by Jenny Noas

There was a sketch on the original Electric Company about a million - or thirty-five - years ago. As I recall, Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno played a married couple, watching tv, when they received a singing telegram. "Your rich uncle died! And left you all his mmmmm....." There was a sketch on the original Electric Company about a million - or thirty-five - years ago. As I recall, Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno played a married couple, watching tv, when they received a singing telegram. "Your rich uncle died! And left you all his mmmmm....." The telegram had been cut off, and all they had was the M. So they guess - Maps! Marbles! In the end, it was, of course, marshmallows.

You get the joke. And it might be where that idea took root in my head. Maybe someone we don't even know would just die and give us money. Working for it wasn't really working. We needed a quick fix. My mother, raised by people who were frugal way before it was depression-era cool, was an artist. A brilliant artist, as a matter of fact, but that doesn't really matter when you're trying to make a living at it. She not only did not bring money in with her artwork, but the supplies were an expensive drain on the budget. Her guilt and anxiety about this made her obsessive about everyone else's spending, the better to throw focus over there.

So this fantasy of mine - about the free money - was along the lines of fairy godmothers and talking mice. Our family is smaller than most I know, and of moderate means. But that's just my father's side of the family. For years, my mother did her best to keep us from her family, because she was still so angry with them. Her father was a hard man, and she often said she'd have been a battered child if he'd only been home more. Her mother was the perfect doormat of a wife, and did nothing to stop him. So my mother got out as soon as she conceivably could by marrying my father, with the added bonus of horrifying my grandparents with the match. He was Puerto Rican, and a Catholic, and for these narrow-minded, Eastern European Jews, this was simply unthinkable. They threatened to "cut her off," which could only have been a bonus to my mother, and other than for a time sending her the newspaper clippings every time a person of color committed a crime in the New York/New Jersey area, did as promised. They did not attend the wedding, and in fact, did not see her again until three years later when my older sister was born, and even that wouldn't have happened if my father hadn't called and invited them to see the baby. And it still might not have worked out if Lisa hadn't been as white as she was, an observation uttered out loud by my grandmother, according to rumor.

Nothing can really fix something that's this broken. They were now "in touch" but that really meant almost no contact. Which seemed fine with everyone. We went to see them perhaps once a year. And it was always my father who made the plans, and my mother who was a screaming nightmare for a full week before.

It was a strange household. An air of mystery hung over everything. They'd never been open about their pasts, even to their own children. In fact, they would often speak Yiddish in front of the kids, so they wouldn't know what they were talking about. So, they and others would fill in gaps with their own assumptions, and slowly those misinterpretations become part of an accepted, if unconfirmed, history. One day, Mom asked if they had any old photos and to her astonishment, they had a great many of them, most of which my mother had never seen. And I remember she asked my grandfather where exactly in Russia he'd been born. And he said it wasn't Russia, it was Odessa, in the Ukraine. Which was a surprise to my mom. My grandmother couldn't remember the name of the village she'd come from, "Ludma, Ludmir? I don't know. Poland." And my mother said "Poland? I thought it was Russia!" And my aunt, from the kitchen, yells, "I thought it was Germany!"

My grandfather had two sisters, Bertha and Esta. In that pile of photos there was an image of the three children and their mother from 1909, when they were still in the Ukraine, and we assume (but will never know for sure) that their father was already here in this country, setting up to receive the family. It's the familiar, romantic story. Ellis Island, making your way in the new adopted country. And it would be a great, lovely story if - well, if this were the movies. My great-grandmother is stern-looking in the photo, and she apparently was quite hard on my mother, who had been a very overweight child. Mom would eventually create a scary collagraph print of just her grandmother's head, from that photo, in several different colors. It's clear she was exorcising - or trying to - that particular demon.

But in the photo, the kids just look like kids. My grandfather Barney would grow up to be a mean son of a bitch. Bertha would die young, of breast cancer. And Esta would disappear.

