Everyone was sad. It is always sad when a legend dies. Our family gathered in Charleston to read his will.
Gerard Warner’s novels sold in the millions. He’d won the Pulitzer Prize. Past presidents quoted his words in speeches. Several of his books had become blockbuster movies. I remember reading interviews with some of the celebrities who’d starred in those movies. Talked as if they were friends with my grandfather.
I knew instantly they were lying.
They didn’t know him. None of them did. He wouldn’t have let them.
To his adoring fans, Gerard Warner remained an enigmatic, elusive figure his entire career. He wouldn’t even allow his picture on his own book covers. Every time a new novel came out, TV producers and talk show hosts made their appeals―again―wanting to be the first to interview him. He only said yes to print interviews. Even then, no pictures. And absolutely no questions about his personal life allowed.
Still, Gerard Warner’s books flew off the shelves. They were that good.
I called him Gramps.
“You’re smiling, Michael.”
I looked over at my beautiful wife, holding tightly to my hand, her blonde hair lit up by the sun. “Can’t help it, Jenn. I love this place.” It’s hard not to love a slow walk down Broad Street in Charleston, especially in October. Pick any street in the old downtown area. I loved them all. The cobblestones of Chalmers, the courtyards along Queens. The iron gates and grand staircases on Church Street, the tilting townhomes on Tradd.
Beyond the city limits, I loved the magnificent plantations that had survived the Civil War. My grandfather had taken me on tours of every one. The exquisite gardens and ponds of Magnolia Plantation. The stunning tunnel of live oaks leading up to Boone Hall. The rolling green lawns and gardens of Middleton Place, resting quietly along the banks of the Ashley River.
Charleston was my grandfather’s favorite place in the world. For the last decades of his life, he called it home, wrote some of his best work here. He made me love it, too. So many memories for me here.
Memories with him.
“I don’t think anyone else in your family will be smiling,” Jenn said. “Your sister Marilyn certainly won’t. I forgot to tell you, she called when you were in the shower. Umm, can you slow down a little?”
“Sorry.” I always did that, walked faster when I got excited. Jenn said it took her three steps to match two of mine.
“She didn’t want to leave a message,” Jenn continued. “And she seemed kind of tense to me. Do you think she’s nervous about the will?”
“Maybe, but it’s not about the money.” We stopped at the corner of Church and Broad to let a carriage go by. The tour guide turned down Broad, drew his passengers’ attention to the steeple of St. Michael’s up ahead. I looked up. A beautiful building. “Remember, my grandfather talked to each of us individually before he died.” We crossed the street. “Didn’t want there to be any tension in the family about who was getting what. My dad and Aunt Fran will get half the estate. The four of us grandchildren get an equal slice of the second half.”
“I do remember you telling me that. So what’s bothering her?”
“Marilyn’s tense because of this ancestry thing she’s obsessing over.”
“I thought you said she gave that up,” Jenn said.
“No, I said she needed to.” I exhaled some frustration. “She’s spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to solve some mystery involving my grandfather. I kept telling her to let it go. Every time she brought it up, I could see how much it bothered him. But she’d just keep poking and prodding him.” I inhaled the aroma of fresh garlic bread as we walked past the open door of an Italian restaurant. “You smell that? Let’s come back here when we’re done.”
“I’d love that. So, what’s Marilyn after? What’s the big mystery?”
Jenn and I had only been married a year. We lived near Orlando, a seven-hour drive from here. She only got to meet my grandfather a handful of times. “She thinks he was hiding something.”
“I don’t know. That’s what she said.”
“I know he shunned the public eye,” Jenn said. “But a lot of famous people do.”
“She’s convinced it’s more than that.”
“He seemed really nice to me,” she said. “Every time I talked with him, he had the kindest eyes.”
“He was an amazing guy. I’m not talking about his books, just being around him, doing ordinary things. I think he was the most honorable man I’ve ever known. Which is why this thing Marilyn’s doing makes me so mad.”
“What is she trying to do?”
“She says she’s just trying to put our family tree together. A bunch of her friends started doing this a few years ago, some kind of social thing. They each researched old family albums and letters, looked up things on the internet, then met once a month over coffee to share what they found. Everyone else dug up plenty of stuff but apparently, our family tree stops with my grandfather.”
“Now don’t you get started.”
“I’m not, but you’ve got to admit, that is kinda strange.”
“What? I’m not implying anything. It’s just, I think it would be fascinating, looking into your family’s history. But really Michael, most people would expect to hit a dead end a few more branches back than the grandfather level.”
“Can we drop this?” I looked across the street, not at anything in particular.
“You’re getting edgy.”
“I am not.” But I was.
Jenn suddenly stopped, jerked my arm a bit. She led me back a few steps, toward a large shop window, an art gallery.
“Oh Michael, look at that.”
We just stood there. It was beautiful. A fireplace-sized painting of a low-country marsh at sunrise. Palm trees swaying to a slight breeze. A large mossy oak drifted over the water. In the foreground, larger than life, a majestic blue heron surveyed the entire scene, his eyes fierce and penetrating. The whole thing as colorful and detailed as if Audubon had painted it himself. I remembered, blue herons were my grandmother’s favorite birds. I looked down at the price. Eighteen-hundred dollars.
“Maybe they have it in a smaller print size,” she said, looking up at me with those big brown eyes. She knew I couldn’t resist that look, made me want to give her up to half my kingdom. “How much you think we’ll get from the will?” she asked.
I hadn’t told her how huge my grandfather’s estate was, nor how dramatically I expected our lives would change in an hour or two. “We’ll just have to wait and see,” I said, easing her away from the window. “But I have a feeling, we may just stop in here on the way back to the hotel and wrap that big boy up.”
We resumed our pace down Broad. She squeezed my hand. She liked that answer.
At that point, I felt pretty sure our part of the estate might be enough to break free from my day job at the bank to take a stab at another passion I shared with my grandfather, besides the city of Charleston.
I wanted to be a writer, too.
The thought occurred to me just now to add the words: like him, but that would be an absurdity. I could never write like him. Compared to him, my best efforts were like the refrigerator drawings of a child. But Gramps never let me think that way about myself. He told me once, “You got it in you, son. I can see it. Something God gave you. So don’t get hung up trying to be like me. Do what you can do. Find the road you want to take, see where it leads you.”
When we reached Meeting Street, we stopped. I spun us around to see the whole of Broad Street facing east toward the Old Exchange Building. “Now look at that, Jenn. You realize people from George Washington’s time shopped in these same stores? Washington himself danced at a ball in that building at the end of the road.” I turned her to the right and pointed at St. Michael’s church across the street. “He went to church right there in the spring of 1791.”
“That’s really something.” She spun us around to face the right direction. “How much further to the law office?”
“Two blocks on the left. It’s in this gorgeous old three-story house, built in 1788.”
“Two more blocks? We should’ve taken the car, Michael.”
“Jenn, it’s such a beautiful day.”
“And I’m in heels.”