Previous generations didn't think ahead, so we're left to build our own legacy.
This is something my sister said the last time we were together. It was in reference to our extended family's financial woes over the years which really trace back to a lot of short-sightedness by relatives two or more generations prior. What's incredible is that this is true of both sides of my family and seems present in the way we think about our lives and the way we want to leave the world.
It makes me mad in a way that almost feels selfish, like I expect to be handed something I didn't earn. I don't. What I expected was for my grandparents to support my parents when they needed it and to show them how to live their lives in a way that would in turn give my parents the tools to pass on to me. This never happened, and my parents made mistakes that I've learned from. And I'm sure that despite my anxious, obsessive desire to do better I will still make many mistakes that will need to be remedied by future generations.
It's not just money. I'm not talking about inheritance, I'm talking about a legacy, and how having one (or leaving one) can give you peace of mind like nothing else.
My parents always told me I was good with money. I rarely had to try to save and I never owed people anything. When I started a new hobby I'd sell the trappings of my last one so I could get things moving. And, because we were always struggling with money, I did this all out of a small allowance. Nothing strange here, every child of middle class parents knows how this works.
Behind the scenes things were different. I have two siblings, and my younger cousin was living with us at the time. And yet my grandparents on both sides truly failed to contribute to, spearhead, or facilitate the process of saving for our futures. My parents had their hands full of everything but cash, so they get a pass here.
And here's the fun part: my mom's family had money, but they lacked scruples. Their fortune (and it had to have been close to a million or more) was pissed away on Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff houses, fancy cars, and really, really poor investments. All that's left now is a 1980s Lincoln owned by my great-uncle whose Baltimore catering business was the only family asset every to stay liquid. Good for him, I hope his family has benefitted greatly from his discipline.
On the other side, my dad's family had a problem. His name was Tommy, and he liked to get in trouble and end up in jail. My grandmother, lacking wisdom but full of love for her son, bailed him out time after time. The last time, against the advice of all around her, she sold the family house and that was that. It was auctioned off and we lost that property forever.
So, when my parents got together and had us there was nothing left but regret and a lot of depression and despair. All we knew was the uncomfortable truth that if something happened to one of us, no one would be able to help. In fact, one winter my dad came down with Pneumonia and couldn't work for close to six months. We had no ability as a family to fund that rainy day, no family members who could step in and save his business, and no real assets or advice to work with.
His business went bankrupt, and we ate Ramen noodles for dinner for months.
I get paid well enough to be comfortable in NYC. That makes me extremely lucky, and I'm thankful beyond belief.
Something has always bugged me though, something about the way other people with close families talked about their lives and the way they considered new life choices. It always sounded like a lack of caution, like these individuals were spending money and making decisions without thinking them through. And yet something was different, namely that they always manage to save money, to travel, to do those things that make a person happy.
It finally clicked when I spoke to a friend who had recently moved into an apartment on her own. Her family supported her in ways I never knew were possible. Far from being a financial crutch in the present, they planned ahead. They paid for her college, helped her move, and did basic things like keep her on their phone plan and provided wall art from their family home. They were bequeathing little bits of their legacy to her and it showed.
It showed in her decision to go to grad school, cost be damned because there was a safety net if things went badly. It showed in another friend's adoption of an old family car, because if it broke down, hey at least it didn't rust in a junkyard somewhere. It showed in another friend's wedding, a beautiful and simple affair, paid for with family savings, leaving the couple without debt to start their life together. And it showed in the general outlook of all these individuals, who, far from being calm, perfectly adjusted people, were more focused on their interpersonal conflicts and what bands they'd see this week than on making sure they could support their parents in their old age.
That's what it came down to. Decisions made over many generations that allow each new generation to think less about survival and more about themselves and how they want to live. In the most selfless way, parents and grandparents and great-uncles had sacrificed their own prosperity, preserved family traditions and heirlooms, and kept the fire lit in the family home, all for the future, undefined success of their offpspring.
I never had that. I had loving parents, wonderful siblings, enough to eat, and a college education. Those things allowed me to become the person I am today. But I never really had anything to look forward to, and I certainly never had the peace of mind afforded by a strong family structure. Instead I've spent most of my 20s playing catch-up so I can hopefully spend my 30s feeling secure enough to give back and make the world a better place. I can't help thinking that this could have been avoided if people in the past, people I never met, had just made better choices. If they had focused on their legacy and took pride in their success instead of grasping at straws, myself and the dozens of cousins and half-siblings my age would all be better off. We'd all have more peace in our lives. We'd all feel more connected to our ancestors.
What happens to a dream deferred? Contrary to the poem by Langston Hughes, it flourishes like a seed, planted in fertile ground and left to become a forest. A forest can be enjoyed by everyone if you just let it grow.
It's been hard getting to this point. I'd like to leave you a seed. If things keep going this well, though, I'll leave you a forest.