Monday, November 24, 2014

David Johnson, Kahlil Gibran, and Jay Glerum

When I was nineteen, I apprenticed in upstate New York at the Spa Summer Theatre in Saratoga Springs. Apprentices do everything no one else wants to do and they do it for very little pay. The big reward for theatre apprentices is brushing elbows with wizened live-theatre professionals, thereby gathering experience and anecdotes to last a lifetime.  

I sold tickets and intermission refreshments, ushered ticketholders, cleaned bathrooms, swept the stage, painted a lot of scenery, helped actresses with their quick changes between scenes, and ran errands for anyone—property master, costumer, business manager, theatre owner. I laundered demanding Margaret Truman’s “delicates,” took clothing  to the cleaners for gracious Joseph Schildkraut, tidied the makeup table for kind Celeste Holmes, swept the dressing room floor for irritable Groucho Marks. The list goes on. One of the highlights was joining Paul Linde for breakfast, a man as funny offstage as he was on, after partying all night with him.

Oh, yes, we did party! Nearly every evening after the show, we closed down an After-Hours Club that produced a drag song-and-dance show starting at midnight. “We” were the four apprentices along with our seasoned colleagues, a number of professional, experienced staff― stage manager, electrician, box-office head, prop-master, scenic designer, business manager—some old enough to be my parents.  New York’s drinking age in 1959 was nineteen,  so my drinking of hard liquor was legal, as well as frequently excessive. I learned a lot about life that summer!

Needless to say, I still harbor vivid memories about that summer, not the least of which was meeting David Johnson, a young air force recruit stationed nearby. He was tall, handsome, and crazy about theatre. He’d was as close to being a groupie as the Spa Summer Theatre had. He hung around the crew and began to join us at the After Hours Club. One night he sat down next to me and began talking about poetry. The more we drank, the more he expounded on poetry’s place in the world and the more attentively I listened.  His passion for Kahlil Gibran, a poet/writer/artist I’d never heard of, was so contagious I don’t know whom I developed the greater crush on that night. Within a few months of returning to Seattle I’d bought nearly every one of Gibran’s dozen or so books in print. I read them all and marked up passages with underlining and check marks—my heart resonating with the mystical writing of this Lebanese-born mystic Christian who lived his adult life in the U.S.

In my middle-aged years I culled many books from my youth, but kept four of Gibran’s works—the ones with the most notation and highlights—because I wanted to keep in touch with my younger self. Today I pulled out my worn copy of The Prophet for the first time in a decade and fell in love all over again with the chapter called


Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your
laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your
being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very
cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your
spirit, the very wood that was hollowed
with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into
your heart and you shall find it is only that
which has given you sorrow that is giving
you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in
your heart, and you shall see that in truth
you are weeping for that which has been
your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is
the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits
lone with you at your board, remember
that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales be-
tween your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at
standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to
weigh his gold and his silver, needs must
your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
I have understood from the first moment of my bereavement that if there had not been joy in our fifty-two years of marriage, I would not feel such sorrow. I am lucky to be missing Jay. This Thanksgiving-week Monday I’m feeling grateful for being introduced to The Prophet fifty-five years ago—and the pleasure of rediscovering it again today.  Thank you, David Johnson, wherever you may be, for that enduring endorsement. Thank you Mr. Gibran for your beautiful expression of truth. And thank you, dear Jay, for a good and long marriage.   

Thursday, November 13, 2014


On a Friday afternoon I went to my local branch of Bank of Numerica to look for something in my Safe Deposit Box. Despite the lack of helpfulness at my previous visit, I wanted to feel warm and fuzzy at this branch where we’d banked for nearly thirty years. The tellers used to look up, smile, and call us by name when we entered the branch. Now all those women were retired; no one knew me anymore.

