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Thanks to a city with a big heart

I just received a check for half the sale price of my mother's house. She died in November. I can't imagine why I'd ever return to St. Petersburg now, but somehow I feel as if I owe something to the city and its residents.

My father retired in Massachusetts in 1971 and moved to St. Petersburg with my mother. They purchased a small but adequate house on 48th Terrace N. I visited my parents many times over the years and learned that retirement has two parts. As long as they were healthy, their lives were fun, and visiting them was fun. There were family get-togethers, restaurant dinners, trips and a lot of stories and remembering.

When my father became ill, it wasn't fun anymore. My mother, then in her 80s, tried hard to take care of him, but finally just didn't have the strength. He was moved to a nursing home. My mother visited him every day, which became more and more difficult. Eventually there was a complication, and he died.

My mother remained in reasonable health and continued to live in her house alone. She drove her 1967 Pontiac until the next-to-last day of her life. Although she remained mentally alert, she often cried and frequently talked of wanting to be with my father.

She also talked more and more about her own death. A green box, a fixture throughout my childhood, contained all the important family papers. She often told my brother and me, "When I go, just look in the green box. You'll find everything there."

She also put her house, her car, and her checking and savings accounts in either my brother's name or mine. I didn't realize the significance at the time.

Two days before Thanksgiving my mother tripped in a supermarket and broke her hip. The following day she died during a hip replacement operation.

I flew in from Los Angeles, and my brother from Bogota, Colombia. My nephew from Miami joined us for a dreaded but necessary week.

We needed information for everything we had to do, and it was all there in the green box. Her cremation and burial was planned and partially paid for. We just had to carry it out. Bank account records were neatly organized. Receipts of bills paid and medical records were all there. The house deed was there as well as the car ownership papers. When I eventually had to reconcile her checking account, it balanced perfectly.

It was painful to go through her belongings, to talk to real estate agents about selling the house and to friends about selling the car, but it was so much easier because all the records were in the green box.

We never had to go through probate. My mother knew my brother and I would split everything down the middle with no arguments or hassles. If I could see my mother today for just 10 seconds, I'd say, "Thanks, Ma."

My mother had a close friend who was a priest in her church. He conducted the funeral and told a story during the ceremony. He had visited her in the hospital the night before she died. He gave her last rites and offered her words of encouragement. She answered, "I'm not afraid to die, Father. I raised two sons, and they love me." After 87 years that's what was important to her.

I learned two lessons from my mother's death. First, I now know the importance of leaving clear and complete records for my survivors. My mother set a standard I want to match. Second, with that one statement to the priest, my mother taught me what was really important _ not my job, my house, my car or anything I can buy. It's my three daughters. I want to raise them properly, and I want them to love me.

I also learned that St. Petersburg is a very special city. My parents had very little money beyond their monthly Social Security payments. On her own, my mother survived on a monthly check of $650.

I saw how she was treated so well in stores and how servicepeople charged her so little when they performed repairs or other work around the house. St. Petersburg is very tolerant of older people, which is reflected in many ways. I don't know where else my parents could have lived so comfortably in retirement or where they could have survived in their days of poor health and limited mobility. I want to thank St. Petersburg and its people for taking care of my parents for 23 years.