What will you pass on to your children?

Sometimes a story is the most powerful thing a parent can give their children—and that power can be either creative or destructive.
Catholic Voices

My dad did not leave much behind when he died. He was committed to staying independent from the system, even if he wasn’t perfectly consistent about it. He did love his old pickup trucks, for instance. After his last truck broke down, he fell back on using his jerry-rigged riding mower for transportation. Sometimes he would drive to the top of a hill and look out over the fields as he talked to God. Sometimes he drove the mower down our dusty back roads into the nearest village to buy a cheap six-pack on a hot day.

Nevertheless, he owned almost nothing. All the years I knew him, he never had a bank account. I’m not sure he even knew his social security number.

When I was young, dad worked nonstop; living off the land keeps a person busy. After we segued into a more conventional lifestyle, however, dad’s enthusiasm for work waned. My mother moved into a successful career and still frequently wins civic awards, and my siblings and I do meaningful work that we love. Dad was proud of our achievements, but I suspect he thought we’d sold out to the world, just a bit.

So, when he died there was no question about how his property would be disposed, as there was no property to dispose—at least none relevant from a legal perspective.


There were the shelves full of books, some on spirituality or religion, many dealing with end-times prophecies. As a child, I thought reading books about the end times was what dads did in their free time. Golfing or grilling were not paternal activities on my radar. Later, I realized that most dads are not preoccupied with training their families for the apocalypse. On one hand, those other dads seemed to be setting their kids up with comfy lives. On the other hand, I wondered how those families would fare if Dad’s favorite prophecies started coming true.

Dad did have a new rototiller he’d barely used, and after he died, I claimed it as my inheritance. Every time I used it, I felt rich, as though my father had bequeathed me a fortune. Maybe because he had so few material belongings, each one seemed significant.

The rototiller was a great symbol of Dad’s inconsistencies, too. Here was this tool we could use to raise acres of corn and beans for God’s people when the world fell apart. Too bad this amazing little tool needs the fossil fuel industry to function.

I’ve spent much of my life trying to find balance between my father’s apocalyptic visions and society’s mainstream expectations. Because, extreme and often deranged as Dad’s ideas were, many were accurate. People do trust too much in the status quo. People don’t think enough about our spiritual destiny. We do focus too much on accumulating wealth or checking the boxes of respectability.


On the other hand, Dad’s dream of independence from the system was a fantasy—a spiritualized variation on our individualistic notion that we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps all the way into prosperity. Delusional fixation on self-reliance is deeply embedded in our American ethos, whether religious or secular.

My material inheritance from my father may be minute, but my inheritance in intangibles is sizable. Whether through nature or nurture or some admixture, I carry many of my father’s predispositions. I love to garden. I hate being dependent on a system. I don’t always deal well with authority. And I’m often looking over the horizon for signs of impending doom. I may not want his end-of-the-world books, but I can’t avoid an end-of-the-world state of mind.

The concept of inheritance is ambiguous, after all. Think of the doctrine of original sin. Alternatively, some thinkers have proposed the concept of original blessing as more positive and life-giving.

Take for example, treasured family heirlooms, jewelry, or tools passed from one generation to the next, often valued for their stories or connection to ancestors more than for monetary value. Then there’s actual inherited wealth. It sounds fun, but those who have it often seem like the people least likely to do well in a global crisis. On the other hand, generational poverty can involve heavy burdens, even trauma.


We all have inherited traits that may bring advantages or disadvantages. We talk about “good genes,” meaning attributes that make it easier to stay healthy or conform to society’s beauty standards. But heredity can be scary, also. I’ve had genetic testing done because of potential ailments associated with my Ashkenazi heritage. And my father’s end-times obsessions were clearly associated with mental health issues.

Of course there’s a horror film with the title Hereditary. The idea of forces lurking within us, beings steering us from the past, is terrifying.

One of the most formative stories for my upbringing was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga, which I’ve read at least 20 times since I discovered it at age 8. It seems odd that Bilbo, knowing even a little of the peril of the ring, would pass it on to Frodo, or that Gandalf, knowing more, would encourage this. When Frodo comes into his inheritance, the One Ring becomes his responsibility. He can’t just toss it aside, but he can’t let it control and dominate him. That’s how inheritance works.

When I was younger, I thought a lot about how inherited traits or habits shaped me. Now that my children are growing older, I think about my responsibility to pass on my own inheritance to them. I can’t go back in time and magic away certain genetic dispositions. I can’t rewrite the narrative of my childhood, deleting the bad parts. I’m not even sure I want to. My intangible inheritances, like my dad’s rototiller, seem strangely valuable. They’re part of the story, and sometimes a story is the most powerful thing one can pass on.

But how am I going to wield that power? It could be creative, or it could be destructive. I don’t want my kids to grow up with constant low-grade anxiety about cosmic mayhem, but I’d like them to cultivate a level of detachment from the status quo and have the resilience to find joy and meaning even amid rapid change. Given climate uncertainty and geopolitical unrest, some of what Dad passed on to me might be helpful for the next generation. Although I hope it won’t need to be.

What will you pass on to your children? Inheritance can refer to a million dollars, a rototiller, or a whacky book of end-times prophecy. It might mean “good genes” or “bad genes.” It can be the stories we tell, the memories we enshrine. Maybe my kids will tell their kids about how Grandpa used to go chugging down the dusty roads in August on his mower. But how about the fact that he was questing for that Milwaukee’s Best, even though the doctor told him to lay off the beer? I hope they’ll inherit that stubborn determination, but without dependence on alcohol or neglect of self-care.

Inheritance is a web that binds us to others, not just our immediate families but stretching far into the past, across the human family, to a family of all living things. Sometimes it carries us, sometimes it burdens us. I can see why the idea of original sin has hung around for so long, even if original blessing occasionally seems more apt.


Parenting in my middle years, as my children look to their own adulthood, feels like a precious but precarious responsibility. My ancestors have given me so much. Stories of visions, fears, loves, hates, and hopes. I am not just a passive conduit through which these stories pass. It’s my responsibility to decide how this happens.

Image: Pixabay