The young clerk who brought over the signature card for the safe deposit boxes had to lift up a large red flag pasted over the line where my husband had signed his name so many years ago. “DECEASED,” it proclaimed in large black letters on the red paper. She silently watched me sign my name, then escorted me to the vault where I retrieved the needed item. Mercifully, she did not offer her condolences. The experience made me feel hopeful about continuing a relationship with the bank.

When I got home late in the afternoon, I checked my mailbox and found yet another letter from the Estate and Trust Department of Bank of Numerica. The letter requested that I contact the branch where my safe deposit box is “to make arrangements to close the box or assume ownership.”

What?  I’d just interacted with a bank employee half-an-hour earlier, and she had not said anything to this effect, and for good reason. I am a full-fledged co-owner of the box; I can produce my key any time and gain access to it. I recalled the numerous times I’d gone into the box—putting away a ring, getting out a needed document, stashing a grandchild’s savings bond. I’d been there probably ten times for every one time my husband had been. Why would I have to close it or change ownership?

Because of the time zone difference, I had to wait until Monday to call Bank of Numerica’s Estate and Trust Division. After identifying myself and, once again, hearing sincere condolences expressed, I asked the service rep, “Can you explain what exactly the bank wants me to do about my safe deposit box?”

“If you want to keep it, you’ll need to put it in your own name.”

“Why? Since my husband is dead, it is now solely in my name.”

“It’s a protection for you.”

“Protection against what?”

“Against fraud. Someone could pose as your husband and get into the box.”

I wish I could write that I remained ladylike, but it wouldn’t be true. I began to yell. I railed for every widow everywhere—railed against the indignities of our corporate giants, their nonsensical rules, and their poorly trained service reps. “How could there POSSIBLY be fraud when the bank’s signature card has a huge red sign stuck on it proclaiming my husband is deceased?” I bellowed.  “Let me get this straight. You’re telling me that a man could walk into the bank, pretending to be a dead person, and a bank employee would allow him to sign into my safe deposit box? Or maybe you are worried that the dead guy himself . .  . a zombie? . . . will come in and sign the signature card with a steady (albeit bony) hand, and walk off with all my valuables?”

I was so angry I could barely think, but I kept yelling. When I was done, the service rep’s voice sounded weak and far away. “It’s just an option, Ma’am . . . you don’t really have to do anything . . . you can just leave it like it is.”

And when I said thank you (so sarcastically it scared me), the service rep replied, “You’re welcome. Is there anything else I help you with today?” 

I’m proud to say I held my tongue.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


A month after my husband died, I was desperate to receive my Bank of Numerica Visa bill that was approaching overdue status. It hadn’t been mailed on its regular closing date because, I learned from the B of N phone representative after she conveyed her sincerest condolences for my loss, the Visa credit card was in my husband’s name only. Never mind that I had a plastic card embossed with my name on it.  As the service rep explained in a solicitous tone, “It’s as if your husband loaned you the keys to the car without putting you on its title.”

Using that metaphor, let me add that I was the only ‘driver’ of the account and responsible for all car payments and maintenance. It was “my vehicle,” and I took exceptionally good care of it.  Now that my husband was dead, I suddenly could neither unlock the car or start it up. It was useless to me.

I knew nothing about the frozen account immediately. For ten days after my husband died, I racked up a record sum (for me) as I paid for—among other things— the obituary, crematorium, and a down payment to the caterer for his memorial event.   

Please send me the bill,” I pleaded over the phone, “either by U.S. mail or electronically.”  The service rep explained that nothing could happen until the certified death  certificate was received and recorded at B of N. Meanwhile,  the bank obliterated any way for me to access the account online, because no one but my late husband had the right to view transactions on “my” Visa. I was completely shut out. It was—extending the car metaphor again—as if the service department refused to let me pay for the new brakes it just installed because I wasn’t the car’s owner, just the chauffeur.

