Mary Ness

Dear Sister,

After you called I opened Dad’s tattered briefcase. I’m not sure what I expected.  Perhaps something as mundane as lecture notes that he never got around to throwing away or an old slide rule. I was right about the slide rule.  From the size and condition, it was probably a college graduation present. I had to chuckle at the belt hook on its leather sleeve because Dad was the only professor nerdy enough to hang a foot long slide rule from his belt and strut all over campus.


Another mystery of the tattered briefcase was a pair of beaded moccasins which fit me just fine. I paddled around the house wondering who had worn them before me – an Indian chief or his squaw?  They were in too fine a condition to have been worn everyday and certainly too fancy to wear while scalping blue-eyed devils. I googled their worth and quickly removed them from my smelly feet and put them on the

The moccasins sat on a third mystery.  Copies of a law suit filed in 1982. Isn’t it funny what people decide to hang onto?  I’m guiltier than most of hoarding things that will mean nothing to my children. My guess is they’ll just say:  “Bring on the dumpsters.” 

But these papers meant something to Dad otherwise why would he have held onto them so long?  You know me; I had to know why and so I read through them.  

The law suit pertained to the estate of Mary Ness who died in Fargo North Dakota in 1981. She died intestate which meant she had no will.  You’re probably wondering who she was. I have to admit, I didn’t put two and two together right away either but – remember those five dollar checks that came faithfully on birthdays and Christmas from an aunt we never met but to whom we had to write thank you notes. Well, that was Mary Ness, Dad’s aunt.  And who filed the suit?  Dad’s sister and our cousins.

When you die intestate, the state decides who inherits your property but before they do, they have to conduct a search for all of your living relatives. In her case the state discovered that from the age of fourteen Mary Ness hid what she must have considered a shameful past.  When she met Elmer, our GrandMother’s brother, she claimed to be an orphan with no living relatives.  Elmer, badly wounded in WWI, suffered for twenty years until alcoholism did him in, leaving Mary in the talons of that beacon of virtue and propriety GrandMother Myrtle. You remember how kind-hearted and non-judgmental GrandMother was, don’t you?  Ha! Even her own mother was scared shitless of her. 

Mary never remarried and never had kids.  She lived her entire life in North Dakota where she worked as a clerk. And when she grew old and infirm, our aunt took care of her with the assurance that she would inherit her estate of approximately $250,000, mostly held in bonds. 


Only picture I could find of a young Mary Ness.

You’ve probably guessed the outcome of the state’s search.  Mary Ness lied.  She was not an orphan. She was an outcast. The search for heirs revealed she had a living brother and sister, two nephews and a niece, all of whom – except for one of the nephews – lived in small farming towns in North Dakota and Minnesota. When Mary Ness’ “family” found out money was involved,  they promptly came forward. One of the “nephews” even produced a birth certificate proving that Mary was his mother and not her sister, Gerta, who raised him. 

The nephew’s birth certificate (dated Feb 17, 1914) states that his father was Vernon Scott, 27, a farmer and Gerta’s husband. His mother was listed as Mary Ness, 22, a housewife born in North Dakota.  However, lawyers for the state quickly discovered that Mary Ness was born in Sweden in 1899 which would have made her 14 when the boy was born; not 22.

As to what happened, who knows.  Did Mary Ness seduce her sister’s husband?  Was she raped?  The only thing we know is that after the birth, she was shuttled off to the city to try to make it on her own, where she met Elmer, himself a broken man.  Did he know her history?  If he did, it died with him.98444731_134965700127

Dad’s sister quickly latched upon all of these inconsistencies and contested the state’s decision. She went so far as to claim she was ‘betrayed’ by Mary because she and Dad were led to believe they were her only heirs.  Oh, how Dad hated to be part of that ugly mess. One of the documents is a notarized statement from him that he wanted nothing to do with any of any proceeds gained as a part of the suit. Sadly the bulk of the inheritance went to a family that turned their back on a fourteen year old girl. 


They’re all dead now.  The aunts, the cousins and all who came before them. Their secrets in briefcases, saved by someone who didn’t want to remember, inherited by someone with an inconvenient imagination.

Adventures in Chasing Women

Sharing a great one from TinHats as my computer is on the fritz and I am at the mercy of giant fingers and tiny screen and the frogging – thx Almighty Gaudy for spellcheck – eye foam. It’s been joyous dealing with you Snapple .

tin hats

The bus was just beginning to load.  Snow was still drifting in the shade, but the sun was doing its best to deteriorate the icy, hard packs.  The station was full of African men in used English clothing and shiny shoes.  They looked as if they were going to work at low-paid jobs in early 20th century London.  The barrel-shaped women were smiling and talking and seemed like flowers in primary colors intent upon brightening the lives of children and other women.

He was the only white person around and he worshiped everything he saw.  For no good reason, he thought about the time he took off his shoes and pissed on an electric fence.  In his mind, he could see the psilocybin mushrooms growing in the cow shit as he urinated on the thin wire.  That feeling somehow tapped into another day, somewhere along a jungle border, when…

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Running to the Edge of the World

tin hats

“Would you like another drink?”

“No thanks.”

“You don’t seem very happy right now.”

“Parties…I’ve never liked them.”

“Why not?”

“No reason….”

The music died and there was only the sound of insects and low voices.  The full moon winked in the clouds beneath the apathetic stars.

