Inheritance

I inherited my father’s brown eyes, bushy eyebrows, and his curly hair. I have his wheezy cough and I hear it when I’m sick, and wonder how he got into my room, though he is long gone. 

From both parents, I received my large nose and the peasant shaped body of the Eastern European Jews. Or maybe that’s just an excuse. My father gave me skin that doesn’t burn in the sun, even on our long days at the beach, though these days my enduring melatonin has gone south.

There I am, some part of both. (The marriage lasted thirty-something years.)

He gave me smart and funny, a love of reading, and of big words, which he generously tossed around. Like “curmudgeon,” his self-describing epithet, and “sesquipedalian.” Or sometimes he’d toss out oblique or pithy sayings, and quotes like ‘hoist on my own petard’. Sometimes I’d say something to him and he’d repeat it as a line in a song, and I do that too, to my grandkids’ amusement and despair. He gave me jokes in any situation, especially uncomfortable ones.

Me and the old man, as he called himself.

He taught me to drive, and I will always drive like him, quick, efficient, exacting, checking far around all sides to gauge where I am and calculate what to do next, and do it precisely. Like him, I am impatient with other drivers and swear at them on the road. “Everybody drives a car,” was his favorite zinger. I say it too.

He gave me his temperament – impatience, and a small but explosive temper. However, I do not loudly drum my fingers on the table while waiting for someone to play a card or finish a math problem.

I did not inherit his disdainful sniff, though I sometimes do it to make Alan laugh. At one point I had his dramatic flare. I think that’s faded over time, though it pops up unexpectedly.

He gave me stubbornness, obstinacy, and a will to keep going. Except when it comes to household projects and repairs. He built all of our decks and patios and planter boxes and fences, and even did household wiring, but I got none of his engineering DIY brain. That went to my two brothers along with his Y chromosome.

He loved to be right, and he loved to win arguments. Sadly, me too. 

He was competitive – me too! – and gave me a love of games – hours of cribbage, hearts, gin rummy, and dominoes. I use some of his catchphrases when I play cards with my grandkids and then am tickled when I hear his words coming from their lips. And when Ezra sings, “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road,” I just can’t even.

He gave me a sense of adventure with countless family road trips all over California and into Baja. We went everywhere: Lassen, Death Valley, San Diego, Tahoe, Yosemite, Clear Lake, Shasta, Rosarito Beach, in cars, trailers, cabins, houseboats, and rustic hotels. We never flew anywhere as an entire family. I’ve done my own fair share of similar meandering, and long to keep going.

One of many family vacations – looks like Carmel. And part of our dog, Golly. Karen and I in matching outfits.

He gave me a love of water and swimming. He escaped the midwest as quick as he could and headed straight to the ocean, first the gulf coast of Florida, where I was born, and not long after, to California. We both loved lounging in the sun. We belonged to a swim club and I learned to be part fish. We took frequent trips to the ocean, and spent hours in the cold salty water. After high school, I spent the next 40 years living a mile away from the ocean (except for two years in Texas where I pined for water). Only grandchildren could tear me away from coastal living. Now I swim in the river, do laps in a pool, and pine for the ocean.

He gave me my self-critic which sounds like him (I sometimes even hear that sniff). After all these years, I can’t exorcize it away. It tells me I could do a little better, go a little farther, try a little harder, often to my detriment. Not good enough, is what I hear.

He gave me Judaism which I’ve alternately embraced and rejected, but still somehow lives in me, however uncomfortably. He gave me knowledge that our people go back to the shtetls in Eastern Europe, though not any details of who those people were. Only that they got out, and made a better life from nothing, to my benefit.

Perhaps my parents passed along some level of epigenetic trauma from those shtetls and from their own childhood wounds; a survivor’s grip on life so strong, without hesitation, and without addictions. A tenacity to persevere, and overcome obstacles and fear. Though thankfully, I haven’t been as sorely tested as my ancestors.

Some strong genetic material in this family.

I have my father’s gift of music; a love of all kinds of notes, the joy of song, singing, harmony, and a passion for making my own music. He gave me musical theater. He was Tevye to me. He gave me old yiddish klezmer and temple choir. I never shared his love of opera or of much classical music, which he always played on the car radio. He started me on piano and clarinet, but my older brother gave me folk music and rock and roll, and the 70s gave me guitar. I went on from there.

I see how my sister has a few of my mother’s gestures, language patterns, and habits. I’m sure she sees them in me too, but I’m guessing mine are more like my father’s, with whom I aligned myself early on. We were alike, even in the years when I hated him, spurned his values and behavior, and pushed him away.

