It is hard to pinpoint when all the unhappiness began in the family of Melissa Jane Rowe. The woman who buried one child and reared six others dreamed of growing old in the white-columned farmhouse built for her in Anne Arundel County, There, she would manage her affairs and preside over glorious family reunions, the matriarch in a Norman Bockwell painting of hearth and home.
Instead, Melissa Rowe lives in a Glen Burnie nursing home, unable be comprehend fully time and space, according to doctors. The image of family togetherness is shattered. The house stands empty.
The house and surrounding property have become the centerpiece of a blood feud rooted in what one lawyer called "the most bizarre, byzantine, sickening family history I've ever seen." Two mortages have been taken out on the land, worth $100,000 - and most of the proceeds went to reimburse relatives for what they say was their personal investment in Melissa Rowe's welfare.
Attacks by family members on each other are matched in intensity only by their expressions of altruism and concern for the 88-year-old woman. The feud has been through four judges, filled six bulging court files and involved more than a dozen lawyers, some of whom have in turn become part of the controversy swirling around Melissa Rowe.
One of a dozen children of a Baptist preacher, Melissa Rowe came to Washington from Kentucky in 1910 with her husband, Leslie Levi Rowe. They had several children, five girls and two boys. One of the sons, Leslie Rowe Jr., died at the age of 5 in 1940.
"From then on," according to medical papers filed in court, Melissa Rowe "never treated her daughters the same, saying she did not see why one of the girls could not have died instead."
First, she tried to drown daughter Dora in the bathtub for smoking a cigarette, according to court papers and family members. Then, she sought to obtain custody of her favorite grandson, John C. Guise Jr. Her daughter, Florence, a working mother married and divorced, Melissa Rowe contended, was unfit.
Florence fought back, arranging to have her mother committed to Spring Grove state mental hospital. The hospital said Melissa Rowe was suffering from "menopausal psychosis."
Melissa Rowe's Spring Grove stay lasted 26 days. After her release, she filed suit alleging she had been "railroaded" there. In 1974, a federal judge ordered the committing magistrate to pay her $2,500. The award was thrown out on appeal.
By that time the family had grown up, the children scattered. According to Florence, they all ray away from home to escape life with Mleissa, who Florence describes as a tyrannical mother. Dora's recollection are fonder. She swells nostalgically on moments of family harmony, at reunions with their mother.
Leslie Rowe, meanwhile, had become a middle-level bureaucrat, overseeing personnel for the Navy Department's navigation bureau. The Rowes lived in Brentwood in Prince George's County, but Leslie Rowe wanted to retire in the country. In 1946 he bought nearly 100 acres of rolling farmland near Davidson ville, 26 miles east of Washington. He never lived to enjoy it. Leslie Rowe died in 1948, leaving the property as his chief legacy.
Melissa Rowe, a grade school dropout with no profession, scraped by with the help of her children and, from time to time, by selling bits and pieces of the property. In time, 87 acres were left to be leased to formers for cash income.
She did not live on the land, although she wanted to. What it needed was a house. Daughter Dora Digby and her husband Robert, a Lansing, Mich., dentist, agreed to help. Robert Digby had often come to the aid of the family: On more than one occasion he saved the farm from foreclosure; he did dental work for family members; he loaned Marvin, the surviving Rowe son, money for medical school.
In 1966, the Digbys agreed to provide the cash down payment and to obtain a $20,000 bank loan to build the house. As part of the financing, the Digbys became co-owners of the property securing the loan. Melissa Rowe was supposed to make mortgage payments. "She couldn't," Robert Digby recalled. "We did."
Melissa Rowe, said to be unhappy over sharing ownership of the property with the Digbys, contacted the favored grandson, John Guise, according to his version of events.
"On day in 1970, Mom (Melissa) called me; she was almost crying over the phone," Guise, now a boyish-looking 40, recalled in his office at Pohanka Auto Leasing, 2015 L. St. NW. The wall was filled with plaques. "Do Something, Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way." said one. The books helves were lined with such titles as "Transactional Analysis for Managers," "I'm OK, You're OK," and "What Shall I Do With My Money?"
Guise recounted his grandmother's entreaties to "se what you can do to get me out of this" joint deed with the Digbys. "I assume they wanted to create the dependency to get control of the land."
Guise, a born-again Christian, said, "I though the rebirth experience was a sign from God I was sent to take care of her problems." The Digbys and their family allies saw it instead as self-serving meddling, according to court records and interviews with family members.
The Digbys had great credibility within the family. They had two retarded children, one of whom died, and still somehow managed to help others. "Everybody looked on Bob and Dora as the good guys and I was the bad guy," said Guise.
