Friday, April 07, 2006

Cutting them off

My father says that my wanting to cut myself from his family (two brothers, one sister, and their spouses) is "a low-rent thing to do." His father, my grandfather, is dying in Tennessee. He is. It's not a false proclamation stated to inspire sympathy; his health has been ailing for a long time now -- his words becoming less and less coherent, his epic hours-long walks limited first to around the block then to the corner and back, then down the hallway, and now, if he's up to it, from his bed to the bathroom. I went home a few weeks ago, both to see my parents and to see him, for what I assumed would be the last time. And then, I decided I wanted to go back again but before I did, something else came up: the issue of an old inheritance.

My father and his siblings (along with my generation of offspring) have been left with 600 acres of forest -- and a house -- near the Smoky Mountains that belonged to my great-grandparents on his mother's side. There's been an offer for the property and everyone save my father wants to sell it to developers who plan to tear it all down and build high-density condos and golf courses.

My vote doesn't really count in this decision because, though the land was left to all of us, it is my father and his siblings who stand to benefit. (They would each receive the interest from the principle of the sale -- enough money, every year, for them to quit their jobs without really worrying about money for the rest of their lives. As for the principle, deeded to my cousins and my sister and me, we couldn't touch it until all four of them have passed away, decades from now.)

This is the letter I wrote to them two weeks ago:

My Dear Family,

This afternoon, I spent time researching Thomas Burnett Swann and was
astounded by the vast number of strangers online who name him as
their favorite author. I read essays devoted to explicating his
science fiction and I learned, too, that May 5th of this year will
mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Born four years later,
in 1980, I never had the chance to know him although his life is one
subject of conversations I shared with Great-Grandmommie that I will
never forget. She spoke of her son, as well you know, with a
tremendous amount of love and affection. The truth, of course, is
that she spoke of all of you with love, that she treated all of us
with graciousness and generosity.

Her behavior remains an example to me. Struggling to wrap a Chrismas
present, Scotch tape stuck to my hair, I remember her attention to
details--her beautiful bows and small ornaments, the preparation that
went into wrapping and table setting, flower arrangments and dressing
for dinner. Sometimes, walking down the street in New York, I
remember sitting beside her on the porch at Dandridge. I remember the
sound of clinking ice-cubes in her gin and tonic, Mr. French's Bloody
Mary, the plates of pre-dinner cheese and crackers, salted pecans. I
remember one such evening, the sun setting, as she told me a story
about herself as a little girl and then reached out and patted my
knee with her hand and said, "I love you, Precious." Perhaps that
sounds trite but, having grown up in an extended family rich in
intellect and sparse with displays of affection, her openness about
attachment to her family, to us, was nothing short of astonishing. In
her presence, I found I sat up a little taller.

With varying degrees of aspiration and success, she made me want to
be a warm person, to be disciplined, to always be in the middle of a
book, to rise early in the mornings, to swim and go for walks, to
lean over and smell the roses, to wear perfume and have a signature
scent, to care about the details and appreciate beauty, to have pride
without being boastful, to skin a dove, to put out fresh soap and
leave the lights on for guests, to give people my full attention,
and, perhaps above all, to be loyal to my family.

At stake is the issue of Dandridge but it also presents questions
about our family and how, together, we choose to spend our time, as
well as the gifts that Great-Grandmommie has bestowed upon us.

Though I harbor no false hope that it will sway you, my vote is in
favor of holding onto Dandridge. I appreciate that it is worth a
great deal of money, and feel increasingly resigned to the fact that
it will probably be sold at some point. But still, I feel that I
would be remiss if I did not go on record as saying that I do not
think it is ours to sell; I think, more accurately, that it is ours
to protect. This property is worth more than money; it represents, to
me, generations of our family's history and values and, in that
sense, I do not recognize it as something we have the right to sell
to developers who are open about wanting to plow down the forest and
put up "high density condos."

Really, now, what would be bought with these potential gains that
will still be around in twenty years? Thirty years? Groceries? Cars?
Vacations? Another house? At some point in this process, a fair
question to ask ourselves is how much money does one need in order to
be happy and to live well. It seems, at least to me, that one could
always "use" more money; why not?

A harder question to answer regards what in our lives is permanent.
Who and what can we count on? What do we know for sure? In answer to
the latter question, I have to confess that until last year I took
for granted the assumption that Dandridge would always be there, that
one day my own children would run around catching toads and rowing
around the ponds, that we would all (more or less) convene there on
the 4th of July forever. In consideration of the former question, I
want to say family. I want to believe that we can count on each
other, not always to agree, but always to be honest and, in honor of
Great-Grandmommie, I think that we are capable of handling this
matter with grace. I would like to believe that, with or without
Dandridge, we can get together and play Scrabble and go swimming and
eat homemade hamburgers (a veggie burger for Uncle Charlie) and spit
watermelon seeds into the grass and share decades-old embarrassing
stories and sometimes argue but generally just let out guards down
and be present with each other.

This is my real hope for us.

I'm so grateful to have such wonderful, rich memories of Dandridge. I
feel blessed to have known Great-Grandmommie, truly blessed, and I
believe that, regardless of how this issue is resolved among us, she
would want us to live peaceful and fulfilling lives. I hope to hear
from you and am determined to be more mindful to reaching out and
staying in touch.

With love,

I heard from my father, my mother, my sister, my grandmother. But my uncles, my aunts? I have not heard a word from any of them. One aunt, by marriage, told my mother last weekend that my letter has offended her because they need the money, she said. "What it would buy is peace of mind." I've been thinking about this all week and, truthfully, I can say that I disagree. After the necessities are taken care of -- food, shelter, love, purpose in the morning -- I don't think that peace of mind has anything to do with money. Not hearing from them draws clear lines for me in the sense that, regardless of whether or not it looks bad, I am finished with the charade of pretending that these people are my only family. If your family doesn't bring you some sort of fulfillment, how in the world could you expect money to bring you peace?

I have said goodbye to my grandfather and have decided now to create space between myself and my extended family. I say this not out of acrimony but out of an understanding that our future, as a family, is one that these people are not particularly invested in. I wish for myself to stop feeling let down by them, to stop expecting anything from them. Instead of returning to Tennessee this weekend, I chose to come to London -- to kiss the man I love and try to let go of the fear that everyone eventually falls away and disappoints.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look at it this way: by selling, you'd be providing housing for lots and lots of people. I'm sure it'd be nice to have a 600-acre pad where you hold family retreats once a year ... but jeez, do you really need that much land to do it? Isn't it rather selfish, to want to hog that much real estate when others could be using it every single day of the year?

Creating houses seems to me to be a very moral use for that land. Don't you also have a home, that was probably at one point built on a forest?

11:22 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Interesting. You know...I don't disagree with you and, in fact, I don't even know how much my response to this has to do with the land exactly. I think it's more about my family -- wanting to remain connected to my great-grandmother, wanting not to expect or feel entitled to anything monetarily or, and this is the harder part, to be free from the expectation that my extended family will click into place -- that one day we'll wake up and start acting like a group of people who care about each other.

8:01 AM  

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