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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

With warm hands... not cold (lessons in giving)

I've learned many lessons from my parents over the years, but none so important as how to give generously without the recipient(s) feeling as though they are taking. 

The 'small gestures' of support that my sibs and I have received from my parents over the years (a 'little' help with a down-payment on a house... a hand-me-down car just when the family vehicle unexpectedly dies), have been offered as casually as one might offer a back-rub to a tired spouse or a drink of water to someone who has just come in from doing yard work in the hot sun.  This is to say, the gestures are deeply appreciated, but at the moment they are given - and received - it seems so natural as to require only the most perfunctory 'thank you'  and a smile.

I should begin by pointing out for the record that my parents are two of the most positive, life-affirming people I know.  They live almost entirely in the present and completely savor the important things in life such as family, fine dining and travel, in a manner I hope to be able to emulate. 

However, this isn't to say that their generosity has never gone off into morbid territory.  Heh heh... in fact, I haven't fully gotten over the last time it did so... mostly because it was so out of character for them.  It was at one of our frequent family get-togethers (who remembers which... Hanukkah, Thanksgiving...?), when my mom sprang the ultimate buzz-kill on her unsuspecting brood:

"Dad and I were talking about this, and we've decided that we don't want any of you kids arguing over 'things' after we're gone.  So we want you all to take these 'sticky-note' pads and go around the house putting your name on the stuff you want to inherit.  That way we'll know what to put in the will."

This announcement was met with a few seconds of incredulous silence. 

First of all... I don't think there are too many people out there who relish hearing the words "after we're gone" in any conversation with their parents.  But that aside... who the hell are they to decide whether we'll fight with each other after their gone?  I mean, think about it... if they couldn't stop us from bickering while they were - ARE! (tfu, tfu, tfu) alive, they sure as heck aren' t gonna have much luck trying to play 'UN' after they've shuffled off this mortal coil at (IY"H) 120!

I don't recall exactly what anyone said said after my mom dropped her little bombshell... but I do recall that all of us rejected out of hand the idea of selecting our inheritance with sticky notes.  I also seem to recollect telling them that I didn't want to inherit anything from them, and would prefer that they spend their last dollar in the world on something they'd truly enjoy... on say, their 120th birthday!

But seriously, I don't know how many others out there have gone through similar lapses in judgment with their kids ... but if any parents are reading this, please spare your progeny some emotional trauma and avoid making a big production out of your hypothetical-yet-inevitable departure.  Rest assured... your absence will be unbearable no matter what you do or say now, so don't even go there.   

However, this isn't to suggest that you not deal with how to distribute your stuff.  Just don't ask your kids to tell you what they'll want after you're gone... it's probably best to just rely on your own observations and intimate knowledge of your family... and like my parents (apart from that momentary insanity with the sticky notes) give as much and as often as you can with warm hands rather than cold. 

For instance, if you know that one child admires art... find an opportunity to 'notice' an empty spot on a wall at their house and let them go 'shopping' for a picture or painting at yours with which to fill it.  If another child appreciates good furniture, you can always leave him/her the choice pieces in the will... but also be aware of a cheap or aging piece in their home that might be replaced by one of yours right now. 

Does one of the kids have a special love of cooking?  Take stock of your overstuffed cupboards full of pots and pans and casually ask them if they can 'help you' unclutter your kitchen. You might be surprised to hear how they have always had incredibly strong emotional associations with a particular roasting pan, cupcake tin or serving piece that you thought of only as a 'tool'.

On the other hand, jewelry can be a potential stumbling block since it is not only intrinsically valuable, but it can also have different sentimental value to different people.  Again, the best advice I can offer is to give, wherever and whenever possible with warm hands rather than cold... using intuition and intimate knowledge as your guide. 

For example, a relatively inexpensive piece of jewelry that is worn frequently may be a treasured heirloom in the eyes of a child or grandchild who associates it with the essential 'you'... while a gaudy jewel-encrusted bauble or heavy gold piece that you were always too worried or self-conscious to wear out of the house may have no sentimental value whatsoever to those you will one day leave behind.

If you know a particular watch, pair of earrings or necklace has always caught a family member's eye, casually hand it to them over lunch... not as their inheritance, but as a spontaneous gift of love.  I so enjoy seeing Ariella turn up with a 'new' pair of earrings that Zahava has given her in a private moment of love.  I know that she will always cherish not only the physical item, but also the memory of when, and how it was given.

