a ne’er-do-well sister on one side and on the other one who could do no wrong. 

The old man thought he was doing the right thing.  He loved his daughters equally but God had made them differently and so should they be treated.  There was no favoritism or discrimination in God’s world nor his.  Life was an unequal proposition but when this deterministic belief showed up in black and white in an incontrovertible will, it was despicable.  The spite, vengefulness, and eventual hatred among the three sisters was corrosive and destructive; but as everyone knows, family feuds are the most bitter and hateful of any. Worse was the fact that not only did the will seem biased and unfair, but the fact that because Pop had spent thousands on the wayward sister during her foundering days – a house, health care, car and insurance, private schools for the children – there was considerably less in his estate than there should have been; and while he appreciated all the extra attention and care given to her by his eldest daughter – itself worth thousands – and while he realized the opportunity cost of such care and the significant loss of the professional revenues associated with it, he did not change his will.

Image result for caricatures reading of the will

The Packers were not alone in their enmity.  Literature is full of stories of  wills, murder, and family destruction.  Hellman’s Little Foxes is but one, perhaps the best remembered because of the raw, jealously hateful nature of the family fight over money. 

Some of the best plays of the American theatre are about such torn, angry, and selfish families.  O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Moon for the Misbegotten, and Mourning Becomes Electra are all about disorder, misplaced emotions, and unfair advantage. Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes is the closest dramatic portrayal of the Hobarts.  Edward Albee who hated marriage but knew that it was the crucible of maturity, offered faint hope of family redemption in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and none in The American Dream. Arthur Miller’s The Price, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman were no different in their pessimistic view of families and moral principles.

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Even the most carefully-drawn wills are contested; family harmony and trust is irremediably lost as soon as the first page of the document is opened and read.  Suspicions and jealousies hidden for decades surface in a flash, wicked looks pass between siblings, hostility shown to the lawyer, and an explosive, violent anger shown to the dead parent.

Families by their very nature are jealous, suspicious, vengeful places.  Human nature is such that the exclusive, insistent demands of children and the competition between them is universal.  As much as parents try to be fair and equitable, the children never see it that way; and such doubts are never fully relieved.  Parents don’t get alone and neither do their children.  Try as they all might, the smallest family fissures are emotional chasms.

Edward Albee was very right when he said that without families we would never grow up.  The battlefields of childhood and adolescence prepare us for the real world.  He was very wrong when he suggested that maturity would result.  Fractured families produce fractured children whose memories are long, deep, and ineradicable. 

One can only hope that after one’s death there will be no feeding frenzy – no lions, jackals, and vultures ripping away at the departed; and yet one has to suppose that it will happen; but as we face eternity, it shouldn’t matter all that much.

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