When my father died, at age 76, he left my mother two pieces of residential real estate and whatever was in the house. The only item bequeathed directly to me was his collection of books.
There was no bank account. He was 29-years old when the Great Depression began and he didn’t trust banks.
Four years later, after a long illness, my mother passed away. The real estate had been sold to pay each of their doctor bills, hospital bills and funeral bills. Neither had life insurance, so by the time my mother died when I was 19, I inherited $165.
In case those numbers slid past the mental calculator, my father was born in 1900, a full 61 years and one week before my own appearance. He had eight siblings, an Irish Catholic mother and a stepfather he didn’t care for.
At age 12, he decided the education provided by San Francisco’s public schools was inadequate, so he got a job, enrolled in a private school and paid his own tuition.
At age 16, he had some questions of theology for the parish priest. The priest’s reply was that he should do as he was told and to stop asking so many questions. He told the priest to go to hell, walked out of the church and never went back.
One year, my father decided he was dissatisfied with his physical condition. To correct that, he signed on to work as a lumberjack for the summer in the days before chainsaws. It worked.
He decided at another juncture that he wanted to learn more about Chinese culture, so he moved into the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. After two years, he decided he didn’t particularly like the Chinese culture and moved out.
While he was married to my mother, a colleague once suggested they go out for some general carousing – a bit of whiskey and womanizing. That proposal suggested such an absolute breech of his personal code of conduct that he not only refused the invitation, he also declined any further contact with the colleague. That man, in my father’s opinion, warranted no respect.
He took a week off in 1958 for his honeymoon. He took another week off in 1963. The next time he took even a day off was in 1976, 13 years beyond traditional retirement age, because the cancer would no longer allow him to get out of bed. He died eight weeks later.
About a week before his mid-December death, I made the mistake of offering to pick up a Christmas present for my mother on his behalf.
“Hell no,” he said. “As soon as I lick this thing, I’ll go get her one myself.”
Four years later, I found myself with some books, $165, a few sticks of furniture and no parents. When people learn that, they often react with a look or word of sympathy, sometimes even shock or dismay that there was no life or health insurance. You can see it – they think the only child should have received more.
What he left behind, though, can’t be probated or taxed or written on a deposit slip. He passed along the value of a strong work ethic. He bequeathed his personal code of conduct, the importance of honesty and self-respect, an unwavering belief in the power of perseverance, a desire for knowledge and a sense of pride. He left the knowledge that the only person we must satisfy is oneself. Most importantly, he passed along the confidence and skill to be self-reliant regardless of circumstance.
I doubt I will leave my children a great deal of money. But I hope I am able to leave them a legacy that rivals the value of my own inheritance.