“Being of sound mind,” my grandfather said, licking the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices from his fingertips, “I spent it all.”
We were seated in his huge steel gray Cadillac, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken because he seemed to get a kick out of contrasting his wealth with the idea of eating fast food in the car, as a weird way to impress out of town family. He had built up a thriving business and owned a huge house overlooking a creek that flowed into the Mississippi in a swanky suburb of Minneapolis. Grandpa liked to show off its technical gadgets to his grandchildren, although woe betide any who touched the remote control that opened the curtains or turned on the lights. Whenever my mother referred to “the rich,” I knew she meant her father.
When he died, though, I don’t know where the money went. He had nine children and there were medical needs for my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s. The only thing my mother seemed to inherit from him was a restless industriousness and a fanatic desire to prove herself. She passed that on to her children.
This week’s topic is inheritance and, while first thoughts turn to wealth, for most of us inheritance is about traits, values, and interests. If we’re lucky, maybe a prized object or two as well. We all inherit; it’s rarely money.
No Broom, Forty Years Later
My mother taught classes about American art, especially modern art, so our house was always full of museum-ordered prints of Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe. I kept the O’Keeffes when she died and added a dozen more. I love the colors.
She also had a Jasper Johns’ print made up in 1973 when we moved to California (“Untitled” which I have always thought is cheating from an artist, but never mind). The wall didn’t have room for the whole picture, which is not entirely rectangular and has a real broom hanging off one side. I remember her agonizing about cutting off the broom because it is part of the artistic point of the picture–Johns was famous for incorporating “real” things into his painting. You can read a few thousand words on this revolutionary contribution to art here. Meanwhile, my mom cut the broom off.
The painting hung in our three living rooms during the 1970s and eventually was moved to her bedroom as other newer views took the prime spot in the room for entertaining. She died when my children were young, so I ended up with more than half of her things. Much was given away, but I had all these prints of Trova and Wyeth and The Luminists, some in the garage for a while. My three-year-old son, though, was given a primary color scheme in his room. So, next to red and yellow sketches of trains and airplanes that we painted on the wall, we put the Jasper.
When my son went through his forest-green-and-black Naruto room phase, the painting was sequestered to the back of the laundry room, where it gathered dust. However, I’ve put it back now in this guest room/office that he has left to go research optics for his doctorate, in another city. The frame is bent, and at one point I had hung it upside-down, but I dig the colors. During Zoom calls, I can see it in my background, and it makes me very happy. Frankly, I don’t think Jasper would object, even without the broom.
My parents both had large libraries, and part of my own large library is from them and because of them. Plus, I married an avid reader who now writes for a living. We’re proudly drowning in bookshelves. My dad bought me some Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager; I wrote my college thesis on Woolf. He bought me Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, too, which I didn’t care for at age twenty. I had an online class last month on American rivers, though, and finally read the Twain–it was stupendous. Apparently, my father had to give it to me in 1977 so that I could read it last month.
One of my most prized possessions is a copy of Shakespeare’s main plays, a black-bound tome with my father’s nameplate in the front and a mimeographed copy of one of my mom’s weekly student assignment sheets stuck in the back. I used it for my college Shakespeare class, as did both of my parents, so on a few of the pages, I can recognize all three sets of handwriting. Come to think of it, that was before my mother had died, so I didn’t exactly inherit it, did I? More like filched it from her office. She probably didn’t really mind.
Life Insurance Bah Humbug
I’ve been to my share of Financial Planning seminars, which always include a huge component for estate planning. Everyone should have a will and an advance healthcare directive, but life insurance has always been a pet peeve of mine. I think it’s a crock, only of value if you have young children. Otherwise, I’ve never understood why I should invest in something that goes to other people when I’m dead. Why would I care? If they want to invest in something that goes to them when I’m dead, fine. I don’t mind creating assets that I pass on to my children, but I hate having a greedy insurance salesman tugging on my heart strings as a way of tying up that money. That’s when I start channeling my snarky grandfather, taking a big bite out of an Extra Crispy leg or a buttered biscuit in his boat of a car.
My mother’s version of estate planning wasn’t bad. She gathered all her important papers together and put them in this Knott’s Berry Farm jelly box with a big sign that said IF I DIE on it. Since she did die, unexpectedly, it was the greatest gift to me! We’re still trying to sort through the disorganized mess that was the rest of her scholarship, twenty years later, but her will and funeral instructions were all in one place.
So this is part of my inheritance to pass on. We’ve put our papers in said same box and showed them to our children, who didn’t seem to be paying attention. (I suspect they didn’t want to think about it, but, really! have these conversations when you’re way too young.)
What We Pass On
My mother also taught Drama in high school and directed plays when I was young. I was in Drama in high school. My daughter was in Theater Workshop and now is going to teach music in high school (whenever Covid lets them do that). We are all teachers; all three of us enjoy the stage. I believe my mother and some of her brothers and sisters also had a little family band, while Grandpa played the violin. Apple, tree.
My son is excessively frugal. I had a colleague once who told me that I was so cheap that “I squeak.” This woman had married a wealthy man and was working to relieve boredom; I was a starving student at the time. However, she was dead right. I know where my son gets it from.
My daughter is an obsessive gamer. Lee builds extensive spreadsheets for their Dungeons and Dragons character with a logic that is probably from my genes. Yet when Lee goes online and starts shooting zombies maniacally in Overdraft and Dead by Daylight, they bear an uncanny resemblance to my spouse, in Karin’s old Majesty and Pac-Man days. When the three of us play card games, I quickly get pincered between their attempts to outmanuever each other. I can only hope they pick each other off and leave me to cross the finish line unnoticed, but that’s usually not the case.
My father worked hard and diligently all his life but through bad luck and mismanagement (some his, some other people’s), died without a pension or assets to reflect it. This taught me–aged 39 when he died–a lot about financial planning for the future. Retiring from full-time work at age 55 was through learning from his experience.
My mother worked hard and diligently as a teacher and a creative thinker all her life and retired with a tidy sum of money. She planned to use it for a long and productive retirement, full of grandiose plans for writing and traveling internationally, which was cut short by her accidental death only four years into those grand plans. This also taught me something about having a sense of urgency with life and a desire to not put things off.
My inheritance from them was rich, indeed.