"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Sunday, January 23, 2011


For the past couple of weeks I've been working on my Will, of all things.  No, I'm not planning on checking out any time soon, it's just that my youngest nephew, who is one of the heirs to this house and property, turned 21 in October and no longer needs it to be held in trust should something happen to me.  (Actually the age of majority is 18 -- I've just dragged my feet, but now he's 21 -- I certainly have no more excuses.)  I made my first Will when my brother and I inherited this property from my aunt in 1999.  At the time my father suggested it -- it wasn't anything I had considered.  

He's right though; anyone who owns an interest in real estate of some sort should have a very clear written intent on its disposition upon their demise.  If they don't, well, there's a possibility that things could go nice and smooth, but there's probably more of a chance that things will get all muddled up and cause all sorts of havoc and bad feelings between loved ones.  Not what you want for your legacy.

So, seeing no reason to spend money I didn't have on a lawyer, I surfed some legal form websites and found one that I could tweak a bit -- fine for my purposes.  I typed it up, took it to the Town Clerk to be witnessed and notarized and told everybody who mattered that "Okay, I have a Will now." My brother stuck it in his safe-deposit box for me, since I had no really good place to put it.  

It was an easy Will to make since the only thing of value I owned was, in fact, that property; well, my car, I sort of guess, and a huge collection of costume jewelry amongst which the very steadfast and determined picker might find something worth more than fifty bucks.  But I doubted it.  I did make arrangements for pets, as I've seen too many circumstances where the deceased did not and these cats and dogs are either euthanized or shifted, shell-shocked, from pillar to post.

I changed that first Will once, when my oldest nephew turned 18 and could inherit on his own.  Since then, even if nephew number two hadn't himself reached adulthood, I've thought about a few other things I wanted to change, too.  I've learned about "green" cemeteries in the interim and their methods and philosophy are such a sigh of relief.  I know the intent is good, but who really needs a powder-blue casket with gilt accents lined with white satin?  In the absence of a "plain pine box," which is, I'll bet, what most of us would probably prefer to be dispatched in (should they ever become available again and pass all health requirements), green cemeteries are a movement worth great merit.  

I wanted to make it clear that this would be my preference, hopeful that there will be many more scattered throughout the United States by the time I kick the bucket.  Or, that home burial, still allowed but with murky prerequisites, becomes clear and commonplace...just dig a hole and throw me in.  (I am not a fan of cremation...for me it's the whole enchilada.)

I also gave some thought, this time, to what I'd want for my send-off.  I always wondered, how can people actually do this stuff?  Plan their own funeral?  I think it's like having a tooth pulled: you'd like to put it off and pretend it doesn't really need to be done, but it's best to get it over with. 

In my case the answers came so quickly I wondered if my brain, unbeknown to me, had been considering this for some time now on its own: two readings, one from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet -- his beautiful, blissfully written passage "On Death," and the bible passage from Ecclesiastes that I have heard at many services, its plain chant wrapping round us, the mourners, with a lovely and reassuring finality; and two Van Morrison songs, beginning with "Into the Mystic" and ending with "Brown Eyed Girl."  So I figured it's time I threw that stuff in somewhere.  Make it easy for whoever takes charge.

Then, recently, by coincidence (I certainly hope) I read a well-written article in a magazine on crafting a simple Will.  What brought me up short was the emphasis they put on being very specific with your belongings.   Saves hard feelings. 

So I started to wonder...what do I have to leave behind, and to whom do I leave it?  There are a few antiques that are no doubt worth a bit in the marketplace, but my treasures are mainly sentimental.  I am looking right now at the shelves in my bedroom, scattered -- okay, crowded -- with eclectic items: the green glass bottle my aunt used to sprinkle water on her ironing (walking in after school and smelling freshly ironed linens in her kitchen: priceless), an interesting 1940s print of a kitten being lovingly squeezed between two puppies, with the inscription "Susie," with 3D effects from some dips in the back filled in with plaster (it was on my bedroom wall when I was a kid...I wouldn't give it up for the world), a nutcracker in the form of a kangaroo that sat on a shelf in my aunt and uncle's den all the years I was growing up (did they get it at a flea market? did our Scottish relatives who emigrated to Australia send it over?  I don't know, but I love the calm smile on its cast iron face).
These things are tangible memories.  I am not (ask anybody!) averse to changes, new experiences, new friends and family, but at the same time I cling to my own bits, my own long, idyllic days of childhood, filled with laughter and unconditional love beyond measure.  

Looking at these things, holding them in my hands, I feel very fulfilled and grateful for the gift of time and experiences.  These things make me feel a little bit (sometimes quite a bit) the way I felt back then, when life was a blend of "Leave it to Beaver" and a New England-flavored Mayberry, when everything was perfectly taken care of and life stretched out ahead of me like a long winding road, full of curiosities and reassurances...before Real Life began.

You can't keep everything, of course -- and if you did, it wouldn't stop time.  Nor do you really have to have material things to remember. Just ask anyone who's lost all of his possessions in a fire or flood.  You've seen the interviews newscasters foist on these unfortunate people who are at once devastated and sanguine.  "We will start over," they say, "at least we have each other." 

