Sam opened the Christmas present from his brother Hal, as his mother and the rest of the family watched with smartphone cameras ready for the final reveal. He removed the wrapping paper that covered a shoebox. Sam smiled as he opened the lid and saw 16 black stone pieces inside. Sam's wife said, "Tell us what it is."
Sam put the lid back on the box and looked at his brother across the room and started to laugh. "Hal, I don't believe it," he said to his brother. "Before I go any further, I want you to open one of your presents," he said, looking under the Christmas tree. Their mother saw the present labeled to Hal from Sam and passed it to her middle son.
Hal took the present from their mother, looked at his older brother, and waited, "Is it what I think it is?" he asked. Sam smiled and responded only with a gesture to get on with the ritual of opening the present. Hal removed the ribbon and wrapping paper, which revealed another shoebox. He removed the lid, saw 16 white stone pieces, laughed, and quickly replaced the lid. Both men giggled like children.
The youngest son, Mark, watched his two older brothers for a few minutes and realized this was his opportunity to bring in the board. He went to one of the bedrooms in the large house and when he returned, he set the board on a card table between his brothers, and everybody started applauding.
The journey to this family Christmas in Seattle started earlier in the year with their father's passing and his decision to bequest one item to his three sons who now lived in separate states and had families of their own. A few weeks after his passing, a lawyer representing the decedent's estate advised the three brothers of their father's final wishes.
Sam recalled the name on the return address as he sliced open the envelope, addressed to Mr. Samuel C. Austin at his Palm Springs address, from his father's Seattle law firm. His father had died the month prior, and no memorial service had been planned because of the global pandemic. Sam's mother told the family she would like to see the family gather for a private memorial during the Christmas season when she hoped her three sons could be together.
Sam was the oldest son and was named alternate personal representative of his father’s estate if his mother died before her husband. As the surviving widow, she inherited the estate pursuant to a community property agreement. The attorney who drafted his father's Last Will and Testament mentioned to Sam that no estate probate would be required if the brothers agreed on some details he would explain later.
The letter addressed to all three sons stated that their father left one item to his children. "Your father's testamentary document provides that a chess set, consisting of hand-carved marble and onyx stone on a chessboard of pink and black marble, is his only bequest to his three sons. A copy of the document is enclosed for each of you. Sam is to receive the white chess pieces, Harold the black chess pieces, and Mark receives the chessboard. Each item will be sent to you by UPS from this law office next week."
"What in the world was Dad thinking?" Sam asked his wife, Jill, as he paced the kitchen. "The time it took the lawyer to send three letters and fool around with the chess set will cost more than what the set is worth."
Jill set the letter down and watched Sam walk around the room. "I remember the chess set. It is a beautiful piece of art which your father bought on one of their trips together. It will be a nice way to remember your father."
"It's half a chess set, for God's sake," Sam replied with a tone of anger. "Will I get one shoe next? Or maybe one glove?" he continued. His wife could see that further discussion would not help, so she set the letter on the table and let him vent.
The package from the law firm arrived the second week in February. Sam's wife saw the UPS driver at the front door of the Palm Desert Resort Country Club condominium, accepted the delivery, and set it on the kitchen table. When Sam returned from a round of golf, she offered him a pair of scissors to open the package. He ignored the scissors and suggested she open the package while he poured a drink.
She removed each bubble-wrapped piece, placing them in order on the table facing her husband. "They really are lovely," she said as she arranged them in two lines at equal distances.
"Yeah, but where are they going to go? Where does one place half of a chess set?" Sam asked without taking his eyes off the drinks he was pouring.
Jill could see her husband's agitation. "I have been thinking about that," she offered. "I believe the top of the leather-covered credenza in your office would be perfect," she said and waited.
Sam handed her a glass and said, "We can talk about it later." The following day she moved the chess half set to the credenza.
Their son Ryan flew down from Spokane to visit and play golf with his parents in April, one of the best months of the year for golf in the Coachella Valley. On the second day of his visit, the threesome returned to the condominium after golf; Sam mixed three drinks and brought them to the living room. The chess pieces caught Ryan's attention as he walked by his father's office on his way to the living room. He picked up the glass and said, "Those chess pieces look like grandpa's set or at least half of grandpa's set." Sam did not respond.
