Family Matters

The Unassignables

What Really Gets Handed Down in a Family?

Magazine Issue
September/October 2016
An illustration of a hand passing a ring to another hand

After his third or fourth date with her, my son said to me during a phone conversation, “I don’t know, I just like this girl.” He sounded perplexed—as if this realization were a large rock he’d tried to get around but couldn’t, and was surprised that he didn’t really want to.

I snapped to attention, remembering the same mixture of bewilderment and delight in my own voice many years ago when I began dating the man who’d become my husband. Compared to the stormy relationship I’d just left, this new one unfolded effortlessly, as if I were sinking into the world’s most comfortable armchair—a feeling I found hard to trust. “I mean, I love him,” I remember telling my closest friend, “but I’m not sure I’m in love.”

“Oh you’re in love,” she said. And she was right. We soon got engaged during a walk in Riverside Park. No ring, no photos; we just decided. We were 23.

Now our son was 30, the new girlfriend just a few years younger. Ticktock. They continued to date. They invited us to meet them for dinner. She was funny and smart, loved food (a prerequisite), and seemed completely comfortable in her own skin (a quality I greatly admired). They moved in together. They bought a couch. He turned 32, then 33. They vacationed in Costa Rica. One day, driving him to the train station after a brief visit home, he said, “I’m saving up for a down payment on an apartment.”

“Good,” I said. “This apartment, are you planning on buying it alone?”

“No,” he said, “not alone,” as if my question were odd.

Another pause. Timing is everything. “Well,” I began, not sure at all whether I should proceed, “here’s the order I recommend: marriage, real estate, children.”

Pause. Would he snap at me? Sigh? Roll his eyes? Tell me to butt out? Instead, he broke into a slow smile, one I loved.

“Any news?” my mother-in-law asked. Since her stroke, she’d been much less voluble as she struggled to regain her speech, but this question was always on her lips—and in truth, on mine. Decades had passed since the last family wedding. Everyone was aging and dying, with no one being born. Sometimes I felt as if I longed for grandchildren more than I’d ever wanted children.

“Not yet,” I said. Always a party girl, she’d love to attend her first grandchild’s wedding, this firecracker of a woman who’d told me with a half-smile when I married her son, “Now he’s your problem.”

That comment stuck with me for nearly four decades because it seemed to me to imply that marriage was, at least in part, a handoff, as in a relay race. She was responsible for her son until the point that I was. But my husband and I wanted to be each other’s responsibility. Otherwise, what’s the point of being married?

“Is there some kind of family ring?” my son finally asked during another phone call.

In fact, I had a ring from my maternal grandmother that I’d been keeping for just such a moment. It turned out to be much more valuable than I assumed. The jeweler who appraised it for me remarked on the unusual quality of its small diamond, flanked by two small baguette sapphires, hand-crafted in Russia in the mid-1800s. I had it shined up and waited for my son to ask for it—which he did, a few weeks later, on a visit home. Don’t lose it, I said to myself, as he put the box in his backpack.

“It’s not that I don’t want to get married,” he said as I drove him to the train station, “but I’m definitely not ready to have kids. And once you get married everyone starts asking you about babies.”

“You don’t have to have children right away,” I said, tentatively, not wanting to exceed my allotment of maternal advice. “We were married for five years before we had you.”

He was quiet, which meant he was thinking, not necessarily dismissing what I said.

“I think I’m supposed to ask her father,” he said.

Really? In this day and age? I thought. No one did that anymore, did they? As if a woman couldn’t think for herself, make her own decisions. My husband and I simply told our parents.

“So when would be a good time to ask her?” he asked as he got out of the car to catch his train, slamming the door before I could answer.

Soon after, my mother-in-law took a turn for the worse. She wouldn’t get out of bed in the rehab center, though she could, and she’d lie instead curled up like a fetus. When we’d call, all she’d want to talk about were her things: her dishes and cups, jewelry, and the gifts and mementos she’d accrued over her lifetime. “Every single one of them has a story,” she’d say.

During these conversations, I’d think of my favorite Emily Dickinson poem, the one that begins, I heard a fly buzz when I died. My favorite lines come a bit later: I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away / What portion of me be / Assignable.