I’m not as clear about what I inherited from my mother. Perhaps because she is not clear to me. Who was she? She gave me my occasional spaciness. My emotional reticence. A private nature. My love of beauty and finer things. She gave me a love of family gatherings. My three siblings and I have stayed committed to those in the many years since she died – vacations, celebrations, and Thanksgivings, always cooking her old recipes. She’s present in the rolls and jello mold.

She gave me an appreciation of good food and good cooking, though not the drive or interest in doing the cooking (that’s my sister), or baking (that’s my daughter), or canning and preserving (that’s my brother), or setting a beautiful table and hostessing (my sister again). I do make her brownies though, for which I’m forever grateful. They’re so easy, she said, and they are, and please everyone. Though I am not the graceful and social hostess she was, I am a generous one. For an introvert anyway.

Mom, center, with signature Chicken Tetrazzini – her part of the article seems to be gone somehow.

Perhaps she gave me not speaking up for myself, and a slight tendency toward martyrdom. She modeled how to take care of people who need care, and people who don’t know they need care. I try to back off from taking care of people who don’t want to be taken care of, but that’s hard and I come by it honestly.

I inherited a bit of jewelry from her. She had a few elegant and understated pieces, pearls and the gold charm bracelet that I loved playing with as a child. I did not inherit her careful, well tailored look and makeup, and her Chicago-based fashion sensibility and rules. She sent me to “Charm School” when I was 12. There was always a nudge to look nicer, more kempt. I was an anathema to her in this regard to the bitter end.

Always well put together, unlike me.

She sent me news clippings from the San Francisco Chronicle about the Grateful Dead whenever they popped up. She joked with my mother-in-law in southern California that they both knew when they’d see us based on the Dead’s touring calendar. I still send articles to my kids, albeit they are now electronic links. Sorry kids.

When my mother died unexpectedly at 69, there was no clutter, few photos and papers, no sentimental drawings or pressed corsages, no love letters, and few things stored away for just in case. No history and no secrets. She wasn’t sentimental, it seems, though I am. And though she was never much of a collector, it was still odd to see the sparse, neatly laid out closets and shelves, as if she’d been preparing. My own kids won’t have a lot to sort through, but it will be more than that.

She left behind furniture and fine art. We four kids were lucky to get along so well (luck? genes? parenting?) and divided it easily according to what our homes needed and could shelter. I have her pottery, a Japanese chest, her china and silver (rarely used now), and a refrigerator magnet that says “Charlene’s Kitchen.” Only one thing was fought over, and that was the fancy mixmaster, which my brother and sister debated on who should get it. My brother won the coin flip, but later helped my sister buy a new one because he felt bad. I don’t know who he inherited that from.

And you? What did you inherit?

17 thoughts on “Inheritance

  1. There are so many things that we inherit from our family. You shape this picture in ways that I can feel the joy, hear the laughter, and the music as it echos in your life and on to your children and grandchildren. These are the real treasures we collect, the big and little memories and ways of being a family that we pass on to our own children and grandchildren.

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  2. This is the most lucid and lovely tribute I can imagine about family. How wonderful to be able to point to so many things and know where they came from. I started to tell a story like this once, but got side-tracked. I love your authenticity of owning the things you might not be most proud of, and giving credit, for those things you are. Truth is, YOU are the amazing one. It’s nice to see ourselves in others but it’s what we can build with that box full of tools that counts. I have quite a list but it always starts with my Dad’s cowlicks and my Mom’s worry gene. I sometimes marvel that I made it to 60 mostly put together. Mostly I am. Thanks for a wonderful post. I feel like I know you! ♡

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    • I would love to read an essay that starts with your dad’s cowlicks and your mom’s worry gene. I started with the word “inheritance” and wrote to it 3 different times, plus listened to other people read their responses to the prompt, which further jogged my memory and thoughts on the topic. It was a great prompt. And, I think people who read my blog may know me better, or in a deeper way, than others. I love that blogging does that, and that’s why I also love your blog. Thank you!

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    • Something about being this age, and gaining a certain amount of clarity and perspective. You are digging all that up too right now! That poem generator looks like great fun, thank you! And thanks for reading.

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  3. As others have said, this is very touching – deep understanding and acceptance, and a lot of love, warts and all. Gorgeous photos. Thanks for bringing tears to my eyes.

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  4. I love all of this and all of you. Really I want to just parrot everything already said more articulately above. I know it’s not an obit but it raises the game on what a true tribute should look like. We are so lucky to love and know you N there is no one like you!!!!! xoxo

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