It’s been six weeks now since Rose’s death and high time that I commenced my duties as trustee of her estate. Fortunately my sister was very well organized, as might be expected of someone in her position. After she moved into the nursing home, most of her personal property had already been given to relatives and to her favorite charities. All that was left for my trustee duties were her financial assets, a suitcase she had taken with her to the nursing home, and a cardboard box.
Rose had appointed me as durable power of attorney when she finally agreed to the nursing home. A difficult move for any of us to accept, the realization that our independence is being further limited, now even more drastically than when we are pressed to surrender our driving license. On the surface she seemed to take it in stride, putting on the brave face whenever I visited. But I always sensed it had to be difficult for this strong woman who, during her professional career had been the caretaker for the high and the mighty.
She had kept her wits until the end, something I hope for when my time comes. Our mother did not, but Rose, who was the oldest, would always comfort us by saying that Mom was in a happy place. When I visited Rose in the nursing home, I was amazed that she was always on top of current events. Many of the other residents seemed to stare into space all day long.
I opened the cardboard box and found a brief instruction in Rose’s handwriting: “Send To Presidential Library.” Inside were photographs of Rose with the President and his staff, and even with his family, a letter of commendation, an invitation to the President’s daughter’s wedding, and a program for the 1969 Presidential Inaugural Ball.
I opened the suitcase, an old thing, kind of heavy as was the norm for the period. It was made of wood with a canvas exterior. There were two latches and some of the stitching was coming loose. I noted dust in the seam, indicating it had been a long time since the suitcase was last opened. Inside I found copies of old tax returns, medical records, and a few noteworthy items. Expensive desktop ornaments, donated by international dignitaries, were unwrapped but apparently never used. I would have to decide what to do with these.
There was also an envelope stuffed with old photographs. Like fine wine or bourbon, old photographs are cherished while new ones must await the passage of time to realize their potential. I found one with Rose and me, she smiling with two missing teeth and me in my little boy sailor suit. Another photo showed the family standing around our first car, a big grin on Dad’s face. Then there was the picture of Rose with her fiancé in uniform. About three months later he was killed in the war, and Rose would never marry.
I was about to close the suitcase when I noticed the flap. I ran my hand inside and felt something. It was an envelope addressed to Rose. On the back someone had written “LIBRARY?” in capital letters. The envelope contained a letter, embossed with the presidential seal.
I started to read:
4 July 1991
Now that the Presidential Library has opened and been well received by the nation, I feel compelled to set the record straight regarding the infamous event that so burdened you and I. When Pat eventually told me it was she, and not you, who had erased portions of the Oval Office tapes, I was mortified. She said that when you discovered her at the tape recorder, she felt ashamed but no words were exchanged. Your courageous decision to deflect the blame and shield her in those trying times was remarkable, and we will be forever in your debt. As always your discretion in the years since has been admirable. I believe history will judge us favorably, as you and Pat have always done for me.
And now with this letter, you may clear your name once and for all. I only ask that you not make it public until after Pat and I have departed from this earth. God knows we have suffered enough without any further media attention.
Once again Pat and I want to heartily thank you for your years of service to the nation, but more importantly for your friendship when we needed it most.
I read the letter again, and then again, and still the words were electrifying. Did Rose’s loyalty have no bounds? What kind of relationship did she have with the Nixons after this happened?
How can I decide if Rose intended to send it to the Presidential Library? If Rose had wanted it public, why didn’t she send it after the Nixons died? Could she not decide what to do? Was it even Rose who wrote “LIBRARY?” on the letter? The note in the cardboard box was in cursive, but on this envelope the single word was printed in block letters. This might mean someone else knew of its existence. That was a troubling thought.
I wasn’t sure what I should do. It was a letter of obvious historical significance, but really would it change anything? If it did become public, would Rose’s reputation be better off or worse off? Although Rose didn’t erase the tape, she had misrepresented the facts to protect the first lady, as she knew her boss would want.
I had no way of knowing what Rose wanted. She didn’t put it in the cardboard box with the other items to be sent to the library. Did she forget, or maybe she just couldn’t decide? I considered my duties as trustee, including carrying out the expressed terms of the trust: being loyal, and administering in the best interest of the beneficiaries.
I ultimately decided her obituary would not be rewritten. As trustee I duly listed all the property and noted the dispositions of each item in my care, except for an inadvertently misplaced handwritten letter which was not directed to any third party, nor otherwise recorded in the final accounting of the estate of Rose Mary Woods, private secretary to the honorable Richard M. Nixon, 37th President of the United States.
This is not to say that my dilemma is resolved. I have yet to select a trustee for my own estate, which now includes in my bedroom safe, this as yet undiscovered historical footnote.