Now that spring is here, I am joyously getting rid of stuff, which is one of my favorite things to do. Be it recycling, donating, or tossing in the trash, I am a big fan of out with the old and all that. My good friend Anna is doing the same, but her clearing out looks slightly different from mine; she decided it was time to unburden herself of a rather enormous diamond ring, which she bequeathed to her niece. The ring originally belonged to Anna’s grandmother, and the story goes that it was gifted to her from her philandering husband by way of an apology, but it stayed hidden away in its box, never to grace a finger. Eventually it passed on to Anna’s mother, and then to her. Now it’s stranded in its next incarnation indefinitely, yet another nightstand of yet another female descendant of the wronged woman, a $12,000 mea culpa that has yet to see the light of day.
This story put me in mind of my own mother, and the things I inherited from her, genetically and stuff-wise, and how I feel about it. When she shuffled off this mortal coil, my mom was destitute and in possession of not much of anything worthwhile, let alone anything that anyone would actually want to “inherit.” However, as we were clearing out her apartment, my siblings and I discovered some things that were of great value to us after all: a shoebox of old photographs, an overstuffed portfolio of her pen and ink drawings, and some curios and tchotchkes from her gloriously misspent youth. We divvied up the photos and drawings, and I claimed several of the curios that brought me right back to my childhood: an original 1950s Troll doll that my mom named “Maxie” after our long absent father; an unnerving little rubber faced finger puppet wearing a jaunty sailor’s hat that would scare the bejeezus out of me; and a comical, surprisingly lifelike clay shrunken head, obviously crafted by my mother’s own hand. I am very much attached to this unique collection of bizarre objets d’art, even more so than my mother’s brilliant drawings. They are the true embodiment of her dark, funny, confounding and slightly disturbed view on life, representing all of the qualities of hers that I hold dear.
Back in my cozy old farmhouse, I have my mother’s idiosyncratic drawings framed and hung at long last, after a lifetime of collecting dust under my mom’s sagging bed. I also have those slightly disturbing artifacts of hers proudly displayed on a bookcase amid the happy clutter of family photos and favorite books. They remind me daily of who I am and what I come from – a welfare kid raised by a single woman in a crappy tenement apartment building with no heat, and barely enough food on the table. The flip side of that for us kids was life with our outrageous mom and her unhinged bohemian lifestyle, where uproarious arguments and raucous good fun was valued over a sensible meal any day. The humor gene, you see, runs strong in my family, not unlike the predisposition for alcoholism, bipolar disease and agoraphobia. Luckily, the good stuff seems to have outweighed the bad, with all of us cut from the same gritty, silly cloth. At our table, if you weren’t funny, sharp and quick-witted, you perished. We grew up seeing the absurdity in everything, finding the nugget of humor in the darkest of times. Was this genetically passed along to us, or did we learn by example? After all, we did have a role model who, in every respect, refused to take life seriously. When it comes nature vs. nurture, I think it’s a toss-up. But I don’t think you could get by with only one or the other and still joke your way out of the Gulag, say.
I also happen to have a very funny daughter who has surely inherited the lion’s share of my mom’s artistic ability, brainiac smarts, and of course, that Stygian sense of humor. I sometimes lament that she never knew her grandmother. She and her nana would have gotten on famously, no doubt enjoying quality time together while laughing at the worst humanity has to offer.
Which brings me back to my original line of thinking about the things we inherit and how we choose to honor them. For myself, I think I could have done a lot worse than to be granted a dark, but humorous, view of the world’s absurdity. I think I’ll take that over pretty much anything else... except maybe a $12,000 diamond ring.