My Mom, My Secretary

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My decision to attend college and law school at Arizona State University and not in my native Los Angeles was due to several factors. First among them was my love of the desert. I come by it naturally.

Mom, her name is Charlotte but she goes by Charlie, grew up in Kuruman, South Africa, which sits on the edge of the Kalahari desert. She and her parents – her mother, a Peace Corps volunteer, fell in love with and married a significantly older South African rancher – often hiked and camped in the desert. When her father passed away she and her mom, my grandmother, moved back to the United States, settling near family in Southern California. As a child Mom and I had spent many a long weekend in the nearby California deserts.

I was also in Arizona because I wanted out of Dad’s shadow. Dad was a successful transactional lawyer. He was not considered the city’s best – a fact that rankled him – but regularly appeared on those ubiquitous best lawyer lists. He could also be an asshole. My decision to leave was regularly confirmed during my trips home during my college years. Dad, never known for his amiability, grew increasingly cranky, often targeting Mom and her career as a legal secretary for his vitriol. While he said he could see her working if her job was something important like a doctor, he asserted that the wife of a high powered attorney like him should not be working as a secretary.

People assumed that is how they met, the familiar story of a lawyer hitting on the help. Their history was a bit more sordid; I suspected part of Dad’s objection to her career was a desire to bury this part of his past. Mom had not met Dad when working as a secretary, she had been a sixteen year old court runner – making hand deliveries around town – for his firm, filling in for the summer for a staff member who just had a baby. She had dreams, after a career as a professional dancer, of becoming a lawyer. Instead she found herself pregnant with a child – yep, that’s me – of a lawyer twice her age. There was a scandal which Dad made right by marrying her, but neither of my parents ever talked about it. I had pieced the story together from the accounts of various relatives. When I confronted Mom about it on one of our desert hikes, she confirmed its truth and filled in the blanks.

It was my first year of law school when the world blew up. Dad had a stroke. The doctor opined that his increasing irritability of the past few years may have been due to undetected mini-strokes; Dad had refused to see a doctor. Mom quit her job to provide full time care. When I went home at the end of the year I found her exhausted. Dad’s negative personality had only grown worse, he had become an angry abusive man. He refused to go into a full time care facility and refused to allow live-in help, considering his decision to tolerate daily visits by a nurse a sufficient concession to Mom.

I suggested sitting out of law school for a year and moving to Los Angeles to help, but Mom nixed the idea. Dad, however, only became worse and despite my frequent trips home during my second year at school Mom often looked like she could bear no more. I was looking into transferring to a local law school when Mom made a suggestion. She and Dad would move to Tempe, where I could help out. It would also allow her to return to the desert and away from Los Angeles, a place she had never fallen in love with. There were, she suggested, few things more rejuvenating for her then the chance escape for long walks in Arizona’s barren rock landscape.

I had done well in law school. While mentioning law around Dad was impossible, it sent him into either a snarling rage or a deep depression, I found in Mom a depth of knowledge about the law that was surprising and immensely helpful. One day, after the move, while Dad was with the part time nurse and she and I were hiking in the Superstition Mountains, I asked her if she’d considered going to law school.

“I thought about it. When you were six I enrolled part-time at UCLA, but I was trying to balance being a Mom and helping your Dad’s career; we did a lot of client entertainment and his firm made many demands on spouses. And the truth is I felt out of place at the school. I was a 23 years old with a child and driving a Mercedes surrounded by 18 year olds discussing beer pong. I also wanted more children but if I had, balancing that with going to college and law school part-time, well I wouldn’t have gotten done to my mid-thirties.”

I didn’t venture into why she didn’t have more children. As a child I had often asked Mom about some brothers and sisters, but she always effortlessly changed the subject. Then, once, I asked Dad. There was a nasty fight that night; it was one of the few times I heard Mom lose her temper. Dad accused Mom of putting me up to ask the question – she hadn’t – and was categorical that he wanted no more children. Mom shot back, her voice steely and cold, then he should stop complaining about her career choice. She was not simply bursa escort going to sit at home all day and she wasn’t joining the Junior League. The temperature in the house was sub-zero for a week.

