A Dame with a Past - Part 2

Continued from Part 1

On the short flight to San Francisco the following Monday, Bernie and I got a chance to become better acquainted. Though she’d not offered any insight to whatever issue I’d picked up on in the office, she seemed less fearful. It was as though she’d found a bit of peace from whatever had been bothering her when last we met. Whatever it was, I could tell there was something beyond her confusion over the lawyer’s letter. I hoped that the information she was about to learn from Worthington wouldn’t further upset her teetering applecart.

When the cab pulled up to the imposing building on California Street that housed T. Malcolm’s offices, I wasn’t surprised. It was just what I expected after seeing that letterhead: one of those tall glass cathedrals erected to the pursuit of money. A quick glance at the directory on the wall behind the two Pinkerton guards sitting at the reception desk in the lobby showed an army of law firms, wealth management firms, and very large (as in former Big Eight-large) accounting firms. It was the sort of building you didn’t enter unless you came with a very healthy bank account as the price of admission.

T. Malcolm Worthington, Jr. was on the 37th floor, and he was expecting us. After we signed in and received our visitor badges, a guard buzzed us in through the locked glass doors to the elevators. From there it was just a speedy ride on the express to the law firm’s floor.

The elevator doors opened onto a lobby worthy of the Ritz.  Across from the elevators, way across, sat a pretty blonde receptionist who looked like she was just out of school, very Sandra Dee-ish. She took our names and asked us to help ourselves to a refreshment and take a seat. As she spoke, she nodded her head in the direction of a counter to one side of her desk. It was stocked with chilled bottled water, croissants and muffins, and fresh fruit. And it boasted one of those fancy machines that spits out Italian cappuccino at the press of a button. Here I thought our Keurig was something pretty special.

I asked Bernie if she’d like something. “No, thanks. I’m too nervous.”

I gave her arm a reassuring squeeze and led her to one of the groupings of comfortable-looking couches and arm chairs.

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be nervous about. We’ll get this cleared up in no time. Worst case: it’s all a mistake and we’ve wasted a trip to San Francisco. We’ll make up for it with a good lunch someplace on Union Square before we head back.”

We’d waited only a few minutes when the clicking of high heels on the marble floors announced the approach of Worthingon’s “executive assistant.” Personally, I think Steve’s title of “mother-hen-in-residence” has more of a ring to it, but that’s just me.  

She introduced herself as Carol Feldman, and said, “Mr. Worthington can see you now.”

She led us back the way she’d come. As we followed the woman down a rabbit warren of hallways, I glanced into several of the offices and conference rooms we passed along the way. They were decorated to the hilt, and their occupants looked as though dressed in suits from Savile Row.  I felt under-dressed, and given the price of the Bergdorf suit I was wearing, that’s saying something. No question: the law business was good.

When we reached our destination, Ms. Feldman opened the door and led us into Worthington’s office.  The lawyer was seated behind a massive wooden desk, a breathtaking panorama of the city and the bay beyond displayed though the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him. As we crossed the room, he stood and came around his desk to greet us.

“Ms. McGraw, thank you for coming up to San Francisco to meet with me.” He shook her hand, then turned to shake mine. “Mr. Tremaine. Please, have a seat. Would you like coffee or something else?”

He indicated yet another refreshment bar against the wall of his office. Like I said, business was good.

Bernie and I declined. We took our seats in the two client chairs in front of Worthington’s desk, which was empty except for a file folder.

“Before we go in to meet the others, I think I should take a few minutes to give you some background, Ms. McGraw.”

 “Since I have no idea why I am here, I think that would be a good idea,” Bernie said. “And you might as well call me Bernie. But I’m sure you have the wrong person, Mr. Worthington. My mother was Sarah Lahey, and she died just over three years ago.”

“And I’m Marty,” I said. “But wait.” Bernie hadn’t caught the first part of his statement, but I did. “You said ‘go in to meet the others.’ What others?”

Worthington answered, “The other named beneficiaries of the will. We’ll be reading the will this morning, but first, I want Ms. McGraw, Bernie, here to be comfortable with how she fits into all this.”