I hope that as my kids get older and have families of their own, they will be as effortlessly generous with their children as mine were - ARE! (tfu tfu tfu) - with me.

I know that Zahava's mother would have preferred to also do things this way with all of her little (and big) treasures, but the rapid progress of her ovarian cancer barely gave her time before she passed to write up a coherent list of what each of her children and grandchildren (some not yet imagined, much less conceived) should receive.

Just remember... the one thing you have that can never be equitably divided is the real and essential you.  This is one of those odd mathematical miracles that will (with luck) bequeath to each of those you will eventually leave behind the feeling that they were the sole beneficiary.


Posted by David Bogner on February 6, 2007 | Permalink


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I don't think you can stop siblings from bickering no matter what.

But - my grandmother (who came to the US as a married adult) was moving in with us when I was a teen, and she was dispersing her apartment. She had always said that whoever took these two huge (and amazingly ugly) paintings of her parents (done in Poland - don't ask) also got the three crystal bowls that had stood in her apartment for all of my memory. When she was moving in with us, she decided she was bringing the paintings, and she was going to give the three bowls (one larger than the other two) to her three sons. My mother, and the only surviving daughter, about went through the ceiling, since she knew she was going to end up with the pictures and NONE of the bowls.

I wasn't in on the episode, but the largest of the bowls came with the paintings, and now all of the cast of characters involved in that fracas are gone. The crystal bowl is in my china cabinet. And I confess I'm not sure where the paintings wound up....

You're right about the jewelry though - my grandmother gave most of it to my mother, and she clearly saw it as my mom's since she was the only daughter, but a few pieces with connections to other family members went to others.

Posted by: Iris | Feb 6, 2007 3:00:02 PM

I know exactly what you mean, David.

My grandparents, though thankfully still remarkably healthy for their late 80s, have been doing a lot of this 'giving with warm hands'. Just a few months ago, my grandfather made sure to give me a Tanach from the 18th century (I kid you not! The introduction is in Latin) that's been in the family for ages because "I know you're a ba'al k'riah and might find it interesting." I was really touched, and it's instantly become one of my most treasured possessions.

I think that part of the motivation to do things in a somewhat morbid manner, though, is that they don't want to be a burden on their children and grandchildren when they do pass away - so they want to minimize the clutter of possessions built up from a long and wonderful life, and tie things up a bit while they are still able. It's just that sometimes the children/grandchildren in question would be quite fine without such reminders of their loved ones' mortality, thank you.

Beautiful post.

Posted by: matlabfreak | Feb 6, 2007 3:11:09 PM

What a moving post. My parents also have a natural tendency to spontaneously give us things they want us to have. At some point, I made a consciuos effort not to mention to my mother when I admired something of hers, because it somehow wound up in my possession, and I'd feel bad. I'm starting to realize with my own kids what a pleasure it is to give something over to them. Thank G-d for my (and your!) special parents! They should be well!

Posted by: RaggedyMom | Feb 6, 2007 4:28:06 PM

Dave... "Whaaaaat?!"
SO remember this conversation and the silence that followed! (probably the ONLY time all of us shut up in unison in our entire lives!)

Posted by: val | Feb 6, 2007 4:59:21 PM

I once admired a bracelet of my grandmother's so she said "Do you want it?" I felt so strange taking it from her, but I love wearing it and she loves seeing me wear it. I now love the idea that she gives things away while she is still alive to enjoy us enjoying her possessions.

And ditto to Iris -- I don't think you can stop siblings from bickering no matter what.

Posted by: SaraK | Feb 6, 2007 5:21:58 PM

For instance, if you know that one child admires art... find an opportunity to 'notice' an empty spot on a wall at their house and let them go 'shopping' for a picture or painting at yours with which to fill it.

This is why a spot on my wall was spray painted with reserved for Mom and Dad's cool Chagall.

A matching job was done on the painting because everyone knows that Post-it notes have a habit of falling off. ;)

Actually I know how hard this is. I had an uncle who contracted AIDs. Towards the end when it was clear that he wasn't going to beat it we were instructed to pick out an item or two.

