• January 2012
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Love, Actually: Living Off My Father’s Inheritance

My father is preparing for his imminent demise. He is choosing to prepare for this by preparing his children for his imminent demise. This holiday season marks the second time we have been summoned to the house for a “family meeting.” Last year, I, personally received a letter in my mailbox in New York City. My father called me to make sure I had received it and to restate what the letter had already made clear in his careful, ALL CAPS handwriting. “I want to inform you of our family meeting to be held at 1 p.m. on December 31 at 1416 Meadow Street in Metairie, Louisiana.”

This year my father’s flare for the official (and melodramatic) has subsided and he has simply said to each of us: “Come to the house on New Year’s Eve. I need to talk to y’all again.” It is at this second meeting where I begin to sit with the reality that my father will be dead soon. Last year, his verbose explanation of how we were to handle his funeral, the house, our inheritance were merely reminders of how responsible he is and protective of the modest safety net he has built for us over the years.

But, this year his breathing seems a bit more labored, his step a bit slower, his energy even more clipped. I and one of my brothers are the only two of his children who know the doctor has suggested that our father would need to be put on dialysis in about a year. Because he is our father, he has told the doctor this will not happen. Unlike the doctor, my brother and I are positive that our father’s calm, yet certain refusal will remain even when the doctor’s suggestion has graduated to the recommendation stage.

This second meeting, which repeats much of the information from the first meeting, is only a guise. A way to seat the four of us together for three hours and remind himself that he has reached the most pivotal of goals. The son of a junk man who survived the Jim Crow South, “seperate but equal” public education and several major hurricanes beat the system. He has been able to build his own house, live off a good pension for the last decade and now, leave this house and some money to his children. He has proven to this country that despite its attempts to beat it out of him, this negro boy has, truly, lived the life of a MAN.

I feel myself begin to be overcome by…something. I do not know what this something is. I only know what it is NOT. I am not overwhelmed by the thought that in a few short years, my brother is likely to call me to come home because the result of my father’s refusal to be put on dialysis is our attendance at his funeral. I do not think my eyes get itchy because I know deep down I will never again live in this house that has become a symbol of victory for my father. A part of me thinks my eyes are itchy partly because it has occured to me during this meeting that I will never again live in the only city which my father and his father called home. (I think?)

What I know is that when my father hands us all our original birth certificates, my eyes somehow find their way to the section where my parents’ names and ages are listed. The yellowed paper tells me that on June 4, 1975, Marva Kendrick was 29 years old. This legal document reminds me that before she was thirty, my mother had been the wife of Gerald Kendrick for several years and had just given birth to his fourth child. This is not new knowledge for me, but for the first time I am aware of the sharp contrast between her life and mine. I have never been anyone’s wife or mother. For 36 years, I have simply been: Keturah, pursuer of passions, traveler of the world, observer of people.

And this is why my eyes are itchy. My mother’s is not the only life that is in direct contrast with mine. For my father, a life is created by staying safe. 1. Plan to stay in a pensionable job for 25 or 30 years. 2. Do not risk that job by paying much attention to boredom or the lack of challenge or growth you feel. To me and most of my generation, job security has become an oxymoron in the best of circumstances, a plain ole pipe dream in the worst. I have vaguely planned my career track based on my interests, talents and desire to feel challenged in every aspect of my life. Anytime I have been able to parlay any type of employment that is not a standard job that one finds listed in the newspaper, my father is absolutely awed by my ingenuity.

Looking at my mother’s information on my birth certificate undescores how drastically different my story has been from my parents and how different it will continue to be. For one, I doubt there will be children to sit down at my kitchen table with whom I will go through important financial documents. While I do own property, it is no more a smybol of my victory over the system than my secure, reliable job as a public school teacher. The condo I own now can be easily traded in for a flat in London or even sold simply to rent a nicer apartment in a better neighborhood. My Department of Education paycheck can be suspended for a year or two while I spend a year teaching in South Africa. I may marry. I may divorce. Neither will do much to add to or subtract from what I envision as a happy, fulfilled life.

And as I sit at the kitchen table in my childhood home, I come to the most powerful realization. My father is going to die. He may have already been told this by his doctor. And I, his doting daughter, will be able to handle it with grace. I am not afraid of his death nor my own anymore. I am not dreading the phone call as I had been years ago when I first began to notice his whezzing and coughing. I am prepared for it mainly because unlike my parents, I have chosen Nichiren Buddhism as my spiritual practice, a religion that is not based on Christianity’s premise that salvation from this cold, cruel world is granted by an all knowing, all powerful deity. While I do not propose that the Christian faith is not valid and unable to bring comfort to its believers, I am aware that I, unlike my parents, ventured out in my spiritual path just as I have in my profesional and personal paths as well. I CHOOSE the religion that brought the most to my life as opposed to remaining in the one that was the most familiar to me. The one with which others were most familiar. I chose Buddhism because it has been most congruent with the truths of life and the world than other religions. It has also been the most useful tool for transforming my life than the Christian faith. This reason for my being a practicing Buddhist instead of a practicing Christian, too, seems to be in direct contrast with my parents’ reasons for being psuedo-Christians all these years.

So, perhaps what had and still has me “overcome” by my father’s second family meeting is gratitude. A sense of sincere appreciation for the real inheritance he has already given me. I want to cry because I am thankful that he had the courage to navigate a world that was so limiting to him and for doing so in the most dignified way he knew. I am grateful that he prepared this country for me. If I didn’t fear it would steal his thunder, I would interrupt his auto-eulogy by thanking him for my inheritance. And explaining that it is, in fact, more than this four-bedroom brick and mortar victory in which we all now sit. It is so immense it can not be whittled down into numbers on a check.

3 Responses

  1. Keturah, this really resonated with me. Also, a quick digression, I didn’t know that our birthdays are so close. I was born on June 2, 1975.

    I relate to much of what you wrote here. This Christmas I hosted my parents in my studio apartment in Brooklyn, NY. It is physically and metaphorically far away from my childhood in North Carolina. I’m a 36 year old woman who is not married and has no children. I don’t even own property yet. That’s very different from my mother (and father) at the same age. My mother had two children by the time she was 29. She and my father brought the home in which they still live in 1980, when my mother was 31. I would like to own a home at some point, but it may take years to get there, especially if I remain in Brooklyn/the Northeast (as I currently plan to do). At this point in my life, I have no desire to have children. If I do change my mind, I will probably adopt them which is something my mother thinks is a bad idea.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life following my own mind and ideas. My only regret is that I didn’t believe in myself more fully when I was in my 20s to completely follow my own mind. But life is a journey, and I’m happy to have that belief in myself now.

    I spent quite a bit of time during and after my parent’s visit thinking about how growing up (and away) has been and continues to be bittersweet. I came from them but am now me. What you said here really captures what I am grateful to my parents for, “… I am thankful that he had the courage to navigate a world that was so limiting to him and for doing so in the most dignified way he knew. I am grateful that he prepared this country for me.”

    Thank you for writing this.

    • I am glad we have so much in common, Tracy! (Southern gemini girls who have called the north home and are happy with childless lives). What I couldn’t fit into this blog here was what you hinted at when you said your mother thought adopting a child was a bad idea. These different ways of “doing adulthood” seeming so foreign for them that something as simple as “If I feel the call to mother after nature has cut me off, then I’ll adopt” is seen as out of the box to our parents. Our lives are quite different and I don’t think they truly realize how THIS difference is what they sacrificed for. The ability to make the decisions we have made/are making and (most importantly) finding a world that is much more open to us and our choices. It is what their fight to be a part of the status quo has produced.

  2. Thanks for this Keturah!!!

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