I glanced at Bernie as he spoke. I know she hadn’t expected this meeting to turn into a reading of the will of a woman she’d never heard of. She looked gob-smacked. I got up and went to the refreshment bar and poured her a glass of water, which she accepted gratefully.

“Yes, please, let’s get to how I ‘fit into all this’,” she said after she taken a drink.

“Bernie, I know you believe that Sarah Lahey was your mother,” Worthington began.

Oh, this was getting worse by the minute.

“What do mean, ‘you know I believe’?” Bernie sputtered. “I know who my mother was!”

“Yes, well. Perhaps you should look at this. Then I can explain.” He picked up the folder on his desk and placed it in front of us. “I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes.”

He rose and left the office.

I turned the folder toward Bernie and opened it. There was a small stack of documents inside.

The top sheet was a short contract. It was a “conveyance of private adoption” giving legal custody of an infant female to Sarah Ann Lahey. It went on to stipulate that the adoption was to remain a closed adoption and never revealed to the adopted child. In return, Sarah Ann Lahey would receive a monthly stipend to help support the child until she was eighteen years old. If the agreement were violated, the support payments would stop.

The contract was signed by Jonathan J. Bancroft III, legal guardian of minor Marjorie Ellen Bancroft, and was dated July 10, 1981.

Bernie was a white as a sheet. She picked up the document and read it again.

“Marty, my birthday is July 7, 1981!”

Flipping through the remaining documents, she found a birth certificate and pictures of herself throughout her childhood from about the age of three or four, several taken in front of a birthday cake. There were also a few notes from her mother, Sarah Lahey, to Marjorie Bancroft, who became Marjorie Mitchum when she married Elliot Mitchum.

She whispered, “It’s true. Oh my God, it’s true.”

She turned to me, tears running down her cheeks. “Marty, these pictures are of me. I have an album with the same photos. And this,” she held up one of the notes, “is definitely my mother’s handwriting.”

I pulled out my handkerchief and handed it to her. “It looks that way, Bernie.”

She wiped her face, and then blew her nose noisily. “How could she keep something like this from me? I don’t even know who I am, Marty!”

I reached out and took her hand. I’m not often at a loss for words. After all, I’m the guy whose dad used to claim was vaccinated with phonograph needle. But I didn’t know what to say to her. I could see she was devastated, and I knew nothing I said would undo that. Her whole reality had shifted the minute she looked at that file. My heart ached for her. Shit, I was almost in tears myself.

I was saved from coming up with something comforting to say when the office door opened and Worthington came back in.  He saw Bernie’s face, and stopped for a moment and put his hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you all these things. I knew it would be hard on you.

“Thank you,” she mumbled. “You were just doing your job.”

When he’d seated himself behind the desk again, she said, “Can you tell me how this all happened. And why?”

As the attorney spoke, Bernie clutched my hand as if it were the only thing keeping her grounded.

Speaking slowly, and giving her every opportunity to ask the flood of questions that must be filling her head, Worthington told us about Marjorie Bancroft, and the dilemma she’d faced years ago.

“Marjorie was fifteen when she became pregnant. Pregnancy at that age, and when unmarried, was just not something that was done in her world. She didn’t willingly tell her parents of her condition, but when she began to show, there was no hiding it any longer. When her parents confronted her, she refused to identify the father.  She wanted to keep the baby, but her parents would have none of it. The very thought of motherhood at age fifteen was anathema to them. They were sure she'd be thought of as a 'fallen woman' in their social circle, as old-fashioned as that sounds. They shipped her off to a private school in England, where she stayed until the end of the school term, which brought her pretty close to the end of her pregnancy term as well. She came home to San Francisco, and a little over a week later, she gave birth to a baby girl.” He paused to smile at Bernie. “That would be you.”

“I…” Bernie began, and then stopped for a moment, trying to get her mind around his words. “I don’t know what to say.”

“I know this is a shock. Give it some time to sink in and I’ll answer all your questions. I know you must have many. Now, to continue…”

Worthington opened a desk drawer and pulled out a folder similar to the one he’d handed to Bernie. He took out the contract that had brought everything Bernie knew of her heritage into question. He started to speak, but Bernie suddenly interrupted.

“Wait! My father! Who is he? Where is he?

