The black book, the trunk and the inheritance
The tiny dust angels floated up into view as I shoved the old, creaky wooden door open and the sunlight streamed inside the old Victorian home. It was bittersweet finally being back inside the old home. It had been my grandmother’s haven for the last 30 years of her life. In the last 10 years she never left the confines of her beloved home except for the occasional doctor’s appointment. She had hired a personal assistant, home health nurse and a maid ten years ago and decided she no longer needed to leave her safe space if she could afford to pay people to do her chores, self-care and grocery shopping. I had taken off work for two weeks and drove out quickly to the small coastal town when I had received the phone call from her personal assistant, Karen.
It seems that my grandmother Saphira, my only living relative that I had left in the world was dying. She had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer which had metastasized to her liver, pancreas and brain. I was angry that she hadn’t already called me before now. How long had she known? Karen assured me that my grandmother had only known for a matter of weeks and that she had forbade Karen from calling or writing to me. It figured; my grandmother had always been a complicated character. She was always so distant, I often wondered if she even had any feelings. She had never cried when my mother, her only daughter passed away two years ago. My grandmother had outlived her husband and her child. Just like a curse or destiny that was our legacy, my grandmother had been the only child, my mother was an only child and I was the only child too. I had dealt with my mother’s mental illness all my life on my own since my Dad had passed away when I was nine years old. Then two years ago my mother had finally succumbed to her illness and had overdosed for the last time on pills and vodka.
I had cried at my mother’s funeral but at the same time I finally felt free. I was finally free from being my mother’s keeper, being forced to be more like her parent than ever a child. She had been a classic narcissist and I tend to believe that she had some help becoming the mental mess that she was from my grandmother. My grandmother had never been the doting housewife as other women of her time. I really don’t think she ever wanted children, especially after her husband died in France during WWII. She was then stuck being a single mother and a widow, two things she had not wanted or planned on.
I made my way up the steep stairs to start going through boxes. It was all I had left to complete after the reading of the will and going over my grandmother’s accounts and money first thing that morning. It seems that my grandmother was actually close to outliving her once impressive savings accounts if she had lived a couple more months. I had received a $20,000 check which was all the money that my grandmother had left to her name. The house would be sold after the estate sale but the majority of the profits of both would be going to my grandmother’s medical bills.
I worked for several hours going through the boxes filled with old clothing. As I moved all of the boxes to one side, I seen a large brown trunk that was covered in a thick layer of dust. I got excited as I thought that there may be antiquarian books inside the heavy trunk. My grandmother had gone to an Ivy League school in the 1920’s so I thought that there may be some old books in there, maybe even old first editions. It looked like it hadn’t been touched since my grandmother had moved into the house. It didn’t seem locked; the locking mechanism was just rusted together and it opened after a bit of work. It was definitely my grandmother’s trunk; it had her initials engraved on the lock and they were also painted in large fancy scroll on top, surrounded by faded pink cabbage roses.
I cautiously opened the trunk lid and smelled the old air and musty smell that came forth. I looked around inside, slowly surveying the contents. The first thing I noticed on the top was a stack of books and papers. On top of the stack was a small black book that looked like an old-style phone and address book. The book had faded cursive writing throughout in pencil, most names throughout were not completely legible due to old water spots and age. I flipped through the book a couple of times spotting a couple of legible words and names on a couple of pages. The only fully legible name was written in badly formed cursive letters similar to my grandmother’s writing. It was the name on the very first page of the book. the name was who the book had belonged to and it wasn’t my grandmother’s name. The name written in the book was Emma Jane Parker.
