Judith Kerrigan Ribbens

The years after Art's death were incredibly difficult for Anna, AJ, Marnie, Alex, and Cory. With little work experience and five mouths to feed, the lack of income alone loomed as an almost insurmountable obstacle for Anna to overcome. Added to that, she and her four children were sent into shock, their world shattered by the death of husband and father, a violent death at that.

Anna couldn't even let her younger children view the corpse. To them, their father just disappeared from their lives. She and AJ lived with the terrible memory of the charred body. The hostile attempts to manipulate her by Jon O'Keeffe made it worse.

Here are some of her unpublished journal entries from that time.


We flew home with the body and were met with love at Austin Straubel airport. I was finally able to console and hug my other children. My best friends, Caroline and Robinson Bradley, and their twins, Jake and Jim, waited. Marnie’s friends Sammi and Alicia held her in their arms. My oldest friend from childhood, Caitlin Fitzgerald and her five boys, stood off in the background. MomKat and Aunt Carrie cried. The priests from St. Pat‘s and St. John‘s. Old Mr. Houlihan and others from the Irish Patch. Sam Soderberg, Andy Moss, and the staff from The Firm. All the hugs that weren’t in Mexico were there. All the tears. All the soft sounds. All the green and gold of Green Bay in September which forever after has brought memories of sadness.

None of the O’Keeffes were there. Jon had been released from the hospital and flown home the day before we left Merida. He must be under medical care here.

The press was there in force. A plane crash in Mexico of two Green Bay lawyers, one dead and the other lost in a jungle, was big news. Flashbulbs went off in our eyes. Questions were shouted at us. I walked through them silent, all the memories swirling around me in the autumn air.

Thirty-five years I’ve known him. Twenty-two of them I’ve been his wife.

We had Art cremated, a twisted ironic redundancy, considering the condition of his body. Our priests at St. John’s were fine with that but I heard via the grapevine that Monsignor at St Pat’s was appalled. The traditional Catholic Church frowns on cremation. AJ’s anger erupted at that one. He called the monsignor and graphically described his father’s body and asked how we were to have prevented that first cremation and what difference the second one made. I didn’t hear him do that. I heard about it the usual way.

Aunt Carrie brought Gossip to tea, along with the news that Jenny O had disappeared as soon as she got back to Green Bay. Aunt Carrie had used numerous connections to try to find her, with no success.

For family and friends, we had a mass at St. John’s. My children all decided they wanted take part or create a special tribute. Marnie read the epistle, AJ the gospel. Alex told “Dad” stories, memories of times they had spent together. Cory wouldn’t tell us what he planned.

But Cory, oh my god, poetic, beautiful Cory, only eight years old! He went up and stood before the altar facing us all and, one by one, sang all the Irish songs he’d ever heard his father sing. I didn’t even know he remembered them all. Galway Bay. My Wild Irish Rose. Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye. The Rose of Tralee. I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen. Fiddler’s Green. And on and on. Our whole family sang with him even as we choked on our tears, and not a dry eye in the place.

The Elf Queen appeared, standing above the altar, smiling on us all. She floated down to stand behind Cory, her delicate hands on his shoulders, singing with him, and disappeared as the last lines of Danny Boy ended.

“For you will bend and tell me that you love me, And I will sleep in peace until you come to me.”

Old Mr. Houlihan had seen her too. At 97, he was already walking closer to Fiddler’s Green than any of us and it didn’t surprise me that he saw her. He left his pew, walked up the aisle and bowed. Everyone thought he was acknowledging Cory. I saw the Elf Queen curtsy back. Stunning grace, that was! Solace! Love! A moment of deep healing that sustained me for that day and the difficult days to come.

Back at The House, we continued the wake. It got noisy and a bit crazy. Irish wakes just do that. Once again, as they had on the day we got the call Art was missing, people from the West side flooded in with food and drink and stories and song. I was expected to do nothing. It was a good thing because I was deeply ashamed at first. These were the people who had not been to my house for years, who had not been in my life for years, who had been shut out of our life when Art and I had moved into the “grand” house on Monroe. The House. Five stories including attic and basement, a huge lawn, a view from the rear deck of the Fox River, The House was the symbol of Art’s successes. Now I was faced with just what we
had lost in our upwardly mobile climb. Above all, I was faced with my failure to keep the friendships that had been my support as a child. It was the old man and Caitlin who brought me back.

