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Inheritance as Inspiration

March 20, 2012

Years ago, when the children asked me to reveal my SAT scores I said this: Mommy is a different kind of smart.

“Wow,” my son Andrew said, shaking his head. “You must have scored low.”

“Did you break a thousand?” his sister persisted. “She didn’t break a thousand,” she whispered to her brother with horror and perhaps just a little of the compassion I’d been trying to teach them for those less fortunate than themselves.

The kids looked out their respective car windows with anxious expressions and I imagined they were both hoping they inherited their father’s intelligence. Clay’s a genius. Clay’s SAT scores were perfect (both math and English–perfect) and that was before the days of tutoring or multiple test-taking.  And that was right out of a non-descript public high school—in fact, three high schools in four years;  the family was military.

The kids know this because I’ve told them. Clay would never brag. But the kids often try to figure out what they have acquired from each of us. They seem to believe they have inherited each trait replicated exactly as we carry it, no blending or modification to create something lesser or greater.  In adolescence it became imperative to figure out from whom they got what, as they figured out who they were.

“Really, Mom. At least you did okay on the English part, right?” Audra asked, staring dubiously at her report card.

“Isn’t Dad good in math too?” Andrew asked, confidently handing his over the back of the seat.

I have always hoped that the process of how we become what we become is more mysterious and less limiting than what we inherit, so when the kids try to identify the source of their strengths and weaknesses nowadays I respond with a chipper, ” Gosh, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was my grandfather or Dad’s who started that newspaper, built that telescope, built that boat from scratch…”  It’s a  response that takes on global significance, unfortunately.

“Of course she doesn’t know.”  Glances are exchanged.  “Ask Dad,” they instruct each other simultaneously.

What have you inherited? An ear for languages? Anxiety? Perfect pitch? List your legacy—those internal traits you possess, both charming and flawed—which you can trace to a predecessor. Are you a great cook? Do you take in wounded animals? Pick one trait you believe you inherited and imagine how that characteristic first came to be—theorize based on family lore or simply make it up.

Once you have that story, that vignette, see if you can pull the past into your present. Let the story you have written become backstory to where you are now. How has this trait defined you or your character? Have you in turn, passed it on? With what kind of result? 

Or try this: suppose you discovered it was all untrue. Uncle Richard was actually a math dunce, your great-grandfather was blamed for a crime if didn’t commit. How does the discovery of the trut or an alternate reality, affect your sense of self or your character?



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