Guise said he saw salvation for his grandmother's tangled affairs in a grand financing plan. First, there would be a new, large mortgage to pay off the old one and to pay the Digbys for other money they spent on Melissa Rowe's behalf - a tab that would grow from $17,000 to $25,000 to $38,000. In return, the Digby's would yield sole little to Melissa Rowe.
Next, the property around the house and 5.6-acre "home lot" would be sold, to provide Melissa Rowe with a steady source of income through prudent investment of the proceeds. This would cover monthly mortgage payments and living expenses.
In early 1972, Guise put together a syndicate to buy the Rowe property for $130,500.
At this point, four Rowe daughters led by Dora, convinced their mother was being bamboozled, made her an identical offer. Part of the proceeds in both proposals would go to satisfy the Digby claim.
In May 1972 Dora sent her mother a $5,000 deposit plus a deed conveying sole ownership. The check wound up in Guise's bank account. Guise said his grandmother gave it to him for services rendered. The deed was recorded a year later with the amount Digby was to receive crossed out and the words "No Consideration" written in.
What troubled the daughters, according to court papers, was an intricate network of connections between Charles A. Dukes Jr., the lawyer advising Guise, the John Hanson Savings & Loan Association which lent the $45,000 mortgate, the company that did the title work and the law firm handing the settlement.
For reasons that are unclear, the sale to the four daughters never went through. On July 2, 1972, Melissa Rowe granted Guise power of attorney to act on her behalf. On July 31, at the Digby's urging, she rescinded it, and so it went.
Guise kept track of what he said were his expenses, and they kept mounting. Finally, they totaled $36,085. He charged for $19,850 miles of driving at 12 cents a mile, for 2,117 hours of consulting at $9 an hour and for 456.38 in long distance phone calls.
Most of Guise's expenses were paid from the mortgage proceeds. Although Melissa went on record approving payment, she later wrote, "He took all the money I had and did not do anything for my benefit."
It took a separate law suit before the Digbys formally relinquished their half of the house deed. When they settled in July 1974 for $38,422, their price included 8 per cent compound interest on phone calls placed years before to Melissa Rowe.
"I don't apologize one hit for charging interest because this was the going rate," Dora Digby said, "We sold two pieces of property, 40 acres for $8,000, to come up with the downpayment to build that house."
It took yet another mortgate, this one for $55,000 to come up with the cash to settle the Digby claim. This time, it was Marvin, the youngest Rowe son, who took charge. At his sisters' urging, Marvin Rowe had flown East in January 1974 to become Melissa Rowe's guardian.
Marvin Rowe undertook the mission, he later wrote, to prevent "any further financial arranging" by Guise, to "settle differences between Dora and mother" and "to sell the farm and use the proceeds to make mother financially independent."
A year later, however, the alliance had crumbled. Some of the sisters, noting the same bank and attorneys that John Guise had been dealing with were involved in the new mortgage, went to court to have Marvin removed as guardian. And Melissa Rowe, although she had ostensibly agreed to the guardianship, complained she had been betrayed.
"I was under guardianship by a party who wanted to get all I own," she wrote the court in August 1976. "I am anxious to be released."
Before the litigation could be reunable to handle her property in 1974, solved, Melissa Rowe, already deemed was ruled mentally incompetent in 1977.
John Guise said be almost committed suicide over the whole mess. "I was caught in quicksand," he said. "But I decided to live with what I'd done.I put the gun away." Guise filed for bankruptcy in September 1977, an event he traces directly to his efforts on his grandmother's behalf.
Marvin, meanwhile, sought court permission to sell the farm property for $200,000. The request was suddenly withdrawn recently when the purchasers bowed out.Marvin Rowe, alone among several relatives reached, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Like Dora Digby and John Guise before him, Marvin Rowe also filed a claim for his expenses. His tab amounted to $38,310, most of it for payments he made on the two mortgages. Some $13,400 was for expenses, air travel, motels, car rentals and time lost from the practice of medicine, which be computed as 12 days at more than $400 per day. To date, his claims had not been paid.
Melissa Rowe lives on, her nursing bills paid by the Digbys and three other daughters. "They asked me to contribute," said Florence, the mother of John Guise. "I said I'd contribute what she left me - $10."
In a recent telephone interview from her Florida home. Florence reflected on her parents. "It's too bad he had to die so young, and she lives on and, on," she said. "That's life, I guess."
Gertrude, the youngest daughter, visits her mother regularly at the nursing home. In a recent visit, Gertrude testified in court, she tried to discuss the family dispute and litigation, to no avail.
"Papa will take care of everything when he gets back from California," Gertrude, 62, quoted her mother as saying, "Go upstairs and do your homework."