Old Mr. Houlihan, instead of getting a ride from us, had walked from the church up the river path into the back door and through the house greeting one and all until he found me in the living room and then he just put his arms around me and held me. He had done that many times when I was a little  girl. Old Mr. Houlihan, instead of getting a ride from us, had walked from the church up the river path into the back door and through the house greeting one and all until he found me in the living room and then he just put his arms around me and held me. He had done that many times when I was a little girl and needed a Grandda. I cried on his shoulder as much from shame as from comfort or sorrow. I had never invited him to our house before. How could I have shut this man out of my life?

“We’re all sayin’ prayers for ya, me girl, and for the children. Ya won’t be walkin’ alone through this.” No. I vow I’ll not walk alone through anything again. I told him that.

I heard a commotion. That I was not alone was abundantly clear. I looked up to see Caitlin Fitzgerald and her five sons standing in front of me.

Caitlin Dunleavy Fitzgerald and I went way back to kindergarten, when she fought the boys who were tormenting me. Later, in high school I fought the catty girls who didn’t want her on the cheerleading squad and so returned the favor. For years we had not been close the way I am with Caroline but we vibrated on the same wavelength whenever the need arose. She had lost her husband, the love of her life, when he walked out on her, unwilling to face the task of feeding the children he had sired.

Caitlin, all five feet three inches of her, stood in my living room. Except for the airport, I hadn’t seen her for a long time. Her freckled face and slightly lumpy body were worn down by life, but not her fierce green eyes. A streak of gray flowed back from the widow’s peak at the center of her forehead.

She didn’t say a word. She just looked into my eyes for long minutes, held a fist in front of her, touched her heart with it and held it out to me. I walked to her and did the same. She signaled to her boys and they opened their hands and set down five small rocks on the coffee table.

I smiled through tears and nodded. It was our old ritual from grade school. If I was in trouble, she would find a rock and give it to me as a sign to be strong. I did the same for her. I gave her a lot of rocks. She was in trouble from the time she could talk. Caitlin always told the truth, no matter what it cost her. Nuns had never liked that. Neither had adults or other children. Rumor had it she swore like a sailor, drank every man under the table and had a long series of lovers. Aunt Carrie told me she thought Caitlin began the rumors herself. If she did, I knew they were true. If not, I
didn’t care. Either way, I don’t care.

I thought our old friendship was why she had come. It was, but there was more. Now I’ve learned that Caitlin knows more dirty secrets about Green Bay than Aunt Carrie. She said she knew then I would be in trouble. She was offering to have my back. My children were mystified by our ritual, and somewhat taken aback by the five Fitz boys. No amount of spit and polish which Caitlin imposes on them cleans the toughness from their eyes. Liam, her youngest, is the tiniest child I’ve ever seen. He could be the Elf Queen’s son.

I sat numb on the living room couch as the whole thing became a typical Irish wake. I had no strength to move, to do anything except hug my children. It was to be one of the first days I couldn’t cry. There were many more to come.


.…one week later…

After that first meeting with Conrad, I returned home determined to get us through this grief, to create a decent life for all of us. I wish I could say that it all went quickly but grief is messy and trauma does not just get “put behind us”. I grow furious at the platitudes people offer, the worst being “God must have wanted it this way.”

I want to smack anyone who says that to me. Trauma sends bullets into the human spirit. Platitudes try to dig them out of the wounds but only succeed in cutting deeper. Grief does not have Kubler-Ross’s “stages”. It is sloppy and unmanageable.

Cory puts it more graphically. “This is dragging me over pointed rocks, Mom,” as, for the third time, in shame, frustration, and anger, he woke up to find he’d wet his bed. Mortifying at the age of eight, an embarrassment hard to bear. He feels like he’s a baby again.