Now, true to their wiring, my grandparents were never forthcoming about the details of this disappearance, if that's even what it was. The people who were there were angry or otherwise unreliable, and are now dead. We'll never know exactly what happened. But the legend grew. It seemed to me that whatever happened, Esta's defection was similar to my mother's. And it was clear also that this family could just cut their loved ones off without another thought.

But it does send the imagination a bit. Where did she go? What did she do for a living? It boggles the mind how brave she must have been, and how strong. It was perhaps the late 1940s (I think!) when she up and went, a woman on her own. It's no small thing. Or maybe she was fueled by simple rage. Did she pack her bags, make a grand speech, and then drive off in a waiting taxi? Was there a note, did she fall in love, did she just sneak away in the middle of the night? Whatever it was, I always liked that she seemed to have successfully made her escape. And I like to think that my mother might have been inspired by her to do the same.

We asked about her that same day, as we looked over the pictures. They were vague and terse about it. "She disappeared, what more do you want?" The next day, my mother looked her up in New York phone books, and found an entry that could very well have been her. One name, buried among all the others. Apparently safe in the knowledge that leaving her family could easily be achieved by moving just a few miles away, because they would never look for her.

In 1992, Esta died. The death certificate had very little information. So little, in fact, that there's really only one way it could have gone. She died alone, and no one knew or cared. I imagine her body was found some time after the fact, and above her name on the death certificate, they typed the words "presumed to be," since there was no one to identify her. Even now we wouldn't know what ever became of her, if - yes - she hadn't left a substantial amount of money in various bank accounts throughout the city. We were contacted in October of 1997 by a company that recovers such money for a substantial fee, and just like that we were back in touchy contact with the family, eight years after my mother died.

According to New York probate laws, there was a limit to how long her money could stay in these accounts, before it would go to the state or the banks or something. And since my grandfather was dead by this time, her estate would be divided - half to my mother's only sister, and since my mother was also gone, half to be split among we three Noa girls. It was quite a thrill at first. Our rich aunt had died and left us all her mmmm! Musings about what we'd do with it, how much it would be, dominated our conversations for a time.

My aunt was angry about the settlement, and I don't blame her. From her point of view, we had nothing to do with Esta. That is certainly true, but this is also true: Neither did she. In fact, Esta left an unofficial will in which she says that no relations are to receive her money, and names her brother Barney, sister-in-law Anne, both nieces, and here's the kicker - "or their offsprings (sic)."

She named names. Wait a minute. She names Florence Noa, my mother's married name. Years after this woman supposedly disappeared, she had this piece of family information. We'll never know how or why. The will was considered invalid, handwritten as it was on a torn scrap of paper. Oh, but it rankled to be named as a person who should absolutely not get the money. Because I really, really wanted it. So then, karmically speaking, what was I getting myself into? My sisters and I were concerned, but managed in the end, in case you're wondering, to rationalize it just fine. We each took our $16,993.75 with no second thoughts, and no cosmic repercussions, at least so far. I mean, that's a nice pile of marshmallows.

Here's something that's just occurred to me lately. How is it that a woman who could leave her family and live a whole life on her own, and who managed to save something like $180,000 dollars, could possibly not know that a real will with lawyers and witnesses was necessary to protect her interests? It just seems so childish, and ineffectual. It's the lashing out of an embittered woman at this man she despised and couldn't be rid of, no matter how she tried. It's like she couldn't quite take that last step away.

The same was true for my mother, sadly, who never found peace, no matter how much distance she put between herself and her father. In the final months of her life, she would circle the same subject over and over. "That stupid man, my father." I can't tell you how often she said it; it was on a continuous loop. She couldn't always remember our names, but she still had it in her to hate him. "I will never forgive him," she said, providing a perfect object lesson when it came time to forgive her.

So, my mother might have been inspired by Esta, and maybe she managed to travel farther, but neither escaped unscathed. My mother was sick for four years before she died, and purposely kept her illness from her own parents all that time. When at last we had to tell them, my grandmother said, "Why didn't she tell us? Is she mad at us?" No, Grandma, everything is just as it has always been. They came to visit her in the hospital just two weeks before she died, but she didn't recognize them. Finally.