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Becoming My Dad

Preserving Filthy Lucre

by TOM KERR

As a left of left-leaning liberal, I have a certain choice when it comes to dealing with the wealth my late conservative father accumulated in his life: aside from helping to ensure that my mother in her remaining years gets everything she needs, I can either choose to reject it (and the conservative ideology that goes with it), or I can take it on as my rightful inheritance and, well, conserve it—or whatever part of it our suddenly depressed economy spares.

The man who would regularly ask me, in the turbulent years of our relationship and with a gleam in his eye, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich,” would undoubtedly smirk at this faux dilemma. The money he has left behind for my mother and, eventually, his five kids, is enough, in my case, to ease the burden of savings for my daughter’s education, improve the odds that my wife and I, both modestly remunerated college professors, will have enough to meet our retirement needs, and generally keep the wolves—another of my father’s favorite sayings—a little farther from our door. My dad’s money won’t make me rich, or smart, but it’ll make a significant positive difference in my life and in the lives of my wife and daughter.

So not a chance in the world I would turn my back on my Republican father’s money—the fruit of his blood, sweat, and tears—even though he earned and preserved every dollar while cleaving to social, political and (mainly) economic values that I generally rail against. It’s not as if his dollars are blood diamonds—my father was an honest, service-oriented businessman—but they always seemed to me to issue from an every-man-for-himself, bootstrap individualism that doesn’t worry too much, and that certainly doesn’t take responsibility for, people who don’t manage to get a good hold on their own straps. He had sympathy, as they say, but not so much that he’d vote for paying more taxes. This world view and the wealth he left behind go hand in hand, and in the main I reject his world view. Without condition, I loved the man but hated his philosophy, and now I am faced with inheriting some of his hard-earned money.

This is where conservatives, like my father, can’t wait to hear what’s coming next, hear what kind of knee-slapping rationalization the spoiled liberal child will serve up.

At sixteen, my blue bandana freak flag flying, I respectfully turned down my dad’s 1975 offer to take over his successful garage door business, where I had worked for several summers. I bravely, or foolishly, told him I would find my own way in the world. He was poised to sell and retire at fifty-five to put work-a-day headaches behind him, and he and I both knew that I wasn’t cut out for the dog-eat-dog business world he had thrived in. Still, he offered to hire a manager and save the business for me, and I nonetheless encouraged him to sell and follow his bliss into early retirement. So he sold the business, and for enough cash to keep him and my mother living well for the remainder of their days.

Just before he died this past June at ninety, I had for the first time in my life to think about “preserving wealth”—a phrase that has only become part of my vocabulary over the last several months. As he was stoically dying, my four sisters and I decided that I, the only son of a Greatest Generation patriarch who was fond of joking, “Women don’t think like people,” was in the best position to gain power of attorney for both my parents so that we could help them manage their finances, which they had become less and less able to do. My father had let my mother begin to handle the money only after his stroke, several years earlier, and even then he complained continually about not being in control. “I don’t know any longer what’s going on,” he would tell anyone who would listen, and we all would: it was a staggering admission. Now, not even the proverbial Masters of Finance, young or old, know what’s going on, but I doubt that would have given him any solace.

None of us—neither his wife nor any of his five kids—were ever previously brought into my father’s financial confidence. He would regularly tell us how much money he did not have, but never how much he had. At one point in his late 70s, a major piece of income-producing property—the warehouse in which his old business had been housed—was found to be contaminated by a neighboring oil storage facility. For a couple of years, it was not at all certain that the culprit, the now defunct Unocal, would do the right thing and purchase the property, as they eventually were forced to do. In this period, he talked freely, continually, and desperately about his fear of losing his main source of retirement income. (Unocal’s corporate indifference to his plight could not, however, disturb his faith in free market, law-of-the-jungle capitalism.)

It was during this crisis that his children first persuaded him to let a trusted son-in-law analyze his books; we all hoped a friendly audit would alleviate what appeared to be an almost crippling fear that he would not have enough to last. Although it was pretty clear to us that would be fine, my dad was driving himself crazy with fear and fighting back the fear with more alcohol than he could hold. And it was not inconceivable, at that juncture, that his fear-driven alcohol abuse would kill him.

But the fear was nothing new. His father’s abandonment of his mother and two siblings during the Great Depression drove the family into poverty, and my father, who consequently went to work delivering papers to help pay for groceries, was deeply traumatized. He could never have, and would never feel in the future that he had, enough money to ensure his own and his family’s security.

On the contrary, I grew up in his household in the relative lap of luxury. Thanks to dad, I was member of a country club and an athletic club, student in my middle and high schools years at an expensive prep school, resident of the biggest house on the block, regular traveler, and recipient of sundry other upper-middle class perks. I grew up taking for granted the wealth that he had broken his back to accumulate, even envying the richer kids at school, and I could never have understood then, mainly because it was not visible in material form, the severe trauma in the money.

