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Splitting the estate. May 10, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Families. Say what you will about how adult siblings get along in general, if things are going to really break down, the time they do is typically when it’s time to settle a parent’s estate. Unfortunately, our friend Ben will soon be heading down to Nashville to do just that, and meeting my brother and sister there.

It sounds so straightforward: We’ll head to our family’s Colonial home, hear how an appraiser values the antiques, then say which, if any, we want. But the reality is anything but simple. First, there’s the heartbreak of the beautiful house, sitting on three gorgeous acres of boxwoods, magnolias, and dry-laid stone walls. My parents loved that house and spent endless time adding period furnishings and making it a lovely, gracious place to live.

Sadly, I’m the only one of the three children who wants it, and I can’t afford to maintain it, so it will be going to the block. To know that this is the last time I’ll be in it is like going in for major surgery and knowing you’ll wake up without some vital part of yourself, something that defined you, something you thought would always be there. From now on, all I’ll have of my family home is some faded photographs.

On top of that, there’ll be the issue of the contents of the house. I of course know what I want, but I have no clue what my brother and sister want. If I’m lucky, our choices won’t overlap. But I fear that’s magical thinking. So I proposed a system that may strike you as totally bizarre: Post-It Notes.

I suggested that each of us get a pack of Post-It Notes in a different color. Then, after the appraiser leaves, each of us can roam through the house, putting our own distinctive Post-It Notes on whatever we want. If, at the end of this, there’s just one Post-It Note on something, whoever wanted it gets it. If, however, there are two or three Post-Its on something, we’ll have to negotiate. This strikes me as the best way to assess how much each of us wants, as opposed to simply taking one thing at a time and haggling as if we were at an auction. (“What am I bid for this?!”) Obviously, if one of us gave something to our parents, that person gets it if they want it.

This doesn’t even address the things we want but know we can’t have. I, for example, love my mother’s everyday china, goblets, and silverware; I grew up eating every meal on them every day until I left for college. But Silence Dogood and I have no room for more china and goblets, and I know my brother would like to have the silverware. I love our antique sideboard and dining-room table and sofas and so on, but Silence and I live in a tiny cottage where such furniture would be completely inappropriate. We don’t even have a dining room.

Again, leaving such beloved possessions behind is a grief, but unless Silence and I win the lottery before I head to Nashville and can buy a fabulous Colonial stone home complex here in scenic PA that’s just begging to be furnished with antiques, it’s no way, no how. And let’s just say I’m not holding my breath for the winning ticket, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” notwithstanding.

There’s a scene in the first installment of the film version of “The Hobbit” where Gandalf rounds on poor Bilbo Baggins and demands to know when Bilbo’s mother’s china and crocheted doilies became so important to him. If I had been Bilbo, I’d have answered, “After she died,” which I think would have shut Gandalf up. It is after our beloved dead are gone and we can no longer enjoy their company that the things they chose to define their home life take on most meaning.

The home Silence and I share, Hawk’s Haven, holds some rather strange things as a result. In a kitchen cabinet with all our very carefully chosen china is a rather homely bowl, which matches the everyday china in my beloved grandparents’ home. In my wallet to this day is my grandfather’s Sacred Heart Auto League card. Silence has some of her maternal grandmother’s clothes hanging in a closet, even though her grandmother wore them long before she was born and she knows she herself will never wear them, and a collection of antique buttons from her paternal grandfather that she played with for hours as a child.

So what will I try to bring back from my family home? Some paintings, maybe an oriental carpet. A Pilgrim chest, a brass-studded chest, a brass chandelier. A blue-and-white Chinese bowl. A 15th-century wooden statue (but I’m sure my brother will want that, too). Will I get any of them? Who knows. Will sentiment swamp good sense and make me ask for things that I love but that are inappropriate for my circumstances? I hope not. (Silence would kill me.)

But there’s one thing that, ironically, my brother and I both want that we can both have, if only we can figure out how to transport it from Nashville to our respective residences. We both love gardening, and we both have a great attachment to a lush growth of a spectacularly variegated form of Italian arum that grows under the trees of our family home. There’s plenty for all, if only we can get it back alive. And frankly, if that’s the only thing I can bring back, it will be enough.

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