I’ve wasted no time however. The other night I gathered my children and let them know just what our situation is. They deserve to know. We sat around in our pajamas, ating popcorn, drinking soda, the first of many family meetings. I wanted them in on decisions. I was brought up in a house where the child, me, never really knew what was going on with the adults.

I have two older brothers I don’t even know and haven’t seen in  years and years. What was happening when they grew up? How come they left in their teens? No one talks about anything important. I don’t
even know about my own mother’s life as a girl. I vow my kids will grow up knowing more than I was allowed to learn. Now I’m beginning to see that what we don’t know does hurt us. Secrecy closed the doors and shut me out.

It was Marnie who came up with the idea of renting out rooms to boarders. Alex and Cory hurtled into enthusiastic plans.

“We can move up to the ballroom, Mom. It’ll be our dorm room. We can get a paper route. We can rake leaves and cut grass for people. I’ve already thought about it.” Cory looked so very serious as he said this. Eight years old and he’s trying to be grown up. That’s heartbreaking. He’s supposed to be a young boy for years yet.

Alex, practical as ever, remarked that wouldn’t bring in much money. He calculated that it would buy more popcorn and soda and maybe a movie or three, “but not the important stuff like milk and meat, and it won’t make the house payment, that’s for sure.” How does he know that at ten years old?

He then volunteered his sister for modeling in local stores. “She can, Mom. She’s already been asked but she didn’t tell you. There’s a store in Bay Park Square Mall and I heard someone ask her. She wants to. It pays better than yard work.” Alex didn’t much like yard work. “Models make good money. Maybe they’ll want young boys. Cory and I can do that too.”

Marnie glared at him, shhhhing him, then looking guilty and hopeful all at once. “They did, Mom. Do you think I could do that? I’m tall enough and thin enough. I want to do that. Pleeeease? I already asked them what I’d need to do that. I need a social security number and a work permit and you have to be with me when I do it, or someone does. It could be Aunt Carrie. She might be a good one to have because she really knows clothes and fashion.”

Marnie won’t talk about Art being gone. She just shuts it all out, acting as if her pre-teen life has never changed. When she breaks, will she break hard? How long will this last?

“I’m just listening to all the suggestions now. I’ll have to think about all this.”

AJ had been silent. I looked in his direction, my eyebrows raised expectantly. “Mom, don’t be mad. I got a job with Big John O’Keeffe’s construction company. They were hiring. Jonny O won’t even know. He thinks all his dad’s workers are beneath notice. I can’t go back to school yet.”

He saw my eyebrows shoot up farther and stopped me.

“I’ll go back. I will. Next September. Not yet. I don’t think I could be dissecting a human body anytime soon.” His face became gray and strained at the thought. He was right.

“Why not?” Cory asked.

Alex read AJ’s face and asked the question I had been dreading.

“What did Dad look like when you saw him? Why wouldn’t you let us see his body?”

I looked at AJ. He shook his head.

“I can’t do it, Mom.”

“Can’t do what?” Cory was tugging his red hair into his eyes. He knew what he was asking. I could see it in his face.

So I told them the whole story. As I spoke, Alex and Cory, then Marnie, crept closer to me and finally were all huddled on the sofa with me, except for AJ, who stayed so still, alone in his chair. Marnie was curled into fetal position, her hands over her ears, her eyes squeezed tight shut. In the end the rest of us were all crying. She was not. AJ came and picked up Cory, who was sobbing, and held him over his shoulder like a baby, patting him on the back, pacing the room.

I reached for a tissue, my hand shaking.

“I need a small break here.” I made myself take deep breaths.

When all of us stopped crying, I spoke softly but firmly.

“So. Here’s the thing. We have to go on. I think your dad would want us all to go on. He wouldn’t want anything more to happen to us. He would want us to grieve for him, but keep on. He really wanted you all to do well in school, to get your schooling, to have fun, to have friends, and for all of us to be a family. So do I.”

I became silent, not knowing what more could be said about how we could possibly go on. I thought of Conrad’s offer.

