Banking in Absentia

The banker sat behind a plexiglass shield, shouldering a phone against his ear while he typed. “Delete relationship,” he said to another banker he’d called for help. “Correct?”

That’s when it hit me. The relationship he was referring to, between my mother and myself, was officially ending. Not that it should have been a shock. She’d died almost 40 years ago, way before I got married or took out a mortgage or had children, but her name still appeared above mine every month on my, or rather, our bank statement. Why hadn’t I taken her name off the account years ago? That was complicated, both for me and, apparently, for the bank.

I couldn’t think about doing it without remembering the day my mother opened the account for me in Los Angeles the summer I was 15. She drove her Toyota station wagon, a renegade at the time among the sedans and convertibles, into the parking lot. Inside, it was crowded because those were the days of branch banking. Transactions were made in real time, in person, with cash and checks.

When we got to the front of the line, the teller knew my mother’s name. My mother patted her helmet of hair and seemed proud to introduce her tall, gangly teen. The teller and I shook hands, and she began the paperwork. When she finished, I handed her the cash I’d collected from babysitting. It wasn’t much, but I liked thinking about it in the bank, a symbol of my future independence. I could go to the bank by myself and take out the money I’d earned whenever I wanted. It was the kind of thing my mother would do—get me a library card, send me off on my bike to do errands, arrange for a bank account.

Otherwise, like a lot of parents in that era, she didn’t pay much attention. She’d quit her job as a radio reporter when she got married, but she was busy with volunteer work and friends. No one would call her a helicopter mom. She was more a Crock-Pot mom: Set it up and leave it alone. I’d see her in the morning and at night, but otherwise spent my time unsupervised, much of it by myself, unless I did something she considered out of bounds. In that case I’d hear from her. She believed in spanking; we both believed in yelling a lot. She’d grown up in Tennessee with strict rules that she’d absorbed, even though she’d tried to shed all else.

‘Otherwise, like a lot of parents in that era, she didn’t pay much attention.’

She’d moved to Los Angeles, a city where everything seemed possible, and set out to reinvent herself, but there was much she carried with her. There were ways children should act. Shake hands and look someone in the eye. Address close family friends as aunt and uncle. Say yes sir and yes ma’am. Write thank you notes within an hour of opening a present. Don’t ask what’s for dinner or look in a pan that’s on the stove. If you broke the rules, or merely were irritating, there were consequences. That’s how I got to spending time in my room, where I waited for the end of the school year.

Every summer, my parents sent me and my sister to Tennessee to stay with Mom’s parents. We would board a plane by ourselves, wearing nametags so the flight attendants could help us to switch planes in Dallas, and shepherd us off in Memphis into the arms of my grandmother, who apparently had long abandoned the rules.

Or perhaps grandchildren were a different kind of household citizen. I loved being there, in the constant company of cousins, aunts and uncles. I don’t remember missing my parents or even speaking to them on the phone. I also don’t remember ever getting punished. The last week of the summer my mother would come visit her family and retrieve us. I never knew exactly what she and my father did while we were gone, only that this was what we did.

Back at home, I finished high school and then went to college, which is when my summers in Tennessee ended. My grandfather died and my grandmother moved to a small apartment. She came more frequently to California, always impeccably dressed in a different bright hue while the rest of us cycled through bellbottoms and sweatpants.

I went to school in Northern California and then moved to New York, where, for some reason, I kept the Los Angeles bank account, even though it was hard to use. I needed extra documentation before I could deposit or take out money. My roommate’s father, who was a banker, intervened and I was able to transfer enough funds to buy a used car, which I needed for my job at a local newspaper.

A few years later, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I quit my job, even though she said she was going to recover, and moved back to California. She died a few months later, long before I could know her as an adult or ask her the questions everyone has about their parents.

I was left with, among other things, that bank account. Despite my tangled relationship with my mother, I kept it. I even expanded my accounts. I had savings, business and a checking account, the latter with her name on it. My husband moved his personal one elsewhere when the bank started charging huge overdraft fees. (Federal rules eventually forced a refund.) Apparently, my loyalty knew no bounds.

‘I was left with, among other things, that bank account.’

I maintained the status quo until a year ago when the bank began sending my mother monthly letters, saying they didn’t have her signature on file. The letters would keep coming, they warned, until they had one. I tried calling the number listed on the letter, but the man who answered said he wasn’t authorized to take a deceased person off the list. He had no idea what I should do. Maybe get a death certificate and visit your branch, he suggested.

The next month, after paying nearly $100 for notarized proof of my identity, and ordering and scheduling delivery of the death certificate, I went to the branch nearest my home, which is about the size of a small department store. Pre-pandemic it was quiet. After Covid hit, it was nearly deserted. The day I visited the sole teller told me the bankers were in a meeting. I could wait half an hour or come back, which I did twice before finally sitting down with a young banker, who was eager to help me once he figured out what he needed to do. It was the first time he’d been asked to liberate a client’s account from the hold of a long-deceased parent.

“When do people usually take their names off their kids’ accounts?” I asked him.

“It depends,” he said. “Usually when they turn 18.” He said he’d gotten his own first account at 18, which I guessed was not very long ago.

Upbeat electronic music played in the background while he talked on the phone. “How can I get a clear start on my financial journey?” read a nearby billboard-sized ad in a crimson lighted frame, featuring a picture of a young woman. I wondered if she’d put her mother’s name on the account and keep it there forever.

“We do make it difficult,” said the banker. “I’m sorry.”

He explained that since my mother had been gone so long he needed a “workaround.” He’d type her Social Security number and another piece of information into the customer PIN pad, as if she were there, and then we could get to the final paperwork. He was typing, so he didn’t notice me wiping at my eyes. When he finished, I walked out relieved, but with a heaviness I hadn’t predicted.

Two weeks later my mother received another letter from the bank, informing her that it had been a pleasure helping her and that requested actions “were taken or will soon be taken.” It might be the last communique she’ll ever get from them. Her name would be off the account, I’d embark on my new financial journey, but otherwise this relationship, of course, was not one that could be deleted.

Katherine Seligman is a journalist and author in San Francisco. Her novel “At the Edge of the Haight” (Algonquin, 2021) won the 2019 PEN/Bellwether prize.