I’ve been reading James Herriot’s Dog Stories, about his country veterinary practice in England. Herriot is best known for his book, All Creatures Great and Small. His stories of rural life in that era—around WWII—and the quirky clients he served are charming.
This got me thinking about the early years of my legal career. Fresh out of law school in 1983, I took a position as an associate in the small agricultural town of Grandview, WA. It’s a speck on the map, about halfway between Yakima and Tri-Cities. Population at that time: 300. Best known then for hops and dairy cows, eventually for wine grapes.
I grew up in Bellevue, Washington, an upscale suburb of Seattle. I attended college and law school in Seattle and Tacoma. I was a city girl. Yet I was ready for a change, to get away from the noise and traffic of the city. Arriving in Grandview, having just passed the bar exam in 1983, the local newspaper—a weekly consisting of a handful of pages—announces my arrival. I’m the new local oddity: a lady lawyer.
I’m hired to take over the estate planning and probate practice of a wonderful man named Gordon Blechschmidt, who’s retiring after 40 years in the community. His partner, Jack Maxwell, is the city attorney and also has a thriving civil practice. Jack is my mentor, teaching me family law and appointing me assistant city attorney to gain some misdemeanor criminal trial experience. Gordon shares his wisdom regarding estate planning and probate, and how to treat clients well. Our firm of two full time attorneys handles all sorts of legal issues. This is the perfect job for someone fresh out of law school. I learn a little bit of everything, fast.
One of Gordon’s long time clients, an elderly woman, makes an appointment to “meet the new attorney.” When our receptionist shows her into my office, the woman looks at me, stops abruptly, turns to receptionist and says, “I asked to see the new attorney, not a secretary!” I’m the first woman attorney to practice in this area; the next nearest is in Yakima, 40 miles away. In an effort to appear worthy of my hourly rate, I adopt the fashion faux pas of women’s professional attire of the time: skirt suits with big shoulder pads and blouses with fluffy bow ties. I wear glasses rather than contacts.
I find myself frequently probating estates where the deceased husband had been in charge of the farm and all its details, keeping his wife in the dark about family finances. As Gordon points out, these folks might come into our office wearing coveralls and cow shit on their boots, but they own land and machinery worth over a million dollars. Still, I’m shocked at the helplessness of these widows, unable to pay the bills because they’ve never written a check. It’s our practice, upon opening a probate case, to write to every local bank branch and investment brokerages, asking if they hold any assets in the name of the decedent. Perhaps because these men had lived through the depression, it often turns out that they had accounts and safe deposit boxes in several different institutions. Land and vehicles are titled in the husband’s name, requiring probate to transfer to the wife. The husbands weren’t hiding assets from their wives; it’s just how these farm families operate.
One day Edith, a woman of about 70, comes to see me. Her husband has just been involuntarily committed to Eastern Washington State Hospital – a state mental hospital for those involuntarily committed – after aggressively acting out and frightening her. Apparently he’s been falling into dementia for some time. Like so many farm families, he kept complete control of the family assets, and in Edith’s case, even forbid her to learn to drive. She’s as helpless as any woman I have met. Their two daughters are grown and gone, one living in Hawaii. Edith brings me the household and medical bills that are piling up, asking for help sorting it out. She’s living on social security.
There is something special about Edith, something I can’t quite put my finger on. She becomes my first pro bono client.
As Edith and I spend more time together, she shares that her husband has always been verbally abusive to her and their daughters. Speaking with one of the daughters by phone, I confirm this. The daughter feels guilty, leaving her mom to deal with her father’s illness alone, but she doesn’t want anything to do with her father. As Edith trusts me more, she admits she’s relieved her husband has been hospitalized. She’s enjoying the sense of freedom at home, no one criticizing her. She feels some guilt about not visiting him more often, but not too much. I like her more.
Some weeks later, Edith drops by to tell me her husband has died while still at the hospital. The hospital staff is asking her what she wants to do with his body. She cries, not because she misses him, but because it’s always sad when a life ends, and she realizes that her own life will now change dramatically. I sense a huge amount of relief, too.
I’m 27 years old; I’ve never been involved in end-of-life arrangements. But for Edith, I’m willing to learn. I call the local funeral home, and they arrange for the body to be transported there. Edith doesn’t want to spend any more money than necessary. Besides, she doesn’t think anyone misses him enough to come to a funeral – her daughters aren’t coming. Cremation will do.
Eventually, the funeral home calls me, saying the cremains are ready to be picked up – not a call I get every day. My heart races a bit as I imagine what the cremains are like. I drive out to get Edith, and together we pick up her husband’s cremains. Some paperwork is signed, and the funeral home director points to a cardboard box on a side table. I anticipated something a little more elegant, but then, Edith is on a budget and has no sentimental energy to waste on her departed husband. No urn for him, just a simple box. Edith is petite and frail, so I pick up the box for her. It’s much heavier than I anticipate, another small shock to my sensibilities.
Carefully putting the box in the back seat of my Subaru, I think, “Should I buckle it in? Sure wouldn’t want to have it spill….” I get Edith situated in the front passenger seat, and we set off for her farm. It’s a quiet ride, because I’m mentally drawing a line in the sand: “I am not going to offer to help her spread the ashes, if that’s what she’s planning on doing.” I hope if I don’t bring it up, she might not ask. I’m a little wigged out by this errand, thinking maybe pro bono work isn’t for me after all.
We arrive at her farm. At the end of the dirt driveway, there stands an old two-story house, small, in need of paint and maintenance, but sound. There aren’t any nearby neighbors. “What a sad, isolated life Edith must have led here with her husband, especially after her daughters left,” I think. Edith is quiet and contemplative, in no hurry to get out of my car. Feeling sorry for her, I cross my line in the sand: “Edith, is there anything else I can do before I leave?” I ask as I reach out to touch her arm.
“No, you’ve done enough; I can handle it,” she replies. Relieved, I help her out of the car, retrieve the box of cremains, and hand them to her carefully. Walking to an old table in the yard, she sets the box down. I say goodbye, give her a hug, and promise to call her soon. As I get in my car, I look up. She’s walking—with the box—just a few feet off the dirt driveway, into the adjacent field. She has opened the top of the box. I stare transfixed as she upends it and dumps the entire contents into the dirt and the wind.
She has returned her husband to the land he farmed.
Acting as though I haven’t seen what she’s done, I drive away. I understand. I’m proud of her. I really, really like this woman.
In his Introduction to Dog Stories, Herriot writes, “It wasn’t the kind of dog practice I had dreamed of as a boy. There was no operating room, no white-coated nurses. But there was one tremendous bonus. My dog practice, though widely scattered, was never big enough to become impersonal. Whereas a city practice could consist of a never-ending canine wave flowing through the consulting rooms, that never happened to me. I knew every patient by name.” That’s how I feel about my years practicing law in rural eastern Washington. It wasn’t glamorous, by a long shot. I went there to learn, to have those close, personal interactions with clients. I knew their names, their children, their joys and their sorrows. I was proud to become a part of their lives, something that rarely happens in a big city practice. It was a wonderful experience.
Years later, after I moved back to the Seattle area, I received a letter. Edith had passed away. One of her daughters wanted me to know, and thank me for being there for her mom when her husband had passed. I have that letter tucked away, a reminder of one of my favorite clients.