I tried assuring her that I’d take good care of her assignables. Because she’d repeated the stories of how each was acquired so many times over the nearly 40 years we’d known each other, I knew them by heart. In a sense, I already possessed her possessions; her stories had transferred them to me.

But then I thought of the photo albums full of snapshots of people I didn’t know. I’d assumed one day we’d sit together and label each person, perhaps compose a rough family tree. We had to hurry up, though—the images were fading faster than her memory.

“I want to go home one more time,” she cried one day. “I want to know what’s going to happen to my things.” We set a date.

A few days before her scheduled trip home, my mother-in-law died. Her funeral took place on a sunny early day in March. “Dress warm,” the rabbi warned. “It’s always colder in a cemetery.” I dismissed his prediction as myth, but it turned out to be true. Unimpeded by trees, the wind whipped us as if it’d emanated from the Russian steppes, fiercely cold and biting. On the brim of the grave, we huddled together, our only shelter. The plain pine box containing her remains was already in the ground. After my husband and I gave our brief eulogies, we tossed a ceremonial shovel of dirt onto the coffin. It felt like shooting a squirt gun into the ocean. We went home to eat and drink and warm up as the cemetery workers filled in the grave.

A month later, I was working at my desk when my son called. “Hey, guess what?” he said. “We got engaged.”

I felt the blood rush to my face. Engaged? He actually did it? He asked her to marry him? “That’s wonderful!” I gushed. The generational wheel, which I’d envisioned as a giant Ferris wheel that had gotten stuck at the top, was finally turning. There’d be a wedding, a ceremony, a dress, flowers, music, speeches. What would I say for my speech? I wondered. But wait, maybe I won’t be asked to speak. Come to think of it, I’d never been at a wedding at which the groom’s mother spoke. What was I thinking?

My son came home for a visit soon after the announcement, and I gave him what I called his first maternal hug as an affianced person. “What was it like asking her?” I asked.

“It was easy,” he said. “The weird part was asking her father, even though it was just a formality.”

“How did that go?” I asked. “What did he say?”

“He shook my hand really hard and said, ‘Take good care of her.’” Now she’s your problem.

We started talking about wedding plans almost right away, and at night I found myself dreaming of my mother-in-law. Alive, she’d never been an easy person; in fact, she was often impossibly narcissistic and demanding, increasingly so as she grew older. But I remembered her from an earlier time, when my husband and I’d become engaged and were planning our marriage, when she’d welcomed me into the family—into her inner orbit—with an openness and eagerness that frankly overwhelmed me. My own parents were much more cautious accepting my husband. In their eyes, he wasn’t blood.

Was her approach the best? Should I open my arms so completely to my prospective daughter-in-law, who seemed to want to move a bit more slowly, the way I’d been inclined? And what about my mother-in-law’s things, all her mementos I assured her I’d take care of? They were still entombed in her locked Florida apartment. Should I be dispensing them, assigning them?

One night, I awoke from a horrible nightmare. I was walking with my son by the bank of a river, a cityscape. I said to him, “I’m so happy for you. You make me so happy.” He turned to look at me, and then he lay down like a corpse on the bank of the river, and rolled in. I watched him vanish into the dark, murky, cold water.

“It’s a dream about death,” I told my friend a week later.

“It isn’t,” she said. “It’s about your son getting married. He’s gone. He belongs to someone else. Get used to it.” She had two married sons with children of their own. I thought she was right, but when I told my husband, he disagreed. “You never think you can get what you want, what makes you happy,” he said. “Getting what you want is dangerous.”

What do I want? I want my mother-in-law’s keepsakes to turn to dust so I can simply sweep them away and not think about them. I want the same for my own. As for the unassignable portion, my son was right: I want grandchildren while I’m still young enough to get down on the floor with them. I want to read them the books that shaped their father’s childhood. I want my son and his wife to feel, after 40 years together, that they can read each other’s minds, and tell each other’s jokes. But mostly I want to find a way to navigate the crosscurrents between life and death, and death and life, that are only growing stronger.


Illustration © Adam Niklewicz

Roberta Israeloff

Roberta Israeloff is a freelance writer who lives and teaches writing in East Northport, New York.