Mom continued, returning me to the present. “And there was something else, I saw how nasty the law could be, the constant fighting, the dishonesty, the cut-throat competition. It was not how I wanted to spend my life. So once you hit fourth grade I took a job as a legal secretary. I figured if I got lucky enough to get pregnant again it would be a career easy to take a break form. Happily, it’s something I turned out to love.”

That I recalled clearly. Growing up Mom would come home from work with a happy smile and a story of a kindness someone had showed her at the office. Dad would drag in several hours later, complaining about this asshole or that shithead, and start on the scotch, sometimes needling Mom about her job.

“Your Dad didn’t like it, he thought that I should devote myself full-time to his career, but I needed something of my own. And I was still a pretty good hostess.”

That I also recalled. Dad’s clients were constant visitors. Sometime in my teens it became clear to me that Mom was the far more gracious and charming of the pair. She was their social motor, the one that got them out, who smoothed his hard and all too often caustic edges. People respected Dad’s skills, they wanted to hang with Mom.

They did make an odd couple. Dad was rough around the edges with a tendency to say the wrong thing. Mom was cool and graceful, always in control. Unless Mom was dressing him his clothes were be rumpled and mismatched. Mom made whatever she wore, whether an old pair of jeans or an evening gown, look good.

Their looks were similarly diverse. Dad was, as noted, sixteen years older than Mom and two inches shorter. There were signs that he had at one time been an athlete, he was broad shouldered and stocky, but his devotion to the office was revealed in his body, until his stroke he carried about fifty more pounds than he should. His once dark brown hair was gray and evident only around the fringes of a balding scalp.

Mom, on the other hand, was beautiful. As a young teen I, despite a few snickered remarks from friends, denied it, but by the time I was sixteen even I had to admit Mom was striking. Now, at forty years old, she remained slender, very slender, five feet nine inches tall and 121 pounds slender. Slim shoulders and hips, flat belly, flat behind and small breasts. Her hair was a light blonde and although in my youth she was always changing the way she wore it, when she reached her mid-thirties she decided to keep it short. Her symmetrical face was longer than it was wide and featured and penetrating green eyes, prominent cheekbones, and a rounded chin. Her skin, although she sported a few wrinkles, glowed a healthy pink. In light of the fact that she spent so much time outdoors in our exceedingly dry climate I once asked her about it.

“Short baths, keep it clean, lots of moisturizer, lots of sun block (the expensive kind), good diet, and drink a lot of water. Why do you ask kiddo? Afraid of looking old before your time?”

“No, its just that you’re so pretty. I was wondering.”

A smile of genuine warmth crossed her face.

“Why, thank you.”

But my parents were not wholly unalike. They both had strong personalities. Dad would get his way, however, through bluster and intimidation. Mom’s style was to charm, but there was no mistaking her determination.

* * * *

I spent the summer after my second year of law school clerking at two different law firms. Both firms offered me a job and after some contemplation and discussions with Mom, chose Perkins Joseph . It was the third biggest firm in the state and had a vibrant litigation practice. It also had a reputation for a jock/boy’s club atmosphere and my summer there confirmed the rumors. The attorneys were frequent visitors to the staffs’ beds. I was tempted, but took Mom’s advice – better to keep my nose clean until I had a much better understanding of the office politics.

* * * *

During my third year of law school Dad’s health steadily declined. I was happy they had moved to Arizona; I was able to help Mom and occasionally drag her away for some fun. I graduated in May, worked at Perkins Joseph that, took the bar examination in August, and went out of town with Anita, one of the women I was seeing, for a final vacation before joining the firm full time. When I got back I learned that Dad was in the hospital after a moderate heart attack. He’d survive, but could no longer be cared for at home. Mom had arranged for him to enter a full time medical facility.

“Mom, why didn’t you call. I could have come home and helped.”

“I know that kiddo, but I could handle it and this was your last time off before joining the full time work world. I wanted you to enjoy it.”

