Monday, April 22, 2013



Some people inherit vast riches while others are saddled with vast debts.  Some people inherit nothing, not even fond memories, which, sadly, is an inheritance in itself.  And some people like me inherit a burning desire to work “inheritance” into my opinion column titled “Ever-changing ‘Hood.” So let’s just count the former sentence as fulfilling that desire and go with it. Besides, an inheritance can be life changing which could then become ‘hood changing. Or not.

I was twenty-something when I got my first inheritance: a car (push-button Dodge Dart to be exact) and a small (well, it became small) trust fund.

My grandfather, who made a fortune building “estates” on Long Island, lost a fortune when the market crashed in ’29. But he didn’t lose all his fortune, so when I graduated college decades and decades and decades (is that enough decades?) later, he took me to a Dodge dealership to buy me a car. I picked out the Dart, he paid with cash and we drove it off the lot. Well, actually, he drove it off the lot after I showed him how to drive an automatic and my graduation present became his car (and only his car)… though he swore it would be mine after he died. So be it. I never expected him to buy me a graduation present, anyway. 

Fast forward a couple of years later… my grandfather died and, at the reading of his Will, my brother and I learned that we were his only heirs and that a Trust had been set up for us.  My brother was in boarding school at the time and the Will stipulated that the Trust money was to be used to continue his education for as long as he was in school, after which we would split what was left (hence the “well, it became small”). I was on my own, starting my career and could have used a few bucks. But so be it, I was getting the Dart!

Oh, not so fast, Ilona!  My grandfather’s executrix (and my great aunt) crushed my vehicular hopes by telling me that the car was part of the estate and since both my brother and I were equal heirs (well, except for that money going to his education thing), she couldn’t just hand the car over to me. Duh! Why? Well, she reasoned, my brother or his future wife could sue her for half the car’s worth. Huh?! He was still in prep school! There was no future wife!!! At least not in the immediate future.

Of course, I reminded her that the car had been my graduation present. But my not so great, great aunt still said, “No!” My brother begged her to give me the car, to no avail. (He still could have been swayed by some greedy future wife, she declared…) But she made a deal with us.  She would put the car up for sale in an ad in some obscure newspaper, hidden amid the “funnies,” and, if no one bought it, I could buy it for a buck and legally her ass would be covered. A week later, I gave her one dollar that went into the Estate (50 cents for my brother, 50 cents for me) and she gave me the title to the car. I finally got to drive my graduation present.

Needless to say, the whole experience changed my perspective as it opened my eyes to family suspicion (hers), paranoia (hers), loyalty (my brother’s), and the eccentricities of the legal system.

Moving on, I was still in my twenties when I got my second inheritance. Out of nowhere (well, “nowhere” was somewhere in Manhattan) I got a call from a mucky muck at the Finnish Embassy who had tracked me down to inform me that some relative in Finland that I never heard of died “intestate.” Therefore, the mucky muck continued, the Finnish government had to find all her living, legal heirs (of which I was one), no matter how distant, then split the money equally among all of us. It was a nice little chunk of change that changed my life in that I was able to have a glorious shopping spree at Saks, Bonwit’s and Bendel’s, while it buffeted my income (or lack, thereof) from writing. It wasn’t nearly enough, however, to allow me to quit my day job, but it was less maintenance than my push-button Dart.

After my dad died (I was thirteen) my brother and I became “latchkey kids” when our mom went back to work, eventually becoming “Peggy” in “Madmen” on Madison Avenue. This inheritance thing was apparently on my mother’s mind as well, because, as she got older, she fretted that she wouldn’t be able to leave us any money. We assured her that she had taken loving care of us – raised us in style – but now that we were on our own, it was up to us to find the riches of the world.

For years she had enriched our lives with unconditional love, laughter and flea market finds (she was a collector, something I definitely “inherited” from her), so my brother and I weren’t surprised when she died a few years ago and most of her money was gone.  We chipped in and threw her a huge farewell party. Young and old from near and far came to celebrate the joy she had brought them. Then, after they chose something from many of those flea market finds to remember her by (their “inheritance”), it was our turn.

One thing I wanted most: my mom’s spatula. Yes, a spatula! I used that spatula when I was a child and we made Christmas cookies together. When I use it now, I remember the smell of gingerbread and butter cookies. I remember the matching aprons she made for us, and I remember how safe and loved I felt helping her slide the baked cookies off the cookie sheet onto a piece of wax paper.

No, there was no money. No shopping sprees on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive or even Ventura Blvd. But the memories that spatula brings me are worth millions. Perhaps not a life-changing inheritance, but definitely life affirming.

Now if only I still had that push-button Dart… Could probably get a bundle for it at a collector’s auction. 

** as published on Studio City Patch April, 2013

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