This story is by Andrea Peralta and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Meghan Klein’s nameplate sat on the edge of her glass desk, the words “Attorney at Law” barely visible in chic gray type. She shuffled a pile of folders, pulling out one marked “Martinez” and looked up at Luisa.
“I’m honestly a little surprised by what’s not here — given the size of the estate, the fact that I don’t even have your grandparents’ marriage certificate is very unusual. There’s also not much here in the way of tax planning so I’m afraid you’ll have to sell some of the properties to settle the taxes. Do you have a real estate agent who has already worked with the portfolio?”
“Portfolio?” Luisa was confused.
“Your grandparents had extensive holdings. The overall value of the estate looks like it could be in the tens of millions.”
“Millions?” Luisa’s throat went dry. Luisa had thought that her grandparents’ “estate” was just the small house on a large lot, where she spent summers with her siblings crammed in one tiny room, played in the yard with their series of German Shepherds (all named Patton), and celebrated Christmas by decorating the tree in the front yard since the living room was too crowded for an indoor tree.
“Are you sure you don’t have their marriage certificate?” Meghan asked. “Normally we wouldn’t need it, but your grandfather’s name doesn’t appear on your father or your uncle’s birth certificates.” Luisa’s grandparents had both passed, within a week of each other. The family had been told it was pneumonia, but it had been early days for the pandemic then. It had taken months to arrange to clean out their home, and sort out the documents that they had squirreled away all over the house.
“No, we didn’t find anything. Can’t you look it up?”
“We tried – nothing in the public records. If you can give me a date, I can run a more targeted national search, and search ecclesiastical records. But if we can’t find that, from here, we’d need a DNA test. Your grandmother passed before your grandfather — she left everything to him, but he had no will. Since your father has already passed, for you to inherit from your grandfather, we need to show he was biologically related.”
The loss of her grandparents disoriented Luisa. Her sense of herself was rooted in their existence. When asked to describe how she grew up, she described her summers playing in their backyard. Their stories became her stories: her grandfather’s favorite yarn about a fishing trip he took with Ted Williams’ Mexican cousin was a story Luisa had told dozens of times herself. The story of her grandmother running over the neighbor’s mailbox because she was too petite to see properly when driving their immense Studebaker in reverse, and Bertha vociferously denying any such thing while the mailbox flag was stuck in her bumper. Sometimes she told it in the first person — her grandparents’ stories were in her bones. Returning to the little house on the large lot each year for their anniversary party was as much a part of her calendar as the seasons. Now she felt doubly unmoored. Who were these people? Millionaires? She played the stories back in her mind. How could she not have known?
“Look at the back of the picture, I think it has the date on it,” Will said. Back at her grandparents’ house, Luisa flipped over the faded photo, holding it by its edges to avoid fingerprints. Luisa and her brother both saw the back was blank.
“Wait. I saw the invitation from their 60th anniversary party!” Luisa ran to the kitchen and started lifting out the contents of the garbage drawer. “October 12 — that’s the date.” She lifted her chin in triumph.
“And they had the party on the actual day?” Will said, skeptical.
“How does nobody know this?” Luisa began throwing things back in the garbage drawer with great hostility and little accuracy. Luisa had used her grandparents’ long and joyful marriage as her north star — her pattern for picking a husband, for being a wife, for being a parent. It was all drawn from what she thought their marriage was. How was it possible that she didn’t know their anniversary? How could there be no proof of their marriage?
“What city did they get married in?” Will said, logging into his laptop.
“I think here in Houston.” Will clicked through interminable screens.
“Is it there?” She asked.
“No, there’s no marriage certificate for them.”
“Did you spell it wrong?”
“I know how to spell Martinez.”
“No, I mean grandma’s name – her full first name was Heriberta.” Their grandmother had used the name Bertha for as long as anyone could remember.
“Yeah I know.” Luisa re-typed the query into the database. “Huh,” she said when she got zero results.
“Told you.” Will said and snapped the laptop shut.
“There can’t have been that many people named Facundo Martinez,” Luisa reasoned. Their grandfather had, understandably, used the name “Fred” in place of his illustrious moniker. “Did you check Fred?”
“Yes, I checked Fred too.”
“So you checked Fred and Facundo and also Heriberta and Bertha?” She asked. Will shoved the computer at Luisa.
“Check it again if you want to.” After a moment he asked, “if we don’t find it, what happens?”
“I mean, we do a DNA test. And we pay the lawyer more money, and it takes longer.” Luisa said. Every fiber of her being rebelled at having to prove who she was and who her family was. These were her grandparents. Her father was her father, and her grandfather was his father. As obvious as the sunrise. She had pictures of the anniversary parties every year. She had the birthday cards her grandparents sent her every year. All in a drawer. What does the marriage certificate mean anyway?
Luisa had broken the news to her mother about the size of the estate, and the missing marriage certificate. Teresa’s first reaction had nothing to do with money.
“I can’t believe it,” Teresa said. “We had those parties for them – huge anniversary parties! Huge. Everyone came. I just can’t believe we threw so many parties and never noticed they weren’t married officially. Your father never breathed a word.”
“They were good parties.” Will had proposed to his wife just before the 60th anniversary party. Gabriela had been so afraid of offending anyone by stealing the spotlight they waited until the next morning to tell the family.
“I mean we don’t know they never got married. We just can’t find the paperwork,” Luisa said. “So, we all need to take a DNA test.”
“Which isn’t a bad deal when you think there’s a million dollars for you at the other end,” Will added. “A cheek swab isn’t the end of the world.”
Will, Luisa, and Teresa all waited in Meghan’s office. Luisa’s impatient fingers tapped out smudges onto the glass-topped table.
“I have the results of your DNA testing, and wanted to share them in person.” Meghan passed out a page with a family structure chart. Luisa saw names she didn’t recognize.
“What is this?” Luisa asked.
“Your results.” Meghan said. “You and Will are both lineal descendants of Facundo, and so was your dad, so you are all beneficiaries to his estate. But there is a second group of lineal descendants. Do you know Carmen Ayala?” Nobody answered. “I hate to put it so bluntly. Your grandfather had a second family. Well, a first family. We did another search for matrimonial records, and we found a record of a prior marriage that was never terminated. He was married in Oklahoma to Carmen Ayala. Carmen passed away in 1989. Her son Facundo Ayala is currently serving a twenty-year sentence for manslaughter so his DNA is in the federal database. His DNA shows he is also a son of Facundo Martinez. ”
“So is that why they never… officially got married?” Teresa asked. “Because he was already married?”
“Our cousin is a murderer? And we have to just give him a million dollars?” Will stood and paced as he spoke.
“Not your cousin – he’s your uncle.” Meghan said.
“He’s named Facundo, too.” Luisa said. It all felt wrong. A murderer was walking around with her grandfather’s name. Her grandma was the other woman in a long-ago love triangle. Every year they celebrated a wedding anniversary that never was. And up in Oklahoma the other half of their family had no idea.
Luisa came back to the office the next Monday. Her boss flagged her down.
“Tell Jesse that story about your grandmother’s car” her boss said, chuckling. “Jesse, it’s an amazing story. Luisa’s grandmother is a legend.”
“I don’t remember the story, I’m sorry.” Luisa didn’t join in their laughter. She wished she could make new friends. Friends who didn’t know the stories she used to tell about herself, stories she wished were true.