“I have some good news. I’ll have a job too. I’ll be doing research for Mr. Wentworth’s firm, part time, but it pays well. When that ends, I’ll be able to get more jobs like that. It pays really well.”

“Exactly how much, Mom?” Alex asked, leaning forward.

“Sixty dollars an hour.” Five astonished faces turned to me.

“Wooohhh! Mom!” Alex looked impressed. “Woooow! That’s more than a paperboy makes.”

Cory breathed. “Only the top models make that!”

Marnie whispered. “Way to go, Mom!”

Hi-fives came my way all around.

One small voice.

“Will you be gone all the time like Dad was?”

Cory had tears in his eyes again. I grabbed him and held him to me.

“No. I don’t have to go there except to learn the job at first…a month, maybe two…and later just to pick up my assignments. I’ll work from here. We’ll need to move all Dad’s legal files up to the attic. The library will be my office.”

The next day I called Conrad and accepted the work.

The years after Art's death were incredibly difficult for Anna, AJ, Marnie, Alex, and Cory. With little work experience and five mouths to feed, the lack of income alone loomed as an almost insurmountable obstacle for Anna to overcome. Added to that, she and her four children were sent into shock, their world shattered by the death of husband and father, a violent death at that.

Anna couldn't even let her younger children view the corpse. To them, their father just disappeared from their lives. She and AJ lived with the terrible memory of the charred body. The hostile attempts to  manipulate her by Jon O'Keeffe made it worse.

Here are some of her writings from that time.


.…journal, written after my first meeting with Conrad…

I’ve chosen Conrad Wentworth by his reputation. Art always said he was the best lawyer in town. I also knew he was the most expensive. If I weren’t so desperate, I would most certainly not think I can afford him. The actual reality is I can’t afford him.  There isn’t even enough money for a small retainer. I expect him to refuse.

His Executive Assistant, Ardith Seacrest, announced me and invited me to sit while I waited. I chose to wander, looking at the collection of art from local artists. She was explaining that their firm, under Conrad’s direction, had acquired many pieces and this was a rotating exhibition, when Conrad came into the lobby. He showed me into his office where hot tea and scones, on blue Depression glass plates, sat on the table waiting for us.

I had met him before, at parties, at the Green Bay Symphony concerts, at other functions. In my mind he was the epitome of elegance, so when I went to his office, I dressed in my dark green suit instead of my current uniform of jeans and Art’s white shirts. I can’t imagine appearing in
front of him in jeans, though I don’t believe he’d ever give the slightest hint that jeans aren’t acceptable. His office is decorated in restrained but classic and expensive good taste, his suits tailored within a millimeter to fit his tall slim frame, his full head of white hair perfectly cut and combed. He breathes elegance, an elegance I’ve never been able to achieve.

A long wall of carefully hung African, Northwest-coast American Indian, and Indonesian masks was opposite to a wall of windows elegantly covered
with pale gray sheers and draperies of a deeper shade of gray Thai silk. Through the sheers was an autumn view of the Fox River and the
West Side. Across the river the Neville Museum was surrounded by trees in autumn dresses of gold, pink and orange.

His desk and the long table were deep mahogany with chairs upholstered in wine cut velvet, all centered down the wide room. An oriental flower
arrangement of white calla lilies, pale gold mums and ferns sat on the table. When I remarked about its beauty he laughed.

“It’s my green and gold tribute to the Packers. It’s the closest I come to that. Football is not one of my interests. Do you follow the team?”

“No, not really, although I enjoy…enjoyed going to games with Art. He bought season tickets years ago and we still own them but…” Football games with Art are over now. Another reminder of loss.

“I didn’t go very often. He took clients and others with him, and the boys, of course.”

I turned away and looked out the window, not wanting to cry.
Conrad quickly sensed my distress and hastened to ease it.

“First, Anna, my deepest condolences. I apologize for not being at the funeral. I was out of town on a very important case for our firm and couldn’t attend. I trust you got the flowers we sent.”

“Yes, and thank you.”

