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Our inheritance: Relics and other intergenerational treasures

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JUNE 28, 2023

My mother keeps souvenirs of our passed relatives stocked up on our shelves and hidden away in our medicine cabinets. We keep the ashes of my grandfather on top of our bookcase by the television, my great-grandmother’s French Chanel on the dresser and my grandmother’s old ornate liquor bottles piled high in the pantry. My house has become a graveyard of old relics, and a slowly dying memorial of those of us who have passed. 

My great-grandmother left my mother her wedding ring and my grandfather left her his remains. But my great-grandmother also passed along her wisdom and my grandfather gave her his nose. Inheritance isn’t only superficial, but a hereditary karmic cycle that we can’t escape. 

My mother gave me her smile, her facial expressions, her sarcastic sense of humor and her wit. She passed down her big curved handwriting, her lively charisma and her thick untamable hair that glows gold in the sunlight. My mother passed down a patriotic lineage of founding fathers and Air Force pilots. She gave me a history of European and Middle Eastern immigrants who gave me a sense of pride and a shadow of a culture that has never truly been mine to claim. 

This culture she passed down is a mixed amalgamation of classic American memorabilia, hippie acid trips and “Oriental” treasures.  

My grandmother wasn’t really a mother. She gave birth to my mother when she was only a child, just shy of her 18th birthday, and didn’t do much mothering beyond that. My great-grandmother, matriarch to my family as I knew it, raised my mother when my grandmother couldn’t. 

Once, a long while ago, on the edge of a Santa Cruz beach, I told my mother I wish her mother had loved her more. I wish that she hadn’t had to deal with the hardship she’d often allude to, and the hardship I’d later know myself. 

I wished this for my mother, because in a way, I wished it for myself. I wish there hadn’t come a time where you become disillusioned by those you had admired so much. I wish there wasn’t a point where you have to protect yourself from those who vowed to protect you. I wished for an opportunity to slip back into the warm innocence and naivety I took for granted. 

My great-grandmother, as much as she passed down through my lineage, and despite living as fully as she lived life, lost her memory to Alzheimers in the last decade of her life. To my mother, she was the absolute epitome of a lady. In my mind I can still remember dancing with her to Frank Sinatra, tears clouding my vision, because she thought she was dancing with a stranger. Despite everything she gave, despite the person she made my mother and in relation, the person she made me, we were reduced down to strangers in her mind. 

My father gave me his almond eyes, his overt skepticism, the amber of his skin, and the tight coils he maintains waxed down to his scalp. He gave me his talents for conversation, his clever temperament and the slight dimple on the right corner of my smile. He passed down a courageous history of barrios, selflessness, freedom fighting and the relentless pursuit of happiness. He gave me lineages shrouded in complex history and close-knit culture. 

My grandfather wanted to be a musician. He’d tell me stories of his own rebellion, sleeping under trees in the rural Zacatecan countryside instead of his own bed, because of his own father’s disapproval of these dreams. My grandfather was a dreamer, a romantic and fearless in the face of uncertainty. 

He came to the United States illegally, trying a countless number of times because of his unwillingness to give up on his dreams. No matter how many times he was “caught” and sent back to Mexico, no matter the back breaking field work he endured to provide for his family, he would still make certain to lull me to sleep, like he did with my father, with his sweet Spanish lullabies. 

There is a karmic cycle from generation to generation. Mothers blame their mothers for their worst qualities. Fathers do everything to avoid becoming their fathers. When they are young, parents often pull away and rebel in the pursuit of this goal. And yet, when they become parents, they will inevitably follow the path of what they attempted to escape from. 

As children, we grow and watch this sealed fate. As we grow, we watch our parents become real people again, a disillusionment of who they became for us. We watch them follow suit as the generation before them did, we watch them get their mother’s haircut or slip into their father’s old loafers. They reclaim what they knew by becoming what they swore they wouldn’t. We sit there watching our mothers and fathers, laughing as we say we’ll do better, praying that we can be better, expecting ourselves to be different, as if we could ever be the exception.

Jordan Montero writes the Wednesday column on the connection between physical objects and emotional expierences. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JUNE 28, 2023