Jill felt the tension in the room, "They are a gift from your grandpa to your father," she advised and went on to explain that the other pieces to the set were sent to Sam's brothers by a lawyer handling the estate.
"I always thought it to be a beautiful piece of art. Did grandpa's Will explain why he divided it up?" Ryan asked, looking at his father.
"It makes no sense to me," Sam replied without making eye contact with his wife and son and took another drink.
The three people sat quietly for a few minutes. Then, finally, Ryan said, "It’s your move, Dad.”
Sam looked at his son, “My move; what do you mean?”
“Grandpa sent you the white chess pieces. White always moves first.”
In Phoenix, UPS delivered a package addressed to Harold C. Austin that he had been expecting following the letter from the law firm. MLB Spring Training had ended, and the height of the tourist season was winding down in Phoenix. The airport traffic was returning to normal, so Hal had a day off from his job as an air traffic controller at Sky Harbor International Airport. Hal remembered the chess set and recalled playing chess against his father and brothers before Sam left home to attend college. As he recalled, the best chess player in the family was their father, but the youngest brother, Mark, could also hold his own. Hal had not played chess in years.
He sat the package on a table in the kitchen among other pieces of unopened mail. His wife, Katie, usually sorted and opened mail because it was her nature to organize things for the family. Katie was an accountant with a CPA firm and had a home office, so she paid bills and managed finances. The couple had two children, a son in high school and a daughter at Grand Canyon University.
As she sorted the mail, Katie asked him about the package, “Aren’t you going to open it?”
“We know what is inside,” he replied. “What can I do with half a chess set? Besides, I have a chess set around here someplace that isn’t exactly overused.”
“Well, it has to go somewhere, even if you don’t open it,” she replied, handing it to him with the expectation he would open the package. Instead, Hal walked to a TV cabinet in the living room where the other chess set was located and put the unopened package on the same shelf. Nothing more was said, and the matter was forgotten for several months.
Their daughter, Shelly, came home for the Memorial Day weekend the following May. The family went out for dinner at one of Katie’s favorite restaurants. After the wine arrived, Shelly looked at her father and said, “Dad, I hear that Uncle Sam received a gift from grandpa’s estate.” Everybody looked at Hal and waited for his response.
“How did you hear that?” Hal asked.
“Ryan told me,” Shelly replied. Hal was not surprised that her cousin delivered the news. Hal and Katie knew that the cousins kept up with each other through social media and text messages. The parents encouraged their children to maintain relationships with their cousins and grandparents, so Hal would not criticize Rayan for sharing family information. Shelly had not asked a question, but Hal understood it was an inquiry, all the same.
“Yes, a few months ago, the three boys were advised by a lawyer for Dad’s estate that he wanted us to have his chess set. You may recall seeing it at the house in Seattle. It is a very nice carved marble set. Dad must have felt it best to share the set equally, so each of his sons got a portion,” Hal explained.
“I have not heard about this,” Kevin said to his father with a tone of frustration. Kevin had listened to the conversation between his sister and father, realizing he was the last to hear about this topic.
“Kevin, I’m sorry that I did not mention it earlier. After grandpa died, everything went to your grandma, except the chess set. For some reason, Dad wanted his sons to have the chess set,” Hal said, realizing he needed to explain his non-response to receiving the gift. “There are family issues and histories involved in his decision that are best left in the past.” He paused, then added, “The three brothers are all different people, and there is nothing wrong with that. I love my brothers, and I know they love me, but sometimes we don’t experience things the same.”
“So, what part of the chess set did you get?” his son asked.
“The letter said I got the black pieces,” Hal replied and took a sip of his wine, hoping that concluded the conversation.
“Wait, Dad,” Shelly demanded before he could put down the wine glass. “Did you get them or not?”
“Yes, they arrived a couple of months ago,” he replied and looked at his wife for help. Then, when there was no help forthcoming from Katie, he added, “I didn’t open the package. I mean, what can I do with half a chess set?”