I remember the shock I felt when he said it.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 6, 2007 5:57:18 PM

Absolutly true. My favorite pieces of jewelry (the only two peices I wear every day) are my great grandmothers engagment ring that my mother got on her 21st birthday, and that she gave to me on mine, and my grandmother's 25 anniversery ring which she gave me for my highschool graduation. (The ring from my grandmother still has me convinced that I'm the favorite granddaugther, since my cousin who's a year older than me just got money to buy jewelry for her graduation) Both these peices mean more to me, and make me feel more loved than any thing bought from a store possibly could, especially since I know how much it means to them to see me wear those rings.
As for siblings getting along, my brother is one of my best friends,and he followed me to my college, but we are both convinced that the other is the favorite child (despite all evidence that he is in fact the favorite.)

Posted by: Emily | Feb 6, 2007 7:19:54 PM

What an issue. i have seen my parents go through this when my grandparents died - G-d rest their souls. But fortunately, my brother and i are fairly close and both of us have always had a sense of "fair play" with each other so i know we won't bicker when it comes down to losing Dad and my stepmom.

As for my own mother... i'm an only child. And goodness knows she's already tried to give me every material thing she owns! LoL.

Anyway, i just wanted to say i love that phrase, giving with warm hands not cold ones. A lovely and thought-provoking phrase. Great post.

Posted by: mercurial scribe | Feb 7, 2007 12:59:44 AM

Great post. You are so right about this, Trepp. My grandmother has recently gone into this kind of mode, giving us little pieces of her life. When I was home last she gave me a set of parlor ice cream dishes that are nearly 100 years old. The true priceless value of them lies in her sharing her stories about where they came from and what they meant to her.

Posted by: Bayou | Feb 7, 2007 1:54:06 AM

When we came to the U.S., we left most of our material possessions behind us... except for some very old books that are now standing in my room. I feel so lucky. Despite the fact that my grandparents are no longer with us, they endowed me with such a strong legacy, that I feel I wouldn't even BE where I ma right now, the person that I am. So I feel like I'm literally carrying on what they've started.

My parents sometimes speculating morbidly, and I hate it. They hated it when their own parents were alive, but they don't even notice that they are doing the same thing. : (

I vividly recally one such spontaneous moment of giving/receiving - but that was with my sister (who's now in Israel!) shortly before we moved to the United States. She had this very pretty Italian pendant, a silver flower, which I thought was very pretty. And about two weeks before we left, she suddenly gave it to me, and I have it here still!

Posted by: Irina | Feb 7, 2007 6:33:09 AM

Iris... I don't think any family (especially largish ones) can experience the emotional trauma of a loved-one's passing without also going through the petty disputes and inevitable misunderstandings and feelings of hurt that accompany the distribution of the deceased's physical possessions. But what I suggested should keep the latter to a minimum. I hope you look at that bowl often and remind yourself of what you don't want for those that you love and might one day leave behind.

matlabfreak... Ah yes, the old 'we don't want to be a burden' brick with which the road to hell is paved. :-)

RaggedyMom... I agree that it is probably best not to overdo the whole 'I just love that [fill in the blank] with someone who is generous to a fault. :-)

Val... If memory serves that was the quietest our family has EVER been at a get-together. :-)

SaraK... Wonderful story and an excellent illustration of giving with warm hands. Thanks.

Jack... The real issues arise when two sibs have the same likes and dislikes. the only thing to do under those circumstances is to knock off the offending sib. :-)

Emily... Oy, the whole 'favorite child' thing. I think all kids go through that to some extent, but as a parent I know there is no such thing. I love my children , but no one more than another. Does that make sense?

mercurial scribe... I don't know where I first heard the phrase you love so much... but please don't think I came up with it! I'm just not that original. :-)

Bayou... Hey you! Nice to hear from you!!! :-) You hit on the other great thing about getting 'stuff' from parents and grandparents. Rather than having to rely on the old expression 'if these [fill in the blank] could talk...' you can hear some of the stories from the person who owned and loved them.

Irina... I'm always shocked when you share some of the anecdotes of your immigration story. You write like such an American that I forget you have an entirely different frame of reference. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 7, 2007 6:01:07 PM

There is a wonderfully funny scene in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon where the family is trying to divide up their stuff, in a parking lot in very cold snowy weather, according to some extremely geeky geometry-inspired idea by the main character. ....

Posted by: Yehudit | Feb 10, 2007 12:17:40 PM

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