Worthington shook his head. “I’m sorry, Bernie, but that is a secret your mother took to her grave. She never revealed his identity. Not to her parents, who are both deceased, by the way, and certainly not to us.

“This law firm has handled Marjorie’s affairs, and those of her parents, for decades. My father drafted this contract between Marjorie and Sarah Lahey.” He held up the contract. “Or I should say, between Marjorie’s father and Sarah Lahey. He signed as her legal guardian. She never knew the terms of the contract until she was twenty. All correspondence came through my father, and then through me when I took over the account.”

“Did she never want to meet me, or to try to get me back when she was older?” Bernie asked, tears filling her eyes again. “Didn’t she love her own child? How could she just give me up? I can't believe my life began with being abandoned by my own mother!”

I gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m sure she did love you, Bernie. You weren't abandoned. She wanted to keep you, remember? But it sounds like it was out of her hands. She was only fifteen, just a child herself, really.”

“Marty is right, Bernie, I’m sure she loved you, but she also knew that Sarah Lahey was the only mother you knew, and no doubt loved. It was because she loved you that she never tried to destroy that relationship. She asked only that she be allowed to share your life from afar. In 1988, we amended the contract to include the provision that Marjorie would receive photographs of you as you grew up. I know she regretted losing you all her life, and she did the best she could for you."

He placed his hand on top of the file folder.

“Copies of those photographs are in this file. As I mentioned, everything came though his firm, and before passing the photos on, we made a copy of them for the file.”

As he spoke, Bernie had pulled out the photos, and was sifting through them. “Do you have any pictures of her for me? I never saw any, but then, how could I?”

“Yes, I do, but let’s hold off on that for the moment. I’ll give them to you before you leave today.”

Taking out the notes that were in the folder, Bernie asked, “And these letters from my mother? I mean… Oh, God, I don’t know what I mean.”

Worthington smiled kindly.

I should add that it was about at this point in the meeting that I changed my opinion of T. Malcolm Worthington, Esquire. I have to admit that I had prejudged him based on his name and the law firm he represented. I had expected a pompous, self-important twit, but he was proving me wrong. He was an okay guy.

“The letters… no, the letters were not a part of the contract. But your adoptive mother was a kind woman. She called me shortly after we added the amendment for the photographs to the contract, and asked if it would be okay for her to send a note about you now and then. She didn’t want to upset Marjorie, but thought that she’d want to know how you were doing. ‘I know I would,’ she said to me. Like I said, a kind woman.”

“Yes,” Bernie agreed, sniffling. “She was. I miss her terribly. She was the only family I had until I married Mike.”

I could see the thought come over her. Her next words told me I was right.

“I just realized… Was she the only family I had? Besides my…my mother, I mean?”

I could tell that the lawyer had expected this question too.

“No, actually, you do have other family. Marjorie Bancroft married Elliot Mitchum in 1987, and they had two daughters and a son. As I mentioned in my letter to you, one of the stipulations of the will is that all of the beneficiaries be present at the reading, so you will meet them then. I suspect that was Marjorie’s intent.”

Worthington looked at his watch. “And the reading is scheduled to begin in about ten minutes. Before we go in, let me quickly give you the rest of the background on how you came to be here today.

“Last year, when it became apparent that Marjorie would probably lose her battle with breast cancer, she came to my office. She was concerned about you, and said she thought you should know about the breast cancer history in your family. You see, her mother had also died of breast cancer. But she didn’t know how to go about getting the information to you.

“We talked about it, and she decided that after she was gone, you had to be told about your relationship to her, the contract notwithstanding You were already named in her will, which was sure to raise questions. She believed, and I agreed, that those questions needed to be answered. It was necessary for your own health and well-being, but it also seemed like the right thing to do. We knew that Sarah Lahey was deceased, and Marjorie really wanted you to know you had family.”

The lawyer stood, and said, “Now, let’s go to the meeting room, and I’ll introduce you to the rest of your family.”

Continued in Part 3


Posted for River of Mnemosyne Challenge No. 5. Muse 2."The Fallen Beginning."


  1. Wow. Such attention to detail. And pretty long chapter. Intrigue continues.

  2. I admire the detail, but this chapter suffers from far too much exposition. It suffocates what little drama there is.


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