When it’s about Dad, you know nothing comes easy. For a guy who spent a portion of every visit showing me where the keys to the safe were – in the baseboard heater, the old vacuum cleaner bag, tucked under the ironing board cover – he sure didn’t do anything to ease the transfer of his estate. When I asked him to just give me a key to the safe, he refused. Didn’t want it falling into the wrong hands. I live 3,000 miles away. Which wrong hands were going to steal the key, fly to New York, find his house, and break into his safe?
Anyway, one of the larger pains in the posterior was Dad’s safe deposit box at the town bank. When I came to New York to take care of him, I’d asked where he had hidden the key. “Arr arr reh, in the top drawer, in a box,” he said. I didn’t look for it at the time, just filed the information away.
When he died, my husband and I looked for the key. My husband overturned Dad’s whole drawer and searched every item it held. We had a moment of hope when he found a little red envelope marked “Safe Deposit Box Key,” but it was empty.
When we hired the lawyer, his paralegal explained the process of claiming a safe deposit box. She had to petition the court just to open it, and if we didn’t have the key, it would have to be drilled and that would cost $100. Once it was open, we would go through the box with a bank officer and inventory it. Then they’d close it back up and petition the court again to appoint me as the next-of-kin owner of the box. Once they’d gotten that confirmation, I could open the box and claim the stuff. I was already listed as the deputy on the box but that, of course, meant nothing.
After two days of going through Dad’s house, I was almost done with the master bedroom. I laid my head on the pillow that night and remembered Dad’s hiding place for the two wallets he was using when I took care of him. Under that hideous bedside lamp/table, with the gold-toga-clad-woman holding up the lamp. The base of the lamp had a claw-foot design that left it hollow underneath. Too exhausted to get up and write the thought down, I made a mental note to look under the lamp tomorrow. My mental notes usually get lost in the mail.
Tomorrow came and I started on Dad’s room again. Everywhere I looked, there were stacks of paper. I had already emptied his armoire, where three sections were stuffed with papers, turned around and found another stack on top of a folding table on Mom’s side of the room. I got through those piles and saw a folding chair topped with stacks of papers and more underneath. I went to start on that chair and remembered about the ugly lady lamp next to it. I grabbed the pole and leaned the lamp back, feeling around. I felt a wallet, pulled it out. Another wallet, pulled it out. I had already gotten his active wallet from his neighbor. How many wallets does one man need? I lifted the lamp a little more to look under it and there it was: a nondescript key with a three-digit number on it. I called my husband in, “Honey, is this the safe deposit box key?”
“THAT’S IT!!” he said, giving me a kiss. “Where’d you find it?”
“Under the lamp with his wallets.”
“Of course. Everybody hides valuable stuff under their lamps.”
Thankfully, our lawyer got the court to allow us access to the box while we were still in town. We talked to the bank manager. She was very nice and led us into her office, which was right across from the safe deposit boxes. We handed her the key and she unlocked the box and put it on her desk. She asked us to sign that we opened it, and handed us two stapled signature cards. My dad had signed at least 50 times. Why would someone go to their safe deposit box that much? In our box’s three-year history, I’d opened it twice.
“How often did he open it?” I asked.
The manager laughed. “He came here about three times a week. He’d open his box and go sit in the room with it. It’s right there, next to my office. I’d knock after a while – I do that with all old people. We want to make sure they’re okay. Plus he usually came about 4:45 when we were getting ready to close and we wanted to go home. He’d answer me and sit there a while longer. We can’t kick them out. When he was done, he’d come out and hand me the box to lock up.”
She sat down and explained that she would write down what was in the box for us, and that we couldn’t take anything. We agreed and she lifted the box’s cover. Jam-packed, it held a stack of thick envelopes and cloth bundles. She picked up one envelope. It was an inch thick and filled with cash. Twenties. She counted it. The next envelope was thinner. Hundreds. She counted that one. She went on to count out various denominations in the rest of the envelopes and add them up. Let’s just say it was a big wad of cash.
“Wow. I thought we were done finding money,” I said. It sucked that we couldn’t take it out, though.
The manager started pulling out valuables, each wrapped in a cut-off old sock and safety-pinned closed. The first one held my mother’s engagement and wedding rings.
“And I buried him with his ring. I thought he buried her with hers. What was I thinking? Of course! They’re worth money.”
She pulled out some pearls, some gold bangles, and an elaborate gold bracelet. We learned that the manager used to work in a jewelry store. “That’s worth about two or three thousand,” she said about the bracelet. Another sock contained a small blackened-bronze figurine, the size of a chess piece, with its arms broken off. I was waiting for that. It was something my mom’s cousin dug up in his yard in Greece. He’d found a few and sent them to relatives in the States. Under Greek law, he was supposed to turn any ancient artifacts in to the Greek government. But I doubt that sending it back would solve any of Greece’s problems.
The bank manager had to describe each object in detail. After two-and-a-half hours, we left. With nothing.
The experience drained us but it was quite revealing. I mean, I knew my father loved money, but enough to visit his cash three times a week? What did he do in that room? Talk to it? Spread it on the table, undress and roll around? Cootchie-cootchie-coo the bills? He probably just nodded off looking at the stacks of cash, but he did it three times a week! It was like that everywhere we went. People would say, “I knew your father,” and tell a story about some ridiculous thing he’d do. Apparently, he was the town eccentric. And here I thought I was the only one telling his stories.
My father didn’t bring any warm fuzzies into this world, but he did make people laugh — albeit at his expense. He entertained a whole town and gave me something to write about, and for that I am grateful. Sail on, Dad. I’ll keep telling your stories.