Maria, a seventy-five-year-old widow, member of our tiny Mormon branch, had asked me to meet her at a Notary’s office. She wanted me to be the executor of her will. I reluctantly agreed, remembering the council of a friend to avoid that kind of responsibility. But since I was the branch president…
Her desire was simple: after her death, what she owned was for the Church. The Notary had made up the papers. From behind a majestic desk in his baroque office, he read us the document where words like “inasmuch” and “notwithstanding” and “within the boundaries of the law” created intricate sentences, worthy of the environment. Maria and I looked at him as if we understood everything, then signed. Two bored clerks joined as witnesses.
I appreciated Maria’s gesture, but I admit I did not pay much attention to the matter, because I thought she was not wealthy. She lived in a modest apartment, which she rented. Her husband had died many years ago. She led a sober, quiet life. Her monthly tithing brought in tiny sums, a tenth of her small pension. Meticulous in her Church attendance, she cherished, devotedly, her fixed place in our chapel, the living room of a simple rowhouse. Right side, second row, middle chair, on which she always laid a little, flat, embroidered cushion. For the wooden chairs were painful to sit on. Kindhearted, soft-spoken, Maria blended with the other older sisters who made most of our primitive congregation.
But she had a sad side to her: a divisive rift with her son and the woman he lived with. Maria turned bitter whenever her offspring was mentioned. The man, in her words, had become a rascal who was only after her money. His partner fared even worse in a description mingling greed and depravity. The son had children from a previous marriage. Maria sent them birthday and Christmas cards, year after year. They never responded, never visited.
Mormonism was the rift’s main cause. Who will ever document to the last detail the horrid divide, unwanted but real, between some converts and their families? Shouldn’t the topic be a major chapter in missionary lessons — how to soften hearts of spouses, parents and siblings, how to instill understanding, establish respect, nurture love, postpone baptism if need be? Now, as in Maria’s case, her living the Gospel had only enraged her son. All he knew about her faith was the poison from ex-Mormons and cult hunters. Maria was a forlorn grandmother who could only fantasize about her grandchildren playing in a garden and running up to her as she arrived with presents and measureless affection.
Years later, Maria, now well in her eighties, weary of a persistent pain in her back, finally went to see a doctor. He sent her straight to the hospital for additional testing. A fast and vicious cancer had already spread to most of her body. She was convinced she would be able to return home soon, but the pressing treatments lingered on for weeks. The swift decline was irreversible. I remember sitting next to her hospital bed as she realized the end came nearer:
- Next week, I’ll ask to go home. I’ll give you a box. A green metal box. It’s for the Church.
She would never return home. Her son was notified of her condition. He did not come. After her passing away, as regulations required, the hospital sent Maria’s purse and keys to the Notary. Her apartment door was sealed by the police.
A few weeks later the Notary called me to his office. There I met Maria’s son, a tough sportsman in his fifties, who refused to shake my hand. Things went differently than I expected. The Notary told me that Maria’s son had decided to contest the will. The words swirled around me – legal protection of the rightful heir, undue influence of a third party, abuse of gullibility, irrational allocation of an estate to a cult. Maria, I was told, had shut her son and her grandchildren out of her life at the instigation of the cult leaders.
I sat there, dumbfounded, struggling with the blankness of inexperience and anger. The Notary proposed an amicable arrangement, whereby the Mormon cult simply forsook any claims to the inheritance. If we still wanted to defend the will, the matter would be referred to the courts. I sensed that the presumed extent of Maria’s possessions was the major factor. Did the son know more? Cash? Capital stock? Bonds? I thought about the green metal box Maria had mentioned.
I asked for a few days to consult my superiors. One call to Church Legal Counsel was sufficient: the Church would not defend the will. I was instructed to sign a rejection of the inheritance. Legal Counsel did not even ask how much money could be involved.
I felt at peace with the decision, knowing that Maria would never have wanted her intention to become an ordeal for our small and fragile organization in Belgium.
As I remained the executor, the Notary asked me to be present at the opening of Maria’s apartment. The inventory needed to be made in my presence and her son’s.
It created an eerie feeling when a bailiff broke the seal at the door. We entered the intimacy of the place as Maria had left it to go to her doctor. The marks of her daily life were caught in time. A shawl on a chair. A dish and a cup in the sink. In a corner, on a small table, letter paper, envelopes, a pen and a birthday card ready to be signed. Her worn out Scriptures, with a bookmark to note where to continue. But also, the inexorable signs of her migration to a better world. The longcase clock had stopped, its weight having reached the bottom. A few shriveling plants in pots with dried up soil.
- We will start with the living room.
The Notary was used to such dealings. Everything was looked at, opened, checked, not an inch was neglected. A clerk took notes. Bank papers revealed Maria had only a small account, with just her pension as income. The kitchen followed, the bathroom, then the bedroom. I could not help but notice the eagerness of Maria’s son: this was a treasure hunt.
Then, at the bottom of the last closet, when the last drawer was pulled out, we saw the box. A green metal box.
The Notary put it on the bed. Five men around it: Maria’s son, the bailiff, the Notary, his clerk, myself. There was a pause. We knew this was the moment. The Notary took off the lid. At first sight, no cash, no gold, no jewelry. A jumble of papers, which the Notary started taking out. Bonds? Stocks?
I recognized each item. Primitive programs of local Church events, of firesides, district conferences, Relief Society parties, some going back to the fifties. Name cards from missionaries long gone, the kind with the Salt Lake Temple on it and the Articles of Faith on the backside. Her baptism certificate. Next, former temple recommends, year after year, and dozens of colored paper slips with names she had done the work for. Here were Maria’s memories of sacred moments. Here were, from a self-effacing Latter-day Saint, the treasured traces of her devotion to the Kingdom. I was the only one to understand the meaning of each.
All eyes were on the last item in the box, a graying envelope which had been stacked on a side, bulging, thumbed and frayed on the corners. Bulging, yes, about an inch thick. We could discern that the items inside had the format of currency bills, the kind of one thousand francs, perhaps even five thousand. There could be for more than a million in there. As the Notary lifted the envelope from the box, the excitement reached a climax in total silence. The lips of the son deformed into a triumphant grin. The notary opened the envelope and took out the packet.
I recognized it at once. Some thirty years of tithing receipts.