Who was Emma Jane Parker? I remembered my grandmother talking about her best friend that she had lived with when she was younger. The only reason I had remembered the conversation years ago is because my grandmother smiled as she talked and her eyes sparkled and shined as I had never seen. I figured this was probably the friend that she had been talking about that day. My guess was confirmed as I found some old photos of two women that looked to be in their young twenties and they were both dressed and styled like two wannabe Zelda Fitzgeralds. They both had dark, glossy face-framing pin curls and matching hats with dark colored suits in one picture and in the other they were dressed up in black flapper-era dresses and heels. That’s when I noticed they both looked alike, I could tell which woman was my grandmother but it wasn’t easy. I had to look for little quirks in the shape of her mouth, a slight dimple, a sharp eye and it was still hard for me to be completely positive that I was correct in my choice. I knew my grandmother had not had any sisters so I knew this had to be her friend that had been like a sister to her. In the pictures, I could tell by her clothing that she looked like she was well off. There was also a picture of her in a shiny new sports car with the top down, her in full horseback riding gear, and one of her holding the reins of a beautifully chiseled horse. It wasn’t surprising that this was my grandmother’s friend, my grandmother had been raised the same way from the rare times that she talked of her lavish east coast upbringing, thoroughbred horses and all the other extravagances at her family estate.
I thumbed through all of the various photos of the two girls until I reached another black book in the dense stack. This book was leather-bound, black and looked very old. It looked to be an aged leather-bound journal. I read the first couple of pages in what was written more like a confession and memoir than a daily journal. The pages were faded but I could still read them and as I made my way through the cursive words, I could feel my chest tighten and I held my breath as the truth and realization came over me of what I was reading. My grandmother wrote about how she had grown up poor and had struggled and worked hard to make a living until she had met the woman who would become her best friend for over ten years. In 1929 during the depression, her best friend Saphira had become a young heiress in her twenties and had inherited her family’s fortune and estate after her parents had been both killed in an accident. Within the same year Saphira had partied away thousands of dollars of her family’s fortune and inheritance and then the failing stock market took another large portion. She had become a different person and my grandmother wrote that she had tried to bring her back from the brink of destruction. It was in December of that same year that a lit cigarette and too much alcohol had led to a fire that burned down all of Saphira’s family home and took Saphira’s life.
My grandmother wrote that they had gotten into a horrible argument that morning and decided that she was leaving for good this time. She wore some of Saphira’s clothing as she did on a regular basis and she had packed up Saphira’s old forgotten trunk with her few possessions and pictures of the friend that she still loved. She had gotten the trunk outside and was waiting for a ride to the train station when she smelled the smoke. Everything happened so quickly and as the fire raged and neighbors and people from town gathered to watch the chaos unfold, someone asked her who all was left inside? She paused for a minute and then told the stranger that her friend Emma Jane was still inside the burning home.
My grandmother took over her dead best friend’s identity that night in December. It was believed and never questioned because they looked so much alike and all of Saphira’s family were gone. Emma Jane’s family were still living but she never seen them again and to them she was now dead from a tragic house fire. My grandmother lied and took over her best friend’s identity, she withdrew the rest of Saphira’s inheritance, cashed in a large insurance policy for the estate and made her way down the east coast over the following years. She now had an Ivy League business degree with her name on it which would also come in handy over the years. She left Massachusetts behind and anyone that might be able to spot a quirk in the shape of her mouth, a slight dimple or her sharp cold eyes. She also left all the beloved memories of Saphira behind because now SHE was Saphira. She was no longer the poor Emma Jane who was always known as Saphira’s poor friend, the friend that received her hand-me-downs and discarded make-up and French perfumes when she bored of them. None of the men ever looked twice at Emma Jane when she was with Saphira because who wanted a poor girl from the Midwest? Now Emma Jane had old money wealth, she could get a rich husband, have a huge wardrobe and afford a large beautiful home.
My mind was racing as I finished the end of that particular “chapter” of the journal. Did I want to continue reading to find out what else I had been lied to about all my life? My family tree just changed in an instant and now I was someone different. I sit there and thought that it was fitting for my grandmother to leave this secret to be discovered only after her death. She kept the secret almost all of her life and had lived a lie just to get away from being the “poor friend”. I sat quietly and thought about my grandmother and her personality for a moment. I looked at the pictures again, slowly focusing on the pictures of both the girls. I thought about how determined my grandmother had always been and how jealous and controlling she was of anyone that didn’t show her unending attention and loyalty. She had also always had a greed and love of money. I thought about all these things and the grandmother that I knew.
I thought about how my grandmother was probably a murderer.