“When I was a teenager a girl invited me to her birthday party.  Her name was Francine.  She wasn’t very popular.  No friends to speak of.  You know the type I’m sure.  She was tall and boyish, gangling with thin arms and big feet.  And I had befriended her because she liked to run.  She wasn’t fast or anything, she just liked to run in the countryside, across the fields and up the dirt trails above our little town.  We would take our dogs and run in the evening as the sun slowly disappeared in the trees.  We always said we were running…

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What We’ve Missed

Dear J,

I’ve been writing you letters in my mind. They swell up whenever I see pictures of your grandchildren – age three and one – posted on the Facebook as everything is these days. You would have gotten yourself into big trouble on Facebook with an inappropriate comment or two, just as I have. But in your case alcohol would not be to blame because you did not drink. Until you knew it was the end and then you said perhaps I’ll have a glass or two. That night we drove to Grizzly Peak and watched the flamed-out sun sink into the Pacific and you sang “Farewell Angelina, the skies are on fire and I must go.”  It took us back to where we began, a basement on Washington Street, a record player, incense, your love of apocalyptic visions and mine of fairy tale endings.  Eventually we blended into Tolkien. 

We left each other’s lives because of the men we married which is how many relationships between women end.  But somehow we managed to stay in touch, if only via a yearly phone call on our birthdays which would go on for hours and cost a fortune. We missed seeing each other’s children grow. We missed being there for each other during long and painful divorces and the death of parents. In fact if it hadn’t been for your cancer, we might never have made that last ditch effort to recapture our youth.

I try not to be maudlin; I try not to cry but when I see those darling faces I can’t help but think of a line from one of my favorite movies, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.


How you’d have loved the North Cape and the Fjords and the Midnight Sun. To sail across the reef at Barbados where the blue water turns to green. To the Falklands where a southernly gale rips the whole sea white. What we’ve missed Lucia, what we’ve both missed.

We said our good-byes at the TSA checkin. Well, it’s more like we yelled good-bye. I was being dragged to the exit for allegedly trying to “smuggle” my grandmother’s tiny manicure set through security and you were waiting in a wheelchair for someone to take you to the gate. The poor TSA agent’s body trembled. He was just doing his job. Of course you made it worse by telling him you had terminal cancer.

I got to keep my grandmother’s ivory manicure set but I lost you.


Jan, the Fratz of Pooh

My Masterpiece

While checking over my document for “widows” and “orphans” I ran into some truly horrid writing so I’ve suspended my re-pub effort and am going to post some pieces from TinHats. First, the Duke.

tin hats

Stop straining.  Don’t talk and calm your heart…down, down, down…along the spine between the shoulder blades and then upwards, into the chest.

Destroyed buildings in remote parts of the world were better than five-star hotels. I was here to scout for a narrow stretch of the river suitable to construct a footbridge. The old bridge had been cut by the military and the rusty cables were dragging in the current of clear mountain water.  The banks had been eroded by the rains and on the other side I could see a few Indian huts and a line of smoke in the trees.  I was just north of the Ixil Triangle in Guatemala.  The war was sputtering to an end, but try telling that to landmines or people disappeared by the military or potshot by some grim band of the EGP.

Breathe evenly; otherwise the hyperventilation will start.

My masterpiece, the…

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Onward Methuselah, Part Three

My foray into self-publishing was derailed this week. Not by my own procrastinations but by the death of a family member. It wasn’t an unexpected death but death always seems so sudden and absolute even when expected. So I allowed myself a swig of the morose with a chaser of the guilt for not doing more, listened to ragtime and wrote badly.

But yesterday I got back to business. I logged onto CreateSpace and finally began the process. The first thing you do is either enter your IBSN or you buy one from CS ($99) or you take a chance and accept their offer of a free one. Then you download one of their Microsoft Word templates.


The Microsoft Clippy – used to pop up to “help” you use Word. I used to hate this guy!

Now, you don’t have to use their templates. They have a whole list of rules and regulations regarding things like “bleed space,” embedding fonts, eliminating orphans and widows, etc., etc.,  you can apply to your existing MS to get it print ready.  In my humble opinion, only do this if you consider yourself a Word expert. They made my eyeballs sting and I was a tech writer and documentation manager for years.

So I downloaded a version of the template with boilerplate text so I could see what they wanted a doc to look like.  Holy Cow.  It looked exactly like the ready-for-print version of my MS that my publisher sent me before they went belly up. I even did a Select All/Copy on my MS and a Paste into the blank template – almost identical. The one difference was a Table of Contents.  One of my books does not have a TOC.  So I sent an email to CreateSpace’s customer support email explaining the situation and asking if a TOC was necessary.  This was the response I received:

Hello Jan,

Thanks for contacting us about including table of contents in your title. I will be happy to assist you with your inquiry.

Kindly note, CreateSpace will not include a table of contents in your designed interior unless you have included one in your manuscript. You are responsible for listing the chapter and section headings you would like to appear in your table of contents.

In this case, you’ll need to include the table of contents in the interior file and then submit it accordingly.

th-3The rather oddly put answer was followed seconds later by this:

Hello Jan,

I’m sorry for writing another e-mail. Please disregard my previous e-mail as it was sent in error.

In my previous e-mail, I’ve missed to address the PDF part and sincerely apologize if this is of any disappointment.

CreateSpace will not include a table of contents in your designed interior unless you have included one in your manuscript. In this case, you’ll need to include the table of contents in the interior file and then submit it accordingly.

We appreciate your patience and understanding.

Unfortunately I don’t think I do understand!  Do you?

I decided it’s easier and less time consuming to upload the files and wait for their experts to yell at me! In the words of Genghis Trump “It’s easier to apologize than to beg permission.”

Without googling, does anyone know who is actually credited with that phrase?