We had received an incredible bouquet of golden roses, maidenhair ferns, and freesias, a welcome relief from the seemingly obligatory lilies so many people sent.

He continued immediately.

“I suspect I know why you’re here,” he said, “but I’d like to hear the story from you before I comment further.” He paused, reading my face.

“Surprised I know? There have been rumors in the legal world. Actually, more than rumors. I’d call them blatant speculation and juicy gossip.
Suppose you tell me what’s been going on. Just begin at what you see as the beginning and go from there. If I interrupt, it will only be to clarify something I don’t understand.”

So I did. I began with the plans Art and Jonny O made to fly to Merida, using Art’s plane, how they laid all the legs of the journey out in Art’s office at home, our library.

"It was the first extended vacation either of them had ever taken. They began planning months ahead. They were to fly to Merida, rent a car and drive to Cancun, stay there and see the archaeological sites and then go fishing for a week off the island of Cozumel. The fourth week Art and I planned to travel to Isla Mujeres for our second honeymoon.”

He interrupted.

“The plane. Was that Art’s personal plane or did the firm own it?”

“He owned it, but he used it for business trips too like when he had to go to places like Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, wherever his cases took him. I gave him the flying lessons for a birthday present a few years ago. It was one of his dreams to fly his own plane. It’s registered with the FAA in his name.”

I continued, telling him about the first call from Mexico, Big John’s calls and subsequent efforts to get information, his calls to his influential friends like a senator and others. I told him everything I could remember that happened in the days before we left for Mexico.

“Big John was a great help. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what would have happened to us. We didn’t know what to do. He knows the right people. Even with all his calls though, we didn’t get help from the consulate in Merida until after the police had us identify the body.”

I gave him a short version of our ordeal.

“I’m sorry, Conrad, but I just can’t describe in detail what we saw there, you know, the body and everything. I’ll fall apart if I do that. It was terrible.” I was feeling nervous just describing the main details. I didn’t want to lose all control in front of this man.

“You don’t have to do that. I really want to know more of just why you want to have me represent you.”

I gave him Jonny’s letter  demanding the return of the money I’d been given by The Firm. I’d made a list of the bills I would have to be paying, the house, cars, insurance, medical bills, and household expenses and told him what I’d done to get money from the bank when I knew we’d have to go to Mexico and I needed money for the trip and for those at home.

“Art really drummed into me that if anything happened to him and he was missing or might be dead, I was to go to the bank right then and take out every bit of money I could from our joint accounts. He said if I didn’t, all accounts would be frozen and I would have no access to them at all until a probate court ruled I could. I did just that.  When I was told he was missing, I took everything out of our checking and savings accounts and put them in my name. The bank officials weren’t happy but I’m glad I did. I don’t know if that’s illegal but we needed that money. It’s what we’re living on now. The money from The Firm paid for his body to be shipped back here and for his cremation and all the expenses AJ and I needed in Merida. I couldn’t have done it without that money. Well, maybe Big John would have loaned me the money. He loaned us the down payment for the house years ago, but I couldn’t be sure of that. Big John did pay for AJ’s plane fare to Mexico.”

“I know I’m owed Art’s financial interest in The Firm. I also know Jonny O doesn’t want to pay it. I don’t know why he’s become so hostile.” I told Conrad about the first angry visit from Jon. (The two later visits hadn’t happened at that point.)

“I hope I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Not a thing, but Art did. He should have made sure you had substantial amounts in accounts under your own name long before this. Did he have the foresight to make a will?”

“Yes. He left a copy in our safety deposit box at the bank. I think there’s also a copy in his office at The Firm but I’m persona non grata
there right now. I don’t have any access to anything in his office. I’m sorry but I didn’t think to bring his will with me.”

“They haven’t even returned any personal effects of his?”

“No. Nothing.”

Conrad sat back, placed his fingertips together in a tent shape at his chin, and was silent. I kept quiet, seeing that he was thinking. I could hear a clock ticking. Afternoon sunlight crept over the room. I sipped tea as I watched a lone dust mote sparkle and drift above the table. The longer he was silent, the more discouraged I felt. I was sure he wouldn’t take my case.

