Someone I know from my place of work died recently. He’d had an interesting life: He’d served in the military then done well in academia. He married four times and had a number of children. As the person who processed his expense reports, I can say that in very recent years he spent months at a time in England and Italy, and that he ate well–like I imagine Henry the 8th would have dined if he’d had a per diem. His receipts reported spirits with every meal, and things like Shepherds Pie and quail.
For almost a year, the gentleman was ill and seldom visited our offices. The few times he came in, he seemed mostly peeved at his condition, which was revealing itself to be one with finite outcome. Upon his death, it has been his second wife, with the help of two various sons who has emerged to handle his large library, items in his office and the number of bills that he received to his work mailbox. When the mail began to transition and be address to “Executor of the Estate,” I called to confirm that this was she. This was when she revealed to me that there was, as of yet, no formal executor–because there was no will!
I found this both surprising, and I guess, not. On one hand, he had fair warning. On the other, maybe he figured that after he was gone, it didn’t really matter. Maybe he’d had conversations and things were pretty much worked out in ways one can’t see from a distance.
But as the person opening doors, filing paperwork and procuring boxes for family members trying to work their way through the rooms full of books, papers, thoughts and ongoing business that one man accrues in a life, I could only be struck by how little anyone seemed to be prepared for this eventuality. And really, the choice not to make a will, even given a good six month lead time, seems somewhat self-involved and presuming–qualities some might have discerned in him even before his death.
My father had a will, but it has still taken my mother years to go through the myriad of things left behind. She continues to go through things, purging and storing and making decisions largely, I think, so that we–their children–won’t have to. Although it is hopefully decade away still, she is putting thought into things so that her possession and affairs will be as easily dealt with as possible. Basically she is the opposite of presuming when it comes to such matters.
But the other night as I was thinking about this, I thought: What about my end of the bargain? An obituary seems the very least one could do in such a situation, and I realized I wasn’t sure what my mother’s parents’ names were, or even where she was born! Since I was using a Southwest voucher and making an impromptu trip to Indiana, I decided it was time to do for real something I have been promising to do for a couple of years–try to ask the questions that in the future I will wish that I had asked. And this time, instead of assuming that I could come up with some good questions, I consulted the internet, something like “How to Interview a Family Member,” and of course, because it’s the internet, found several articles on taking a Family History, here and here and here. A lot of the questions are similar. I ended up with a double space list of three pages, and after dinner this evening, turned on the recorder, and we had Part I of a very interesting conversation!