“The Legacy” by Marlene Olin

20 October 2017 on Nonfiction   Tags: ,

My mother-in-law spent the last five years of her life writing and rewriting her will. She used whatever material was available—a paper napkin, a matchbook cover, a page torn from a magazine. It's not that Zoe had much to leave, but everything made the list.

A ten-year-old car. A sewing machine. A hutch filled with china knickknacks.

We were confident that she’d beat the odds. Zoe had breezed through surgery and radiation treatment. She was only sixty-three. And the tumor, we were told, had been fully encased—tucked like a fetus in her womb.

But Zoe never bothered with follow-up examinations. She was too busy for follow-up examinations. During the day, she supplemented her alimony payments by working at the mall. In the evenings, she stayed at home and knitted. Any free time she devoted to her list.

A dozen silver place settings. A pretty plate hanging on a wall.


Then a year after she received her diagnosis, her daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Lori was only thirty-eight and living in Orlando. Within a week, Zoe packed her things, rented a U-Haul, and drove four hours from Miami to central Florida. It was left to my husband, Michael, and his brother, David, to empty the apartment. There wasn't much.

A three-legged stool. A rusted pot. A picture with a broken frame.

Despite the doctors’ promises, Lori declined quickly. And to add to her misery, Lori’s husband left as well. Their children were seven, ten, and twelve.

“There's another woman,” Lori's husband announced. “Life’s too short not to be with the person you love.”

Everyone in the family scrambled to help. We took Lori to doctors’ appointments. When she was hospitalized, we painted and recarpeted her home. It was Zoe’s job to help with the kids. Even though shoes and clothes were in short supply, Zoe focused on her list.

A cloudy mirror. A gold chain. A set of heart-shaped spoons.

One morning my mother-in-law went to the dentist with a mouth full of decaying teeth. By the late afternoon, every single one was pulled. Zoe had neglected her mouth for years. But rather than spend the money on dental work, she opted for dentures. Then she managed to find a jeweler to melt and recast her old crowns. “What my grandchildren need,” Zoe insisted, “is something to remember me by.” Then she took out the list.

A necklace with a name. A pinkie ring. A bracelet with a charm.


Of all Zoe's children, Michael most closely resembled his father. Tall. Fair. Confident . When they walked, they put one hip ahead of the other, more of a strut than a stride. Her son David, on the other hand, was a Zoe clone. Tanned. Dark. The kind of guy who needed his mother more than she needed him.

She kept the list in her purse. There was always a list. “I'm leaving David the silver and Lori the hutch,” she'd say. Then the next week she'd change her mind. “Lori’s getting the silver. David, the hutch. Maybe the grandchildren will get the car. Can you sell the car?”

Every family has a deep pocket, the person who, by design or default, is in charge. Whenever someone needs cash or advice, they’re the go-to guys. My husband, the eldest of Zoe's three kids, was that person.

When Lori was divorced, we paid the attorney. When she died, we handled the funeral arrangements. And when Zoe’s cancer came back, it was up to us to drive once more to Orlando. Sitting on the examining table, wrapped in a paper gown, she still clenched the list.

“That plate on the wall. You know. The pretty antique. That's going to Burton. My brother Burton’s had his eye on that for forty years.”

As the end drew near, Zoe's apartment looked more like a garage sale than a home. Each item was tagged with a label and a designation. The list never left her side. She’d yank the oxygen tube from her nose, stick a cigarette in her mouth, and run her yellowed fingers up and down a pile of loose-leaf papers. The beneficiaries were no longer confined to family members. A friend. A coworker. The gardener.

“That umbrella stand goes to David. Samantha, my hoop earrings. Give Randi my turquoise necklace. Dylan, the painting above the bed.” Month by month, the list grew. Soon it was ten pages long.

A ceramic dog. A pair of wine glasses. A crystal vase.


As the go-to guy, it was my husband’s job to pay her bills, argue with insurance companies, smooth out any wrinkles. But each time she read and reread her will, never did his name appear. Michael never complained. His relationship with his mother was like a bookkeeping exercise. He doled out patience and money like they were payment for services rendered. An uneventful childhood. A roof over his head. Three square meals a day.

