What is inheritance? Do we inherit property (things) or properties (traits, characteristics)?
People inherit two sets of things from their forebears. The first set is property proper: Houses, objects, cars, land, businesses, good names and notoriety, trademarks, intellectual property etc. The second set is properties: physical and behavioral traits.
While the first term of the second set, that is, the physical aspect, is a bit easier to discern (although it does come with a lot of wishful thinking and selective cognition) the second is even more tenuous and very much up to interpretation. People like to pretend they inherited certain (positive) traits for instance because it 1) makes them closer to their fave relative; 2) makes them look good. Sometimes people like to attach these positive traits of the deceased to the living relative that they like in order to compliment them and make them feel good.
My mother ascribes such traits of my dad, my uncle and her mother to me. These are her favorite people. And I guess I am her favorite living person. I think the way we go about this business of creating these proximities, especially between the living and the dead, is acutely subjective which does not of course mean that they are entirely untrue.
When I do gardening work and enjoy it, my mother thinks this is an inclination I inherited from my maternal grandmother. Here we have intertwining legacies: land inherited from dad, seeds inherited from uncle, the propensity for growing things inherited from grandma. So everything one needs for a certain task, (in this case growing a garden) is supplied through different forms of inheritance.
Land is a solid sort of property. Although immovable, land is usually mutable; there is a long list of things one can do on/with a piece of land. Seeds are ephemeral yet highly mobile. Also mutable in that they grow to become something else. As fragile as they are, they can sometimes outlive a person, many persons, if they take root and create more seeds.
The second kind of inheritance: personality traits, propensities, inclinations, talents, as well as weaknesses and quirks. Now these are also mobile, as one is supposedly endowed with them, one inadvertently carries them everywhere with/in oneself. They are also purportedly immutable and thereby also immovable, irremovable. Do we have nothing of our own then? And considering our forebears inherited almost everything from their forebears, well, is there just one set of traits that keeps getting passed down? An infinite regress?
I don’t really know where I’m going with all of that but I think I initially wanted to write more about certain property and properties I inherit from dad. We’re using his van for instance. And it’s not just a four-wheeler. It has so many memories. We made many family trips with this car and its predecessors (even the car has forebears because dad liked this car and this car only; he just kept swapping older models for newer models throughout the years.) It’s sad now when it’s just two or three people in the van because then it reminds us of everyone we lost, that we were once a (bigger) family. More importantly, dad absolutely loved this car. He loved driving it. He loved that he could fill us all in it and transport us to his favorite place.
Using this car is obviously an important convenience to us but it’s also an heirloom that we are protecting through responsible usage. It would deteriorate of disuse otherwise or get sold and thus leave the family.
Similarly, I have, in a way, inherited this place. But not in the sense of “owning” it or anything. In that respect it’s more mom’s than anyone else’s, just like the car. But I inherited it, just like the car, in that in using it I am preserving it and making it better. It’s not so much a relationship of ownership then as it is one of husbandry and mutual benefit.
So this year we worked the land and grew a garden. The heirloom seeds as well as others, bought or collected, grew on inherited land and produced their own seed for next spring. We have also made a lot of mistakes. Not everything sprouted, not every sprout survived. We were not always diligent about harvesting the ones that did survive. There is a lot that we are slowly figuring out. Still, this was one of the best things I have ever done with my life.
Gardening offers the joy of growing one’s own food and the possibility of future self-sufficiency, but also a way of processing grief and commemorating. This land, just like the car, is not empty property. It has been shaped by the ones we have lost. It bears their marks and choices. While pruning trees, I notice the dry stubs from earlier pruning. These traces of dad’s handiwork throws me off in the same way that accidentally coming across his handwriting hits me deeper than his photos. These absent presences are almost tactile evidence of the body that has moved through this world, talking, laughing, loving, writing, pruning.