Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You never really know a person till you share an inheritance

My Memere used to say that all the time, but she was from an old New Orleans family where any will was both an admission and denial of blood. When Jesse died, he had no will, what person that age would? I was the next of kin. So it was up to me to tie up the loose ends and settle everything. Relatively simple if you don't take the emotions into consideration.

Now though, my Indiana grandma's will is on the table. Different but just as ancient family: on her side no one had traipsed through the wilderness driven from the wintry flank of Nova Scotia to the low savage swamps of Louisiana. Nor had they sailed from war-torn Alsace looking for a teaching job in the French colony. No, her people had come with the rest of the early country, fought in the Revolutionary war, escaped hanging in Germany, or migrated from Ireland at the famine. A different strand of the European vine.

My grandma had five children, including my dad, who passed away at 45, when she was in her late 60s. I wear her shoes, I guess. My dad was the oldest, the stubborn, the loyal, the one who left, but came back and stood by my grandparents ever after.

The remaining siblings had been our surrogate parents when we were kids. We spent summers together, on weekends my dad would drive us to Grandma's and we'd spend at least a day with everyone, share meals, some ritualistic farm chores almost as ceremonial as they were practical. We bonded with our farm inheritance by tilling, planting corn, gathering berries, milking cows, pulling weeds. Work was love, was family. I don't remember much fighting then, just sharing of work and play, but I was a kid and there was a kid's table in that house. There was also an outdoors we were sent to, during which times some of these long-term resentments must have been laid out and fondled and honored and brandished and cradled and nourished, like another set of kids themselves.

Must have been my parents and grandparents protecting us, they were the ones sending us outside. The uncles and aunts careened more or less through life, didn't finish college, got into debts, premarital pregnancies, scrapes with the law and life, before settling down in the more or less forgiving but never forgetting landscape of southern Indiana, where their family had been for so many generations that our names appeared in history books simply because we were still there.

But there were always resentments and rivalries, regardless of what Dad did to corral them before or after his death (they would all say, if your dad was still here none of this would happen, every time they feuded). Because when Grandma died, even though in her will she split everything equally and admonished them not to fight over the inheritance, they had already started the war. They'd started it before she even left the farm for the old age home. And it got worse every year, until it threatened to swallow my brother and sisters and me up in it, and the few cousins I could still call friends. And now, four years later, the thing those uncles and aunts have been nurturing in their hearts has reached us.

They think we're going to let them use our share of Grandma's money to pay for their feud over it.

They've forgotten that we're my father's children.


  1. As the wife of a tax attorney for 25 years I can tell you that you are absolutely correct.

    Family alive and fighting is nothing like family left alive fighting.

    Good luck. I'm glad you have some of that Nawlins blood in there to help you keep your perspective.

  2. Ironically, a great deal of the cruelty seems to flow from the perception that blood being thicker than water means regardless of how I may treat you, you'll always come back for more. A little bit of the child in each of us dies when we see avariciousness and greed at close quarters for the first time.

  3. I don't have anything to add with regard to your particular circumstances. I just wanted to say how beautifully put together your post was. That's all.


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