Finally he got up and went to his desk and called in his partner, Clayton Foster, saying they would have to decide together.

Clayton entered by a door at the far end of the room, looking the complete opposite of Conrad. In a rumpled suit, his tie askew, his hair sticking out all over, slightly overweight, he ambled into the room and we were introduced. He was a short man, maybe five feet, seven inches, with a round face and fading brown hair combed over his balding scalp, but his eyes were sharp, shrewd.

He listened as Conrad outlined what was happening. Both men looked at each other for a long moment and broke into huge grins. Conrad then turned to me. “We’ll take the case.”I know I looked puzzled.

Clayton stuck his fist into the air and pulled it downward with a loud “Yes!” He left the room laughing. Conrad, still grinning, said, “I can hardly wait! This will be fun! I’m going to love making O’Keeffe sweat!” It was to be the most excited and undignified I ever saw Conrad behave. He returned quickly to business, sitting down again.

“Now, Anna, there’s work you have to do. You have to go over all your household expenses and give me a month-by-month summary for the last three years. Yes, three years. Ardith will give you forms to help with that. I’ll need to see all your joint taxes for the last ten years. Do you know where you can find those?”

I nodded. “They’re filed in our library at home.”

“Good. I want to warn you that if they contest his death, and they can, because the body was unidentifiable as Art, then this could drag on for years. You will have to plan on earning outside income. You will have to get a jobI felt my stomach sink into despair. What can I possibly do to earn money? “I’ll need a copy of all the papers you signed in Mexico. You let me get those. They’ll ignore you. They may even ignore me. I would like the address of Ramon. I think he can be of great help with red tape. I’ve wanted a reliable contact in Mexico for some time.”

I was looking and feeling frightened.

“I’ve been a housewife. I have no paid work history, no skills.”

“That’s not true. You have skills you’ve acquired rearing your children. For example, at one party I attended, you talked about the educational research you were doing for teachers at your children’s school. Do you remember?” He had a smile on his face.

“Me? Educational research? When?”

“You were helping the teacher add more information to a history lesson by searching books for more on Abraham Lincoln’s mother. I remember it clearly.”

His smile turned to a grin as I began to protest.

He waved a hand in the air.

“It’s all in the way of putting it. In fact, if you can read and summarize what you read, I have a job for you. Currently one of our law clerks is bogged down in gathering information on one case when we could better use him to help prepare another case for court. How about doing some research for us? It pays only $60.00 an hour, is mind numbing and tedious at times, but necessary. We’ll train you on the job of course.”

I sat, open-mouthed, in my chair. A job with a law firm? Me? Only $60.00 an hour? Only!

“Of course, it’s temporary, but there are other firms who could use that too. Other businesses. You could do it at home or at this office, be home when your children are there. Work as much or as little as you need to. It’s up to you.”

Then I really embarrassed myself. I burst into tears.

Conrad waited patiently as I used up much of his box of Kleenex.

“It’s so bad, Conrad. It’s so bad. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat right. I can’t cry in front of my children because then they feel like they’re hurting me. It’s ok, really. I’m crying with relief. I feel so alone. Art did so much. He took care of everything. AJ’s not in school like he wants to be. I see the charred body in my living room. Only the dogs know what’s happening to me. If they weren’t there, I don’t know what I’d do. They’re keeping me sane.”

I was babbling. I knew it. I turned red with shame. I was doing the unthinkable, “airing dirty laundry” which I was brainwashed by MomKat never to do.

Conrad just let me go on, never took his eyes from me. No flinching. No platitudes. No judgment.

When I subsided, he sent me to his private bathroom and I washed my face in cold water until my eyes weren’t so red. With shaking hands I combed my hair, tried to put a little pale pink lipstick but gave that up when I smeared it and had to wash it off. I looked at my haggard face in the mirror and couldn’t maintain eye contact with myself.

When I came out he had a list of what he wanted and the forms from Ardith, including a job application.

“Just fill out the basics of the application. You won’t need all the references. You have a fine reputation.”

From: Betrayal by Serpent.