The Next Faithful Step
Episode 8: Camille's Quandary
Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)
Camille Vargo had a voice for telling secrets. Breathless without being husky, it never seemed to carry beyond the length of a handshake. She did not like the fact that it made her unsteady when speaking in public because no one could ever hear what she was saying. But in private, her voice made people trust her. It gave every conversation a conspiratorial intimacy.
Cami leaned into the conversation, as she sat in the office of her pastor, Rev. Charlotte Robinson of the First Church of Almond Springs, California, . "They plan to read Vic's will tomorrow," she said. Charlotte could tell that Cami was uncharacteristically nervous even though there was no one else in the room. "I guess that's not surprising," the pastor thought to herself, "given the burden she has assumed while (her husband) Vance coped with his father's death."
"What is it that concerns you?" Charlotte asked. "Well," Cami all but whispered, "there are some things in my father-in-law's will that may require your pastoral attention. And, well, I hoped you, aaah, would be willing to come to the reading tomorrow."
"Tell me more," Charlotte answered politely without committing herself. The request puzzled her. Probate was not normally the pastor's turf.
"Vance is going to be surprised tomorrow," Cami began. "He doesn't know what's in his father's will." "But you do?" "Yeah, I am the executor of Vic's estate and the lawyer showed me the will in advance. I guess I'm worried about Vance's reaction when he hears the surprise." "So that's the surprise?" the pastor asked. Cami shook her head from side to side, as she often did when talking about her family.
"The surprise has to do with…well, with Elton John and with Vance's mother Vivian," Cami said with a cryptic smile. "Vivian died in a car accident just after Vance and I graduated from college. You may have heard that is why Vic got the new highway built." Charlotte nodded. She knew the story. "Anyway, Vance went home to stay with his dad after the memorial service. They were both grieving. Vance would sit upstairs and listen to Elton John's Good-bye Yellow Brick Road album over and over -- especially Side One, which is really depressing." Charlotte nodded again. She owned the album and the compact disc.
"Vance felt guilty because he thought that if he'd moved in with his parents after college, then his mother would not have died. We were engaged at the time and I had expressed an interest in living in Almond Springs. So one day Vance announced to his dad that we were going to settle in town. Vance really wanted to escape suburbia." Charlotte smiled and thought of Ansel Richards, who had also moved to Almond Springs to escape suburbia. Cami explained what happened after Vance announced that they were moving back to Almond Springs.
"And then Vance played an Elton John song for his dad," Camille said, a sad smile coming over her face. "Vic listened to the song two or three times, bless his heart. Vance wanted him to understand that he was returning home because his mother would have wanted him to live close to nature. But Vic did not get it. There is a line in the song that says, 'I should have listened to my old man.' And that touched Vic. He did not understand Vance's guilt because he felt his own guilt. Vic blamed himself for Vivian's death and now all he could see was that his son was reaching out to him."
"Tears came to Vic's eyes. And then he turns to Vance and says, 'Someday, before I die, I'm going to build you a house and I'm gonna call it Allenwoods.' It was perhaps the most touching thing Vic ever said in his life." Cami paused for effect. She could see that Charlotte was appropriately confused. She shook her head from side to side as she continued.
"But Vance had no idea what Vic was talking about. It took him half an hour to figure out what Vic meant. Vic had totally misunderstood the words of the song. He thought the song was about a kid who gives up a prosperous life in the city to return to the family estate called, 'Allenwoods.' Apparently, there is a line in the song that says, 'back to the howling old owl in the woods' and good old Vic thought the line was 'back to the Allenwoods.' And, of course, once Vic got an idea in his head there was no telling him otherwise. I'm sure Vic died thinking that the song was about an estate called 'Allenwoods.' Anyway, Vance felt totally misunderstood - like his very personal attempt to reach out to his father had fallen flat. Like Vic had turned it into something it wasn't." Cami still sat up near Charlotte's face as she told the story.
"The song became a symbol to Vance of how his father misunderstood him," Camille continued. "Every time it comes on the radio, Vance re-tells the story of how insensitive his father is to his feelings." Cami finally paused for a breath and leaned back in her chair.
"So what does all this have to do with the will?" Charlotte inquired, wondering where she'd heard of 'Allenwoods' before.
"Perhaps you've heard that Vic sold land to Dorn Developing before he died," Cami said. Charlotte nodded. "Well, I just found out that Vic stipulated in the terms of the sale that Dorn has to build Vance and me a house in the new tract and then sell it to us for a dollar. And the house is to sit on a street called, 'Allenwoods Avenue.'" Cami again shook her head sadly.
"So you're afraid that Vance is going to be insulted by his father's dying gift?" Charlotte said, more baldly than she intended.
"You don't know the half of it," Cami responded. "Vance was really angry at his father for selling the land in the first place. He thought his mother would have wanted the land to stay wild. But Vic was afraid that the economic condition of the town would keep deteriorating and we'd have to move away. So we have this 'Gift of the Magi' irony where Vance moves back to be close to nature and Vic sells the land so that Vance won't move away." Cami sounded tired and distant. "Welcome to my wonderfully complex family, where even dead people are dysfunctional," she concluded with a sarcasm that was thoroughly out of character.
Charlotte's head was spinning. She wondered about her proper role, as Camille continued telling the story. There were, she knew, a number of places where a pastor could legitimately slip into the situation. "But what is the need of the moment?" she thought to herself, "Does Cami need me to help solve a problem? Or does she simply need someone to listen? The story just keeps getting more and more complicated. I could get swallowed up in it. But that's not what she needs right now. I have to remember to be her pastor." So Charlotte remained attentive but offered Camille very little in the way of advice. Finally, Camille turned Charlotte's attention to another matter.
"The final reason that I'd like you there when they read the will is that Vic is going to make a large gift to the church," Cami said, speaking as if her father-in-law were still alive. "I don't know how much the gift will be -- probably about ten thousand dollars. It's tied to the price of some stock and other investments that I really haven't gotten into yet. It will probably be a few months before we really know the total amount."
"The money can wait," Charlotte said as she reached out to pat Cami's knee. "Tell me what I would be able to do if I came to the reading tomorrow," she said.
"You could pray for me. And you could keep Louis Walsh in check," Cami responded. "I think Louis wishes that he'd been named executor because Vic was his best friend. He has no idea that I have managed Vic's businesses here in town these last few years. All Vic really did was dabble with a few investments. He spent most of his time working with Louis trying to get the land deal done. I'm afraid Louis is going to turn to me and say in his mayor's voice, "So little miss, what are you going to do? I think he'll be kinder if you are there."
Charlotte wrote down the time and location of the reading, but did not commit to being there. "I have an appointment scheduled at that time. And I'll see if I can change it," she said. Then she prayed with Cami and promised to telephone her that night about whether she could be at the reading. "Now," she thought, "all I have to do is decide whether or not I should go."