* * * *

On the first bursa escort day at work I was greeted by the office manager, Belinda, who introduced to my secretary, a dazzling blonde in her early twenties wearing a dress too skimpy and too tight for an office. Her name was Laura; she was doing her nails and seemed wholly disinterested in my presence. Josh Jayson, a senior associate whom I had gotten to know during the summer, popped his head into my office immediately.

“You got plans for lunch,” he asked.

“No.”

“Great, I’ll come by about noon.”

At lunch Josh and three other guys gave me a quick rundown of my situation. Laura, it turned out, was sleeping with John Adams, one of the senior partners in the firm’s real estate section. She was strictly hands off. Even worse, she was a terrible secretary; she showed up late for work, took two hour lunches, often disappeared for a tryst with Mr. Adams, and in the little time she was in the office performed so poorly that I’d soon learn to stop asking her to do much of anything. She was pawned off on every new class of lawyers that came in.

“I hope you know how to type, cause you’ll be doing your own work.”

Happily, I did.

The situation bumped along for six months until when one day I heard Laura answer her cell phone. It was another personal call. However, whatever it was it was big news, for she suddenly squealed, hung up the phone repeating over and over again, “Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod.” She punched in a new number and said, “Mama, it’s finally happened, I’m pregnant, now that son-of-a-bitch will have to marry me.” A pause and then, “No, I want to get it confirmed, but once I do I’m outta here, gotta start planning the wedding.” Another pause and, “Fuck two weeks notice. Fuck, the rookie already does his own typing.”

When I related the story to my mother that evening she had a surprising suggestion, that she apply to the firm. “I’m bored; sitting with you father an hour each morning leaves me with a lot of free time. And think, I might get to work with my beautiful son.”

“I don’t know, I don’t think they’d let me hire my Mom.”

“Does the firm have an anti-nepotism policy?”

“No, not that I’m aware of, but still…”

“Okay, well, it can be our little secret. In any case nothing will probably come of it, but it’s a chance to dip my toe back in the water.”

She was wrong. That evening Mom updated her resume and sent it to our office manager the next morning. Belinda was looking at it when Laura walked in to announce she was quitting. The resume must have seemed like a gift from god. Twelve years experience, Los Angeles legal secretary of the year, and, thankfully, just once, not one of the bimbos the partners would insist she hire once they heard Laura quit. A quick call to Mom’s references confirmed the lady was special. Belinda called Mom to ask her to come in for an interview. The two women hit it off immediately and ended up chatting for thirty minutes, during which time Mom mentioned, casually, that if available she’d prefer a younger lawyer.

“Really, most experienced secretaries prefer the partners. They think its more prestigious.”

Mom’s response drew a laugh from Belinda. “Not me, I like somebody new, they haven’t developed a lot of bad habits and they are so much more grateful for the help. It’s my hope to build a long-term relationship with someone, we’ll work better together as a team.”

There was a message on my desk from Belinda when I got back from lunch. I went to her office and she handed me Mom’s resume. I had taken Mom’s advice when I joined the firm and made it a point to get to know Belinda. Office managers, Mom had told me, were valuable allies. Thus, she spoke to me frankly.

“Well, normally, I would simply re-assign another half-competent bimbo to you, but we will need to hire someone new, this woman appears mega-competent, and she just turned 40, which will get the lawyers in this office attention – she’s protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and I don’t think even our lawyers could explain why we turned her down for a bit-titted blonde fresh out of school. It would be nice to hire someone who knows what’s she doing. I’ve called her in for an interview. If she’s half as impressive in person as she is on paper and over the phone, I’ll bring her by to meet you.”

Mom was, of course, Mom; she aced the interview. Belinda dropped her at my office and after I spent fifteen minutes with her, she became my secretary.

Mom was a great secretary. I could write pages about it, but I hope you’ll just take my word for it. Secretary doesn’t begin to describe it; part secretary, part paralegal, part assistant lawyer. My reputation as one of the firm’s up and comers was due in large part to her.

She also became a leader among the firm’s women, not directly standing up to the boy’s club atmosphere, that would have been pointless, but presenting herself bursa eskort with such dignity that people behaved themselves in her presence. The women attorney’s included her in their social activities, the secretaries rallied around her, and the lawyers treated her with a respect rarely shown the female staff. She organized a volleyball team to play in the lawyer’s league. She was the one whose advice was sought out by the younger girls.

