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.

41 thoughts on “Mary Ness

    1. It was a time during which people wanted to cover up anything that seemed at all inappropriate going on in their families. I imagine their lives were hard and they reacted by being hard against each other.

  1. such an intriguing and poignant story from a number of fronts. My mother was adopted in Oklahoma in 1938 when she was four and best guess seems to be her mother became pregnant out of wedlock. Her parents forbade anyone in the extended family to mention the adoption to my mother or anyone else in the family, which of course was not uncommon at the time. (Shame from not being to be have children on their own?) Even though we assumed she was adopted because of the circumstantial evidence, we didn’t have evidence until after my grandmother died and my mother found the paperwork while going through her remains.

    The story of your father and his briefcase captures the imagination, even if there wasn’t the court papers, in that there is sometimes objects, which would otherwise be considered mundane (slide ruler with companion carrier), but that carry with a powerful essence of the person. I suppose for me the mundane things in the world carry much more intrigue than spectacular or extraordinary. Maybe it is a way to celebrate, rather than deny, that we, as mere human beings, are for the most part mundane and there is nothing wrong with that.

    Still, the fact that your father chose to keep those particular documents when he didn’t want to become involved is fascinating in its own right. My own mind runs to the notion that they must have had some allegorical or metaphorical purpose that informed his view. The mind is always seemingly reaching for explanation, but maybe it is just best to embrace the mysteriousness that even the closest people are to us. We can’t even begin to fully know ourselves.

    1. Wow Doug – your comment could be a blog post in itself. I’m of the same mind as you regarding metaphorical purpose. Sometimes we hold onto things for reasons we don’t completely understand. If we’re lucky, we figure it out. I’m not sure my father did; it might have been too painful. He wouldn’t talk about his family.

      1. i totally agree that there are times (most of the time?) that we don’t completely understand why we hold onto to things…the compulsion buried in the subconscious where language cannot tread and we must wait for it to bubble up in our dreams or maybe triggered by some work of art.

  2. We posted almost together and I have this vision that you and I were writing at the same time. Our keys matching in the moment, but the words fell in a different order. Your story is everything that mine is not, yet I consider them to be similar. The sadness, the betrayal, the mystery, the death, the distant spots upon the face of the earth. Everything unknown and ignorance is part of our disinterest. How things change when the bullet finds the brain of a loved one; when the money appears to be within our grasp and the story jumps upon our body and kicks us in the head. Otherwise, Aleppo is far away from your dad’s tattered briefcase. Yet, they are close, at least for me. Thanks for a great piece of writing. Your pal. Duke

  3. I think your imagination is convenient and it’s best you write it down if you pass it on. Not everyone is such a good detective.
    What a drama.

  4. This really is beautiful, Jan. I love the way you spin the tale, and as someone from a family that has seen its share of sad battles over relatively small amounts of money, I feel the pain in a personal way. Mostly, though, I feel for poor Mary–lord what happened to that poor little kid?–and your dad who got dragged into the ugliness. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be thinking about this for a good long time.

    1. Thanks Mary – the nephew/son was almost seventy and living in a mobile home in West Virginia. I have no idea if it was a surprise or not.

  5. Such a sad story Jan. And what about the webs some people weave! But what I’ve taken away from all this – more than anything else – is how strong and principled a man your father was.

    1. Thanks Colm. He wasn’t always the easiest person to live with but he would never fight with anyone over money (which meant he was often cheated!)

  6. It’s sad to think that someone probably suffered some sort of abuse and then paid with obscurity. It’s even sadder to think that the only time some of her relatives would care, was when money was involved.

    1. Sorry to hear. I didn’t inherit anything from my father (except the tattered briefcase) and don’t expect there to be much from my mother. So they’ll be nothing left for my sibs and me to fight over. Makes it a little simpler.

  7. i know it is awfully sad but equally, with the protagonists gone it remains a fascinating glimpse into so many worlds of deceit, stupid conformity, cruelty especially to young women and greed. I look forward to reading your book!

  8. Quite a story Jan – and well written. I too had a great aunt with a mysterious past, but I’m not sure my family would like it if I posted it. (I may have to wait until they are gone!)

  9. You have a novel right here – a truthful memoir in which you have beautifully filled in the blanks. I believe in the importance in bringing forth the truth and the light of someone who was forced, perhaps, into darkness during her life.

  10. What a story. The silence in people’s outer lives, not so long ago. Makes me wonder what went on in Mary Ness’s head. Was she ashamed? Defiant? Did she think at all? Your inconvenient imagination sings beautifully.

  11. Thanks JB – I think she was made to feel ashamed. My grandmother was as straight laced as they come although there is evidence that she herself was a bit of a hypocrite. Aren’t we all at some point or another?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s