My Inheritance

I’ve been on an epic house-cleaning tear this winter. It was sparked in the days after Christmas by a long overdue holiday decoration purge and reorganization, and since then I’ve been bagging up and carting off loads of stuff—to Goodwill, to friends and neighbors, to the curb. The endeavor has been enormously cleansing because for me there’s an undeniable connection between physical and mental clutter, and getting rid of the things junking up my house has really cleared my head.

I went through every closet, cabinet, drawer, and shelf in the house. I even cleared out the crawlspaces! Amid the loads of clothes we never wear anymore, the toys from which our kids have graduated, and the various household whatevers that stack up over the years, I happened upon at least three or four sizeable boxes of momentoes.  Hopefully, unlike me, you’re normal and don’t tend to hoard worthless objects that hold irrational sentimental significance. These veritable treasure troves (boxes of junk) included tons of ticket stubs (from amusement parks, flights, movies, festivals), programs (from commencement ceremonies, plays, concerts), invitations (weddings and high school grad parties), and announcements (births, deaths). There were bottle caps and matchbooks and countless hotel key cards.

Some things were obviously sentimental: sympathy notes from my mother’s funeral, my brother’s obituary, my grandmother’s rosary beads. The meaning and value of other items became apparent to me only after a bit of thought. Like coins.

Even in this age of debit cards and Venmo, everybody has loose change around the house—in jars, on nightstands, between couch cushions, on top of the washing machine. I married an inveterate leaver of tiny change piles. This has always driven me crazy, and so several times a year we find ourselves sheepishly emptying heaping containers into the Coinstar machine at the grocery store, and I’m always kind of amazed that all those annoying little metal discs scattered all over my house add up to real money…that we can spend…on things we need or want. Crazy!

Besides loose change, my cleaning expedition also yielded a stash of other coins buried at the back of a linen closet in a very old-seeming cookie tin. Among a smattering of old postage stamps and random foreign coins, it included rolled Eisenhower silver dollars and Kennedy half-dollars. I recalled immediately from where these had come—from my aunts, my father’s three sisters. Two of them are dead (one’s death predated my birth), and the last remaining sister still resides in the house in which they all grew up in a little mill town outside the city. I’m no numismatist but a quick Google search reveals that 1964 Kennedy half-dollars are 90% silver. They sell for about $9 each. That’s not bad at all, and I have quite a lot of them here.

I don’t know my father’s side of the family well. His parents were both dead by the time I came to be, and for reasons I know nothing about my dad didn’t keep in very close touch with his siblings or their children so I have a whole slew of cousins I’ve never known. Aren’t families funny? And crazy? I find this increasingly sad as I get older, and I suppose I sort of wish I felt some kind of real connection with that side of the family. I know that my father’s parents were immigrants. I’ve seen my grandfather’s name on the wall at Ellis Island—he came through from Austria-Hungary in 1909 as a nine-year-old and, according to family lore, went to work in the bellies of Pittsburgh’s steel mills almost immediately. Family legend also has him missing a total of three days of work in his sixty-five years at the mill. Certainly, some exaggeration’s involved here, but the pride with which this statistic is recited really hints at the depth of my blue collar roots. Beyond this, all I know is that as a grown man, Pap played the banjo, had reddish hair (my daughter has red hair), and was regarded as a reticent and very kind guy. His wife, my grandmother, was by all accounts a bit of a tyrant. I suspect she must’ve suffered terribly from various mental illnesses, chief among them, a roaring anxiety disorder.

Regarding my father’s sisters, I know very little. Their mother kept them quite cloistered. Two never married and the one who did marry, eloped and never really returned. Growing up, all the women in the house doted on my father, the baby, a fact my own mother grew to resent greatly. I heard her favorite cocktail party anecdote more than once: my father was sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon shortly after they were married. Thirsty, he yelled up to my mother in the bedroom, asking for a glass of water. I’ll just say they were both in for pretty rude awakenings! (Say what you will about cohabiting but the practice goes a long way towards eliminating these kinds of unpleasant surprises!)

When I think of my maiden aunts today I recall Betty Smith’s beautiful novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which the Nolan family women nail tin-can banks to the floors of their closets, saving up in hopes of eventually lifting themselves out of poverty.

“Eight cents for the bank.” That was the rule; half of any money they got from anywhere went into the tin-can bank that was nailed to the floor in the darkest corner of the closet….Francie made mama watch while she put the eight cents in the tin-can bank. They had a pleasant five minutes conjecturing about how much was in the bank. Francie thought there must be nearly a hundred dollars. Mama said eight dollars would be nearer right.

It was a different time, I know, but isn’t it hard to imagine people genuinely believing that saving up some measly coins would better the lives of future generations of their families? And yet, I know it to have been the case. I’m looking at proof scattered on the sideboard next to me.

When I say that Summer House Flowers is a family business, I really mean it. My husband and children and I are farming on land my family’s owned for forty years. My father still lives there. He’s old and rather unwell, and having us so frequently at the farm lifts his spirits. When he looks out his window on the fields, once empty and now thriving, he feels he’s a part of something exciting and important—something he hopes will outlast him and…fingers crossed…us. My sister lives on the property too and from her house has a bird’s eye view of the fields. She alerts us to problems with the fencing or the low tunnels or with encroaching animals.

So many people are supporting us in so many ways.

My father’s sisters never knew me. They couldn’t possibly have predicted that their saved coins would end up in my hands. They wouldn’t have been able to envision the day when their niece would be so grateful to them for their contribution to her start-up flower company.

I hope they approve and are sharing in the gifts the inheritance has brought me.

Mary Beth McConaheyComment