Almost immediately after she started working Sean Jackson, one of firm’s real estate partners, started sniffing around. He invited her to lunch and then asked her for an evening date, but she gently deflected his importunes, leaving him with the impression, but never quite saying, that she thought dating in the office a bad idea. When Sean gave up Felix Cavalier, a trust and estates lawyer, appeared and received the same genial rejection. The next in line was a bit more trouble. John Powell, a partner in the insurance defense section, was used to bulling his way to success; he also took “no,” no matter how gracefully conveyed, personally. Mom tried being polite, but he only got more persistent. I volunteered to intervene, but Mom asked me not too. Some of the women lawyers proposed taking the issue to the executive committee, but Mom told them no; she could handle it.

Then as now, I got to the office early, usually by 7:00. John Powell was not an early riser. Thus, I was surprised one Monday morning when he stuck his head in my door at 8:15 – staff arrived at 8:30 – and half-said, half-bellowed, “Goddamn man, fuck, why didn’t you just fuckin’ tell me.”

“I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”

“Not a bad policy man, playing dumb. Don’t worry I’m not mad, just jealous.” He walked out.

Mom’s morning routine was to spend an hour at the facility sitting with Dad and reading a book- he no longer recognized her or me – and then coming to the office. This morning, as she did every morning, she arrived a few minutes early and asked if she could talk to me. The tone of her voice was serious. I got up to close the door.

“It’s probably best you not do that.”

I sat back down. “Okay, what’s going on?”

“This morning’s hot rumor is that you and I are an item. Best I can figure is that someone saw us shopping Saturday.”

I related my encounter with John Powell. “What are we going to do?”

“Well, if we go around denying it people will only assume its true. Deny if asked, but be gentle, like it’s a compliment. And think of the good side, its going to get Powell off my back and will probably be good for your reputation.”

Although I had initially assumed Mom was joking about my reputation, I found I was treated with a new respect around the office. The women lawyers were impressed that instead of chasing the firms’ ample supply of babes in their early twenties, I was dating a woman of the maturity, class and intelligence of my mother. The guys, well the more sober minds agreed with the ladies, the rest were impressed that I was nailing the foxy older woman who turned down three partners.

Mom and I were careful to avoid public places where we were likely to be seen by anyone with the firm and the interest in us seemed to die down as we became yesterday’s news. That was until a Tuesday when I had been out of the office taking a deposition. It ended at 4:30. I was heading home when I got a text from Sam Sanchez, the senior litigation partner and my ultimate boss. He wanted to see me.

By the time I arrived the staff was gone and there was only a smattering of lawyers present. Mr. Sanchez was in his office; it was unusual for him to work this late.

I sat.

“I got a call from Judge Pablo’s chambers this morning; the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the Amalgamated Cooper case had walked through a motion quash some depositions and the judge needed me there instantly. My secretary was out so on the way out the door I told Bambi,” – Bambi was the secretary who sat next to Mom – “to organize the documents I needed and get them over to court.

“By the time I got to court it was clear the Judge had made up his mind. It took him about three minutes to grant the motion. Fuckin’ asshole.

“I got back to the office in a foul mood and saw Bambi still ruffling through my files, still trying to find what I needed. I said a few things to her I shouldn’t have. She burst out crying and headed out the door.”

“About two hours later, after I calmed down, your secretary knocked on my door and asked if she could talk to me. She was very polite, very respectful. She told me she knew there was a lot of pressure on me and that I carried far more than my weight. She also let me know that Bambi’s a single Mom, her ex disappeared two year and doesn’t pay child support, and her disabled Mom lives with her. In other words Bambi was also carrying more than her share.

“She also said she heard me tell Bambi what I wanted in court and that neither she nor Bambi understood what I meant They called my cell for clarification, but I left it in the office. She and Bambi went through my files and when they still couldn’t figure out what I wanted, your secretary went to see the associate on the case for help. That’s where she was when I got back.

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