Far from understanding, I took what I viewed as his often extremely conservative behavior for a failure of imagination, or plain old miserliness. How could he not, I wondered, see that it is better to drink the twelve-year-old scotch, always stashed away in the back of his bar, than to save it for the chimerical “special occasion”? Or why refuse for fifty-five years to remodel an antiquated kitchen that depressed my mother for just as many years. And yet, in so many ways my father was pleasure-loving and generous. He traveled, he partied, he built a cabin in the Rockies and a house in Mexico, and he always and graciously opened his doors to family and friends. He never signed on to be driven by fear of being broke and helpless, and I doubt he consciously felt he was in that way driven.

If it were not for my socially adept, empathetic mother, the get-what-is-desired-by-persuasion-or-stealth angel in the house, my father may have lived a very different, more frugal, less generous existence. He would never, for example, have built a pool for family and friends in their winter house in Mexico (he didn’t swim), and he certainly would have staunched the flow of money my mother regularly and surreptitiously gifted to her kids, grandkids, and church.

His loving nature aside, when it came to money, my father seemed to me the force of evil in the house, my mother the embodiment of good. He did let go of money, but not freely, never without reminding my mother or his kids that money does not grow on trees. By defending his wealth from friend and foe alike, he left no doubt who was in control; he and he alone held the power of the purse and, by extension, absolute power. And it was that power-mongering, intentional or not, that made me angry and dismissive of his wealth, despite the fact that I was a principal beneficiary. The combination of my dad’s defensive financial posture and his exclusive claim to power in our house disturbed me deeply, with good reason: both sprung from his early compound trauma, abandonment and poverty.

As is so often the case, what manifested in the form of “a world view” began for my dad as a predictable emotional response to unpredictable circumstances. I wasn’t rejecting his world view so much as I was feeling the burden of his pain. Political labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” tend to lose their existential value in such close proximity.

As my mother tells me, my father’s old-school Republicanism began at home, with a conservative activist mother who, in the age of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, held firmly to the idea that you won freedom by your own lights and by keeping the government at bay. I should have known—our primary identification to political party is emotional, and the primary source of identification is family—but I’d always figured he had evolved into a conservative Republican in the course of work and business, advancing from worker to owner, bonding with peers, adapting to circumstances, and following his economic interests.

After all, I evolved into a liberal from a conservative household via outside influences (culture, college), so why wouldn’t my father’s politics have taken shape over time and as consequence of experience? But then again, you either embrace your family’s political values, as my father evidently did, or you reject them, as I would do, so that either way political affiliation begins at home, with feelings. Either way, via action or reaction, the political motive is at least as emotional as logical or economic. This is of course why some people could take Sarah Palin’s run for Vice President seriously, and why others vote time and time again against their own vital economic interests. Love of ideology is blind.

We had long since made our peace when my dad died this past summer, just in time to avoid being re-traumatized by the Great Economic Collapse of 2008. And he would have taken comfort in knowing that, at the moment the Mexican funeral director stripped his body of personal effects, I was there to take possession of the sacred wallet. In the symbolic transfer of wealth from conservative father to liberal son, money was not the issue. Rather, in that irrevocable transaction, my father, who once told me he was ready to die because he had met all his obligations in life, finally, decisively escaped the logic of his life-long trauma.

In the months since, in order to ensure my surviving mother’s financial security and to protect my own and my siblings’ inheritance, I’ve had quickly to immerse myself in my dad’s world, in the language of corporate business (my father long ago created a corporate investment company to manage his primary business and other investments), annuities, real estate investment, trusts, and IRS tax code. In other words, even though I am not walking the walk in my own shoes, or even carrying my own wallet, I have had learn to talk the talk. Add on the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, and I’m even experiencing a small but direct dose of my dad’s old Depression-era fear.

So while I find it possible, given the support of my sisters, to conduct estate business with an open hand and transparency that must have my dad turning over in his grave, I also find myself thinking twice about opening the proverbial twelve-year-old scotch, find myself worrying about how much money my mother is on the verge of spending or giving away, find myself, at least as far as the purse strings go, becoming conservative—preoccupied, obsessed even, with preserving wealth. Naturally, I believe I am conserving for the benefit of all, for the many—my mother, my siblings and their children, as well as for me, my wife and my daughter. The selfish motive is there, to be sure, but the altruistic impulse is strong, and the tension between the two, which has animated my body from the moment I took post-mortem possession of dad’s wallet, makes me feel my father differently, beyond understanding—a level of empathy that would require him “turning the fort over” to me, as he’d often say on his way to bed, for good.

Now, if I could just read the essay my dad must have submitted for admission to heaven, “Becoming My Liberal Son,” but those are, unfortunately, rarely if ever published.

Post Script: To use a portion of inherited money or windfall profits for the good, make micro-loans to people around the world at kiva.org.

TOM KERR teaches writing and rhetoric at Ithaca College. He can be reached at tkerr@ithaca.edu.