Meanwhile, I was frantic to get the bill and pay it off.  Late is not my style. On five different days I called various departments at the Bank of Numerica to plead.  “Our family is NEVER late paying off a credit card, even if its sole owner is dead! Please send it before it’s overdue!” On each call I was read a disclaimer, always preceded by an embarrassed apology by the individual service representatives about how Bank of Numerica was not attempting in any way to collect the bill from me. The disclaimer made it clear that the bank would collect only from the representative of the deceased’s estate. “You’re speaking to her!” I’d interrupt . . . to no avail.

When an envelope finally arrived from B of N, I tore it open. It contained a copy of an earlier fully paid bill, not the one I’d requested.  I started all over again with identical narrative on my part, but this time I added, “SEND ME THE DAMNED BILL!” When it came, forty-seven days after my initial request, I paid it online within the hour. 

I know my husband isn’t rolling over in his grave, as apt as that metaphor might be at this maddening scenario. Instead, I’m thinking maybe his ashes are blowing in the wind, which—with a little bit of luck—just might clog the air intake in the nearest Bank of Numerica’s vault. I rather hope so.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


What follows below is Part I of a three-part commentary I began writing several months ago. (Parts II and III will follow within a few days.) It is common knowledge that the red tape for a deceased person's survivors can be overwhelming. There were times when I became incensed over the hoops I had to jump through, and the meaningless expressions of sympathy that were part of the hoops.

I wrote these three pieces imagining a readership of hundreds of thousands--maybe the same people who get AARP publications. It felt good to express my anger--something that most bereaved people feel--at a corporate giant of a bank. Now I offer them with a little-bit of embarrassment . . . because I'm feeling better and--to quote Jay--"It is what it is." Nevertheless, I hope a few readers will enjoy them.
                 ~    ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   

Bank of Numerica notified me of my husband’s death, just in case I wasn’t aware of it. After all, it was a busy time, what with family visits, interment arrangements, a memorial gathering to plan, donations and gifts of food and flowers to acknowledge, not to mention the time that weeping takes up in a situation like that. It’s possible, I suppose, not to have noticed my husband’s body, moldering somewhere in the back of the house.

After expressing its sincerest condolences, the letter from B of N informed me that I had a finite number of days before I needed to produce a death certificate, apparently in the odd chance its trustworthy source (unnamed, but most likely Social Security or Medicare/Hospice) had made an error. But even if I concurred with its fact finding and agreed my husband was dead, I would be required to send the bank a certified copy of the death certificate—a twenty-dollar expense for me—to prove it. I was afraid to read ahead to see what would happen to the bank account if I failed to comply, but in deference to my Scots ancestors, I decided to take a death certificate into the local B of N branch to save the twenty bucks.

As I drove the three miles to the branch, I told myself  I was making a reasonable request. Surely locally hired bank employees would have the same ability as the employees working in the out-of-state Estate and Trust department,  in terms of inspecting a document for authenticity.  Back when I was working, I routinely signed affidavits stating I had seen―with my own two eyes―the social security cards of new employees, then photocopied the cards for the permanent files. Surely someone at the local B of N branch could examine the official “certified copy” of death certificate and swear they’d seen the real thing?  Also, I remembered that my local branch had an in-house Notary Public who would be empowered to vouch for the certificate’s legitimacy. As I mused on how companies routinely convert paper to electronic files, I became more confident in my decision to visit the branch.

After being shown into the personal banker’s office, I explained to my hostess the reason for my visit.  She offered her sincerest condolences. However, her answer to my request was a straightforward NO.  Despite the fact she was dubbed my personal banker, she could not possibly vouch for the certificate I’d handed her. I must mail it, as instructed, to the Estates and Trusts Department of the bank—many states and several time zones away—where someone (clearly a worker with superior powers) would enter it into a permanent file.

OK, I complied.  Ten days later, accompanied by “Our sincerest condolences for your recent loss,” I received a new account agreement to sign. Mission accomplished: The slate was erased! Years of banking history were obliterated, and I must start over with a new account agreement.   

When the time comes to close the account, I shall surely offer the Bank of Numerica my condolences.