The pinch-faced lawyer set the stack of papers down on his rich mahogany desk, regarding each family member in turn. All ten remaining descendants of Martha Jane Willick sat before him, having just heard the contents of their beloved matriarch’s last will and testament. Her son and daughter, three granddaughters, two grandsons, two great-grandsons, and one great-granddaughter each received a share of her considerable estate, with her children getting the bulk of it. Household goods and personal items were to be divided amongst the family as they saw fit, with the exception of one special keepsake she bequeathed to each descendant by name.
To the lawyer’s immense relief, they all seemed pleased with their bequests. That was good. In families this large, with so much money at stake, there was, in his considerable experience, all too often disagreements over the contents of a will. Disagreements of that sort could (and frequently did) tear a family apart. He should be surprised at how the claws came out of seemingly docile, loving, reasonable people when money and property was at stake, but he’d become too hardened over the decades for it to raise his eyebrows now.
The Willick family was one of the lucky few who would stick together.
“There is one more thing,” he said as they began to push their chairs back, getting ready to leave. “Mrs. Willick left an item in my possession to be given to her five grandchildren as a group after the will was read. Can you sit for a moment longer, please?”
The family exchanged confused glances but nodded at him and all sat back down as one.
“Should Richard and I stay?” Carol, Mrs. Willick’s daughter asked. It was a reasonable question, as this bequest did not involve her or her brother.
“You can if you like,” the lawyer said, with pleasantness, “but it is not required.”
“I’d like to stay,” Richard Willick admitted to his sister. “I’m rather intrigued to find out what Mother has up her sleeve. She always was one for a dramatic flair.”
“And, it’s curious she only included the grandchildren,” Carol concurred. “Yes, I’m curious, too. We’ll stay, Mr. Norman.”
“Is that agreeable to you five?” the lawyer asked Mrs. Willick’s grandchildren. They sat in front of their parents in this little gathering, looking more comfortable than anyone should in his office’s high-backed wooden chairs.
There were Robert Willick’s children—25-year-old James, 23-year-old Grace, and 19-year-old Emily, with her one-year-old daughter Jasmine on her lap. Then, moving down the line, were Carol Willick Nichols’s children—22-year-old Adam and 29-year-old Christine, with her 2-year-old son Daniel on her lap, and her 6-year-old son Thomas sitting in his own chair beside her. This gift was for them, and them alone. Mrs. Willick came to him a decade ago and entrusted this special item to his keeping, meant only to be brought out into the world again on this day.
He hoped it meant as much to her grandchildren as she wanted it to. It certainly had meant a lot to her.
“Yes, they can stay,” Christine, the eldest, spoke for her brother and cousins. “Is that all right with the rest of you?”
The remaining assembled grandchildren nodded and softly spoke their assent.
“Very well,” the lawyer continued, and lifted a key from the surface of his desk, placed there before the meeting for just this purpose. He leaned down, put the key in the lock of a small safe in the large bottom drawer on the right side of his desk, and withdrew a medium-sized package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine.
It was about the size of a small lamp or a pair of large boots.
Carefully, knowing he was handling something precious, the lawyer pulled on the twine, releasing the paper. Slowly, he unfolded the old paper from around the dark cedar box he knew was underneath it. Smoothing the paper flat around the box, he picked up a second, smaller key, and inserted it into the minuscule keyhole beneath the little latch on the box’s front. With the box unlocked, he lifted the latch, then, almost reverently, opened the lid to reveal the treasure inside.
The entire time he was involved in accessing the object, the Willick family sat with rapt attention, not saying a word. Even the baby was perfectly quiet as if sensing this was a momentous occasion to be savored and remembered.
With both hands, he lifted what looked like a golden playing card from the box. It was so much more than that, however. Using the index finger on his right hand, he pulled on one side of the card, and it opened to reveal an ancient daguerreotype inside. The gold rectangle surrounding it was its original frame.
An elderly woman dressed in her Sunday best finery sat, unsmiling, but not frowning, either. According to Mrs. Willick, this was Jane Wainwright Cogswell, her great-great grandmother. Taken in the mid-1850s, the photograph and frame were valuable enough on their own, not to mention their genealogical value to the family. However, it was the note tucked inside the part of the frame that covered the photo when shut that held the real value, which Mrs. Willick’s grandchildren were about to discover.
Setting the frame up with each side at an angle, so it supported itself in an upright position for viewing, the lawyer, removed the note, written on archival, acid-free paper, and unfolded it with care.
“Shall I read?”
Every head in the room nodded at him in anticipation.
My darling grandchildren,
I knew one day this task would fall to you. Every generation in our family since 1692 has attempted to solve this mystery. I worked on it with my siblings and cousins in our youth. No one has thus far been able to crack the code. Your parents are too old now and have other interests, so their generation has been passed this time. If they desire to be involved in helping you, of course, they are welcome. If you have children by now, they are no doubt too young. But you, my beautiful, precious grandchildren, are the perfect age, and living in the ideal time. With all the technology available to you today, I have every confidence it will be you who finally solves this ancient family mystery.
To begin, have I ever told you the story of your 9x great-grandfather, Francis Wainwright?
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 2