“And what did Uncle Mark and Uncle Sam get?” Kevin demanded before Shelly could ask.
“Well, Sam got the white pieces, and Mark got the chessboard.” The family sat in silence.
“The sound of one hand clapping,” Shelly observed.
The winter that Mark received the letter from the law firm was mild by Missoula standards, but there were still six inches of snow. Mark read the letter after he got home from work, and his first reaction was to share it with his wife. Janice was the presiding chaplain at Providence St. Patrick Hospital, and he trusted her approach to family dynamics and thoughtful analysis. Her first response after reading the letter was the same as his; call your mother.
Mark and his mother had always been close. There was no lack of love for his father and siblings, but his communication with his mother was easier and more spontaneous. As they talked on the phone, the mother assured her son that his father wanted the chess set divided among his sons, and he gave her no special instructions about his reasons or what he expected. Upon further questioning, she did admit that both parents were painfully aware that their children were not especially close, even as they became adults and started their own families. She also knew there was precious little parents could offer as a remedy. Before they hung up, she reminded her son that she prayed the family would gather in Seattle for Christmas.
UPS delivered a package addressed to Mark C. Austin the following week, despite another two inches of snow covering Missoula the night before. Mark admired the marble chessboard, which was larger and heavier than he recalled from his childhood. As he removed the bubble wrap, Mark noticed the words Austin Family 1965 were engraved on the bottom of the marble base. Mark would have then been in grade school.
He had a wood-carved and hand-painted western motif chess set which he called his cowboy set, made by a Montana artist. He put the marble chessboard on a counter in the living room and arranged the 32 wood chessmen on top. The polished marble chessboard made the cowboy set look undersized. Later in the day, their daughter walked into the living room, studied the mismatched chess set for a few minutes, and pronounced that it looked like a rodeo that got lost at the Vatican.
One night after dinner, as Mark was gazing at what the family now called the Vatican Rodeo chess set, he asked Janice if she thought there was any meaning to the bequest from his father.
“Scripture says a household divided against itself will not stand,” Janice replied.
He thought for a minute, then said, “The Book of Matthew?”
“Chapter 12,” she replied.
“Is our family divided?” Mark asked.
“I think the chess set is evidence of how divided,” she offered.
Mark thought for a few minutes, then said, “But it is evidence created by my father. He was the one who divided the set, not his children.”
“Don’t you think it is evidence of a broken heart?” Janice suggested.
In early November, the three brothers received an email from their mother inviting them, and their families, to Christmas in Seattle. She acknowledged that travel might not be convenient for everybody, and she would understand if some of the grandchildren had made other plans. There were hotel reservations for everybody, and she had spare rooms at her West Seattle home. Having the family together would serve the dual purpose of conducting a memorial service at University Presbyterian Church, where she and their father had attended for many decades. The memorial service would be the Saturday after Christmas. If any of the boys wanted to say a few words, she would let Pastor Bryan know in advance. She concluded the email by asking them to give her love to Jill, Katie, Janice, and the grandchildren.
“Are we going to drive or fly?” asked Jill after reading the email.
“We haven’t even decided to go,” Sam growled without looking at this wife across his desk.
“I’ll let the kids know,” she said and started to get up to leave Sam’s office. “Getting a car rental that time of year may be difficult,” she added. Sam stared at her as she walked out.
He followed her to the living room and asked, “Did you know this email was coming?”
No, but she did say after your father died, she wanted everybody to get together at Christmas, so it is no surprise,” she replied. “Besides, my sister is still in Seattle, and it would be good to see her again.”
In Phoenix, Shelly called her father and announced she already knew about grandma’s Christmas plans, and she was ready to go after her last final exam in early December. Hal listened to his daughter without making any commitment.
“Dad, since you have not opened the chess set you got from grandpa’s estate, it is already packed for the trip,” she instructed.
“It’s not exactly a chess set; it’s only the black . . . ,”
“Dad, just bring them,” she interrupted.
In Missoula, Mark and Janice quickly decided to fly to Seattle after reading the email from his mother.
“I think you should bring the chessboard,” Janice instructed. Mark agreed.