The Kindness of Strangers – well engineers, anyway!

Family is a good thing, right? We all bang on about the importance of family. Politicians tell us how important family is. And I get it. I would cut off my right arm for my sons and stepsons their other halves and my lovely grandchildren. I live near all of them and have a close and loving relationship with them. That’s how it should be, isn’t it? Of course. If only it really worked like that.

My father was one of thirteen children, eleven of whom survived childhood, so his childhood was chaotic and by the time the last children were born the first were off and away but they maintained contact to a greater or lesser degree. He died last November suddenly and unexpectedly – certainly for him since he neglected to make any sort of arrangements or to put his affairs in order – and died intestate. More than that, he died in another country and the powers that be didn’t actually know his whereabouts. Add to that his rather peripatetic life – it turns out – and a trail of havoc in his wake across three countries, including America and you can see a recipe for the stuff of nightmares. And it fell to me to try and sort it all out.

I managed to gather a lot of stuff together and fill out interminable paperwork but my first attempt to gain probate in the country of his birth was rejected. No, I don’t know why and they don’t tell you. After a bit of head scratching I decided I needed legal help. So, I got some. It was all going so well: there’s a form the solicitor could fill out, I would swear to the truth of the contents, the form would be filed, someone would give it a big, gorgeous, OFFICIAL stamp and I would be able to sort out the whole damn mess.

If only. It was going so well until we got to the bit on the form about marital status. He was divorced. No problem – had I got a copy of the decree. Which one? Blank looks. The thing is he had been married three times and each time in a different country. I headed home to check on paperwork and managed to find two out of the three. (I know, I’m good!) It was just my luck that the missing one was held in America! No problem: I have relatives there – my father’s brother and sister (2 of the last 5) and their families live there in exactly the right area – right where the vital bit of paper could be found. I don’t know them and they’ve never taken any interest in my sister and I but hey, family is family, blood is thicker and all that. I would ask them to track down the missing court papers.

Three weeks after making the request and with time ticking away the plastic family (as I now think of them) decided they were too busy to do this despite one of them having a friend in the law. By now I was fed up, afraid I would never get the paperwork sorted and crushed that family could behave like that. What to do? Then, the husband had a tentative brainwave. He spends many hours on engineering forums and there are many Americans on the sites. Perhaps one of them might be able to advise me or help in some way.

I’ll be honest – I’ve been slightly mocking about his love of these sites. He spends hours giving advice to Americans who are hobby engineers because their dads were real ones. They buy big machines and then don’t know what to do with them. And they love him. He is a favoured, five star general who’s experience and know-how is much valued. Working on the principle that by this time anything was worth a try, I got him to put a shout out on his sites and didn’t hold my breath.

Oh me of little faith! Within twenty four hours we got about ten replies: a couple made suggestions that would potentially get me in trouble, a couple got distracted on irrelevant issues, some made suggestions and one said, “I’ll have a go at getting it for you.”

So he did. A man I have never met and about whom I know nothing more than his name was willing to help me. He checked a few details with me, mooched around the internet, found the case and made enquiries about getting the file. He might, he thought, have to drive to the court house to get it in person– a journey of about five hours each way – but no big deal. No big deal??? That’s a day of a job and I am nothing to him. All I could offer was money for petrol and compensation for his time. In the end – and in less than a week – he got the file, scanned it and sent it to me. He wants no money for his trouble and told me he was glad to do it and feels good about it.

You may think I am making much of this but I was worried about how I could ever get this whole probate thing sorted – there’s a time limit for claiming and I was fast running up against it. Without his help I was facing an uphill task and one with the potential to cost me a lot of money employing lawyers in America. So here in all its glory is the golden goodness, the positive, philanthropic power of social media. It’s not just for tosh and frivolity – although those are important, welcome elements – it is also for connecting and finding the common humanity in all of us. It’s about no boundaries or borders but people who can speak to people.

It has humbled and overwhelmed me. So, Rick, this is for you.

Thank you.

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