And some people, it's true, just don't care about keeping the foam-popcorn-pellets-on-yarn necklace their child made for them in 3rd grade, or the flowered teapot their great-grandmother used or the two-handled saw their uncle had when he worked for the W.P.C.A.  All of that notwithstanding, you do find family photos displayed in almost every house you enter, don't you?

So I've sat at the keyboard and done five or six drafts of this new Will, but what keeps getting the best of me are the codicils.  I'm taking that magazine article's advice to heart, but will anybody really want my beloved sock monkey collection?  (I have twelve now; 2 were mine as a baby).  
How about my ladies' handkerchiefs, some of which were mine, my aunt's or my mother's when, as a kid, we carried one in our pocket and wore white gloves to church?  They are so beautiful I can't imagine blowing my nose on one; I just love the look, the dainty lace, the rich embroidery, the ornate crochet trim and the bold roses and dogwood blossoms; I've collected, laundered, folded and ironed and hung them where I can see them, but I have no idea who would appreciate them besides me. 
And  I have a really fun collection of kitchen tools from the 30s, 40s and 50s, too...I've haunted tag sales and second-hand shops and my aunt's and mother's kitchen drawers amassing them in all their rustic innovation, but are they something anybody in my circle of inheritors will give a fig about?  Would anyone want "Susie?"
So I feel a little helpless.  I'm floundering.  I want to be specific, I truly do.  It's just that I don't know how much of who I am -- who I was -- I should leave behind in this Will, not knowing if it's anything of sentimental value to anyone else, or if they're just going to dump the stuff in boxes and take them to the church rummage sale or Goodwill.  

Should I maybe include a letter to give them a head's-up on what I do have that could be worth some money, like the little fish mold I bought for 50 cents that turned out to be a rare French candy mold, or the Victorian needle case, or my official Walt Disney Mary Poppins spoon?  I wonder about the old globe my brother and I used for school projects.  It still lists Iran as "Persia."  (Do not try and break into my house and heist this stuff.  I will know it was you.  Whoever you are.)  

Maybe I should talk to them now...  My aunt used to point something out now and then and say "by the way, that's worth money."  "You won't know what happens," my friends say.  True, maybe.  But I can hope that I've helped things come together in a way that I, and the people I love, agree is right. 

My aunt was no fool and she never missed a trick.  She farmed stuff out when she was alive; she pretty much knew what we would want, what we would treasure and enjoy whether it was valuable or not. (She would shrug and say "Well, it will all be yours someday," just as I look at my nephews and tell them the same.)   It was hard when she passed away, mostly because she was the absolute treasure of our lives and we miss her every second of every minute of every day, but also because while my brother and I walked through the empty house, the house where we had grown up and lived a magical life, and spoke softly -- as if to ourselves and not each other -- we knew we were at an ending, and could only keep so much.  

He took the sofa and some nice lamps and a hand-made quilt and the slides...those precious slides, and I took some knick-knacks: the Staffordshire dogs, the cut-glass perfume bottles with sterling silver tops that sat on her dressing table and that I played with many times, the mortar and pestle my uncle ground cardamon seeds in every Christmas for Swedish coffeecake, his leather-covered whiskey flasks he brought to the golf course with him, the rosewood mirror from my aunt's bedroom and her 19th century Godey's ladies fashion prints.  

The rest we had to sell in a consignment shop and at two tag sales.  And I know for a fact that we erred at times and sold things cheaply that we didn't know were especially valuable, but they went to someone who was delighted to get a deal and that is everything my aunt would have wanted.

As my aunt did, my parents too have touched on the subject of inheritance.  My mother has asked me if there's anything I want of hers, and my father -- a musician -- has already informed me he's leaving me his Martin guitar, since I am the only one in the family with a smidgen -- and believe me it is a smidgen -- of musical talent.  I tend to feel faint and suffer anxiety attacks when they bring up the subject.  But, they are right to do so.

I think I will be okay for my stuff to go to a rummage sale or junk shop.  That is because I found a good lot of it there.  Picture them: the stocky, aproned homemakers of the 1930s and 40s sifting flour, beating eggs, blending pastry and grating cheese, unaware that these brightly painted kitchen tools they take for granted will get dumped in a box and taken where I will happily discover them, generations later.  

Picture the starched ladies of the 1950s and early 60s on their way to church -- white gloved and well pressed, a hankie tucked in their purse or pocket, a hankie I will come across in a box of old linens at a second-hand store, and jubilantly purchase.  And they have no idea.

So I can't tell surviving generations what to treasure.  That's not my decision.  That's theirs.  I can only tell them what I treasure, what lives with me: my aunt's tole-painted canisters and wooden coffee grinder, my mother's teal blue felt jacket, embroidered with vivid cacti and sombreros, that my father bought for her in Mexico during the war (along with a Mexican silver bracelet and a hand-tooled leather box); my dad's Air Corps medals and fringed silk pillowcase he sent home from the University of Arkansas; my grandmother's birth certificate, beautifully inked in Norwegian with twining roses on a sepia background; my grandfather's manual on gardening and his tartan; the small green trunk I've had since childhood to keep my dolls in.  

The rest is up to them.  They can take things, or they can take memories, or they can take things that they love, and remember.   I'm more than half way through my life, and every time I see that wonderful green sprinkler bottle I see mortality, too, out of the corner of my eye.

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