How Mom confounded the phone man

He wanted to pay her. She resisted.

Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters
A man works on a telephone line next to a private bank in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 31, 2016.

One day a stranger knocked on the front door. He was tall and balding and seemed surprised to see me.

“Helen McDermott doesn’t live here anymore?” he said.

“No,” I said. “She died in June. I’m her eldest daughter.” He looked stricken. 

“Your mother was an extraordinary woman.”

His name was Michael Bergfeld, and he used to be acquisitions manager for a telephone company created in the 1970s during the Bell System breakup. He had been dispatched, years ago, to acquire lots on which to locate switching stations for the company. He’d identified three possibilities in town, and Mom’s far south lot had been one of them. He had visited each owner to discuss prices.

“ ‘Mr. Bergfeld,’ she told me,” he said, laughing, “ ‘if you can use that lot, take it.’ ”

I am big-city-savvy enough to know how this must have struck him. Bergfeld’s job had probably exposed him to more undiluted avarice in a week than most folks experience in a lifetime. My sweet, quaint mother believed the lots were worthless. She had always wanted to sell them, had been paying taxes on them for many years, and would have loved to be rid of them. Her personal morality, however, obviated the capitalist rationale that if a worthless item has value to a buyer, he should pay for it. She couldn’t accept money for something she was convinced was worthless, she told him.

He was insistent. “Well, Mrs. McDermott, I can’t just take your property. You need to come up with a figure.”

She couldn’t. 

So he went to the county courthouse, he told me, and investigated local land values. He had a deed drawn up and returned a couple of weeks later to present her with a check for $2,000, the value he’d arrived at. He took her to lunch to explain a key provision of the contract: If his company didn’t build the facility within a specified time frame, the property would revert back to her. 

On a subsequent visit, she tried to return the check, but he wouldn’t take it. Shrugging and setting aside her guilt, she deposited the $2,000 in the bank with the money she was saving for her children. 

Bergfeld evidently admired her. He stopped back to visit whenever he was in the area, as if she were some sort of moral touchstone. Perhaps her very existence was consolation to a man who spent his days wrestling greed to the ground.

Before his company’s switching station could be built, cellphone technology transformed communications. Bergfeld retired, and the lot reverted back to Mom, with the $2,000 still in her account. 

The only time I ever got wind of any of this – before Bergfeld knocked on my door – was her response to my observation: “Well, Mom, if you have to move, the house and lots must be worth far more than you paid for them in 1945.”

She replied with a firm “Humph!” Then: “You want to know how worthless this place is? A phone man came here once and bought a lot and paid me for it – paid good money for it! – and then he gave it back to me. That’s how worthless this place is!”

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