All he seemed to want were the scales to be even and his hands clean. When we’d visit his mother, he’d gaze at the heaps of broken gadgets and costume jewelry and threadbare purses piled along the walls. Then he’d whisper, “What could my mother possibly have that I could possibly need?”


Then one afternoon, as Zoe struggled for her final breaths, she asked us to sit by her side. My mother-in-law had come to the realization that the end was near, that her life was slipping away. While her thoughts were still clear and her strength intact, she struggled to say some last words.

“Promise me one thing,” she said.

Her voice had always been raspy. A smoker's voice. But now it was an octave lower. She gasped in asthmatic heaves then gave Michael the sort of side-glance she usually reserved for her ex-husband.

“The funeral,” she said. “I want you to pay for the funeral.”

Michael was on one side of the bed. I was on the other. By living frugally, Zoe had managed to save a decent sum. There was more than enough in her bank account for a casket, a plot, a service. Each of the grandchildren would divide what was left.

“Don't worry,” said Michael. “You have enough cash. There’s enough cash to cover everything.”

A mottled claw squeezed my husband’s hand. “My money? You want me to spend my own money?”

Michael’s face bleached white. Then he held his stomach like he'd been sucker-punched. Speechless, the two of us stared at my mother-in-law. The next day she died.


As always, we took care of the arrangements. The caterer served food for fifty. A stone was selected for her grave. The contents of her list were dispersed. The only item unaccounted for was the pretty plate hanging on her wall. It had been a fixture in Zoe’s kitchen for as long as I had known her. Parting with it was like closing a door.

“I guess I should call Burton,” said Michael.

Even though we had been married for over twenty years, I had only met Michael’s uncle twice. He never showed up for his sister’s funeral. The phone call to California was brief. Yes, he remembered the plate. The plate had been his mother’s. And yes, he wanted it back.

I ran my fingers up and down the curved edges of the porcelain. It was a farm scene, around two by three feet, an off-white background with the figures painted in blue. Lovely, really. The same colors as the dishes in my own cabinet. I lugged it off the wall and carried it to the UPS store. The clerk had me fill out the paperwork.

“You want insurance?” he asked.

I sighed and scratched my chin. “It's been in the family for years. I have no idea what it’s worth. $500? $1,000? $3,000? How do you put a price tag on something like this?”

A week later, Burton called to tell us that the plate had arrived in four pieces. But instead of sounding despondent, he was downright chipper.

“You insured it, right?”

My heart sank. I had loved that plate. For years I had fantasized about that plate hanging on my own kitchen wall. Maybe it could be glued together, I told him.

This time his voice was louder. “You insured it, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I insured it. I probably overinsured it.”

I could practically hear him doing a little dance. “Good,” he replied. “I've always hated that thing.”

A month later, I slipped a check for $3,000 in the mail to Burton. Though he never called, I assume he received it. Like most of our relatives, he only phones when he’s in a jam and needs our help.


The rest of us are muddling through. Zombielike, we walk and talk and go through the motions. The grandchildren despise their reconfigured jewelry. A dog chewed up the hutch. Like the plate, I suppose most families are fractured in one way or another. And like the plate, they’re just as difficult to fix.

“There must be memories. Good memories,” I tell my husband. “Something to cling to. Something to remember her by.”

A birthday party. A hand on a forehead. A proud parent clapping in the first row. 

But all Michael does is look at me at me blankly. Then he grabs his sunglasses and mows the lawn. Or changes the light bulbs in the ceiling. Or polishes his shoes. Or rearranges the book shelves for the fiftieth time.

“I'm fine! I'm fine!” he insists. But deep inside, I know he’s hollow. Before you know it, he’ll be making lists.


Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, Poetica, Steam Ticket, The Examined Life, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award as well as a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes. You can follow her on Twitter at @writestuffmiami.

Photography: “Open Door Policy. Wrecked Building" by William C. Crawford. He is a writer & photographer based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and was a combat photojournalist in Vietnam. He has published extensively in various formats including fiction, creative nonfiction, memoirs, book reviews, and essays. His new book is Just Like Sunday on the Farm: Crawdaddy Remembers the Nam and After. He also had a parallel career as a social worker and community organizer. There, he wrote biting editorials on behalf of the powerless such as abused children, the frail elderly, and victims of enforced state sterilizations. He is known as Crawdaddy to his Yellow Lab, Scout. You can find more information on his book by clicking here.

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