"Hey, do you know where Chip's will is?" My brother-in-law asked my mother. Chip bragged often about his wealth. Some family members whispered he was worth ten million dollars.
My sister, brother-in-law, my husband, and I had gathered in Portland, Maine, at my mother's home. Chip, her husband of forty-two years, had passed away at age eighty-six.
Mom and Chip had just moved into an assisted-living facility where the predominant decorating colors were orange and brown. Cheap commercial art depicting sailing scenes hung along the hallways above dark brown institutional carpeting with a plastic sheen that reflected the fluorescent lighting overhead. When I arrived at her apartment, she sat in a faded armchair surrounded by half unpacked boxes, dirty dishes, and weeks of unopened mail. Piles of newspapers and magazines sat on her kitchen counters and empty chairs. The small armchair seemed to swallow her tiny five-foot frame. Her eyes were red with dark circles underneath. She had just recovered from pneumonia and walked slowly.
We helped my mother unpack, clean, and organize her new apartment after Chip's passing. We sorted through his clothing and years of golf memorabilia. My mother often sobbed when she came across photos of the two of them or with friends at expensive restaurants.
Chip had been in our lives since we were children. My sister and I first met him at his Tudor house when we were nine and ten years old. My mother and father divorced, and we lived with my father, visiting my mother every couple of weeks. She cried often and told us she had trouble being happy. But she seemed ecstatic when she introduced us to Chip, a tall, imposing business executive with gray hair who alternated between a suit jacket and a golf shirt. He stood over us and smiled. "There's a collection of ladies' hats in the basement, girls." We ran downstairs and tried on all the hats.
Over the years, I collected many memories of him. His wedding to my mother at the country club when I was eleven, the Christmases where he gave us new dresses, visits to their home in New Hampshire where he would take us out for a lobster dinner. And there were occasional visits with his four older children, whom he didn't see much, but whom I looked up to simply because they were older.
Chip's marriage to my mother was tumultuous, with many highs and lows. She often spoke of leaving him, and they separated multiple times and even went through a divorce and remarriage. She complained, "He's often mad and gives me the silent treatment for days." But my mother chose repeatedly to stay with him.
I blinked back tears as we stepped into the unremarkable funeral home. It felt surreal that Chip was no longer with us. In the room where his service was being held, a slideshow clicked through pictures of all of us. During the funeral, I gave a speech about how he was a second father to me, giving me advice, and once lending me money.
Afterward, my eldest stepbrother embraced me. "You know, you may not have been his biological daughter, but you were definitely his daughter!"
When we returned to my mother's apartment, my brother-in-law asked about Chip's will.
"The will is on that bookshelf," my mother said weakly. "There was one after that, but it's been the same for years."
I pulled out the thick, red legal binder. My stomach churned and my heart pounded as I read the will.
"Basically, he left everything to his kids, nothing to Mom, and they're responsible for taking care of her. My sister and I were not mentioned at all," I said flatly.
Silence filled the room as my words hung in the air.
My sister and I felt as if someone had punched us in the gut. I fought the urge to hurl the binder through the window. I glared at my mother, who looked away, focusing on the floor.
"Did you know we weren't in this will?" I asked her.
"Yes, I did," she admitted after a long pause.
Later, I tearfully talked with my husband. "I can't believe this. He wasn't even close to his kids."
I sifted through my memories, searching for any sign he cared. I recalled my last memory a few months before he died. Despite his frailty, he visited my mother in the hospital and kissed her several times.
I smiled at him. "Hey, Dad, do you want me to come over and visit you tomorrow?"
"Well, I'm not sure. I'm pretty tired," he replied before leaving.
The day after I read his will, I had a conversation with my mother. "You knew all along what was in that will. So why did you encourage us to treat Chip like a father?"
"I guess I thought it would be better for me if you did."
My mother had fabricated part of our relationship with Chip. She had orchestrated our interactions with him, always insisting we talk with him when we called her, telling us what gifts to send him on his birthday, Christmas, and Father's Day.
Initially, I felt betrayed. It went beyond the monetary aspect; it was the realization that Chip didn't value our relationship as much as I did. He didn't view me as his daughter, and his will showed he only valued his biological children. What was even more astonishing was that he hadn't left anything for my mother. She believed she would receive a certain amount, but she wasn't aware that his children would control and distribute it.
Over time, the enormity of this situation weighed upon me, and I saw things from my mother's perspective. Despite their challenging marriage, her primary relationship had been with her husband, and she had invested everything in their life together. Our gifts and phone calls to him were an effort to make her difficult married life easier, and I felt sorry for her. She became frailer and more worried about the future. She alternated between saying, "That bastard!" and "How will I pay my expenses if they don't give me any money?"
Her worries were not unfounded. Within weeks, my step siblings refused to pay for furniture that she needed in her new apartment. They refused to pay for her airline ticket to visit my sister and me. Eventually, we had to engage a lawyer on her behalf. For the next two years, we fought his estate to secure her future. Eventually, we prevailed. But over time, my mother's feelings of love for Chip subsided, and she rewrote their history together. In the end, we all inherited a lot of truth, but no one more so than my mother.
Anne E. Beall is an award-winning author whose books have been featured in People Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Sun, Hers Magazine, Ms. Career Girl, and she's been interviewed by NBC, NPR, and WGN. She received her PhD in social psychology from Yale University and is the founder of the strategic market-research firm, Beall Research.