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Hand-Me Downs: The greatest gifts from our parents

December 25, 2020 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

“Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.” Plato

In a world so influenced by social media, “influencers” have become known as the people with great power to affect the purchasing decisions of many through their expertise. We’re referring to the best of the best who share what are the chicest fashions, best home furnishings, greatest travel destinations, most delicious foods, wines, child-rearing techniques and so much more.

 

Frankly, the two of us consider ourselves barely trendy. Oh, we like to know what’s new and hip—the best way to make your own pie crust or the smoothest wine to pair with holiday meals, but such stuff barely influences how we live, work, feel and what really matters most to us.

 

Because it’s the holiday season and a time of great introspection, we began to think weeks ago, when we lit the first Hanukkah candles with our family menorahs, who have been the biggest influencers on our lives? We each decided it has been our parents, and the gifts they bestowed had little to do with tangible materialistic things we inherited such as antiques, jewelry, artworks, clothing, purses and more.

Instead, it has been the values, milieu in which they raised us and what they talked about. Sometimes, it also was the gifts they did not give us directly but which came up in conversations as something that meant a lot to them and might to us—the value of a satisfying job, which taught us to appreciate what we didn’t yet have but might someday if we worked hard. Or, it could be the regular Sunday night suppers with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the same recipes again and again. 

Although we may not always have seen eye-to-eye with our parents about everything, the values they instilled are ingrained and have influenced our work, romantic and platonic relationships, hobbies and parenting into our septuagenarian decade. Decades after they shared them, their choices, lessons, ethics and morals continue to influence us and keep on giving as we, in turn, have passed on many to our children. Barbara has begun to pass on some already to her young grandchildren. 

That isn’t to say our parents’ values—such as love, respect, humor, social skills and more--are our default when we make a decision. Far from it. We often use theirs as a touchstone to consider, then change what they did to make our own choices that better work for us and our very different circumstances.   

 

Margaret credits her parents with providing a passion for the arts (mostly music and literature), a legacy of philanthropy and caring about those less fortunate, a value for the right words, good manners and a sense of humor. But as she made choices, her appreciation of music, for example, went far beyond what her parents had shared. It became a serious hobby when she studied voice and opera and sang in a Bach Society chorus, as well as a gift she and her late husband, who played jazz drums and had an extensive vinyl record collection in all genres, bequeathed to their three children. All are professionals who have worked in the arts, two still do. 

Specifically, from her father, Margaret learned the importance of hard work and responsibility—get a job when you turn 16. From her mother, she learned to read voraciously—if you’re bored read a book; manners which came in handy when she went on job interviews or met new people; honesty—say it like it is and be true to yourself, and to value words through playing such games as Scrabble and Jotto, to name a few. 

Her parents also taught her how to fit into a new community. Before Margaret turned 5, she had moved with her parents from Louisville to the Virgin Islands, to Philadelphia and then to St. Louis. She saw how her father, through the business he started, and her mother’s charitable work mostly directing and acting in community plays, acclimated them to their new life in St. Louis.  

Barbara attributes to her parents a strong work ethic, perseverance, the value of good education and importance of family and friends. Her mother taught her by example. She encouraged her always to work, even if part-time while also putting her family first. She shared the value of keeping in touch with friends and family, always including singles in the mix and touching base with everyone regularly. Her father echoed the value of having work you love, and he did so up until age 75. 

Together her parents shared the joy of their educations, good food and conversation around the table often at lively dinner parties, reading books (“If you have a book, you always have a friend,” Barbara’s mother has said many times), museums, travel, their Jewish religion and hearth and home. Homes were never about size or fanciness but an open, welcoming door. There was always room to squeeze another person around the table or set up a second table in an adjoining room. 

As Barbara has aged and thought about her parents’ lives, she’s realized she inherited their sense of adventure, too. Her mother moved at age 21 to New York City from the Midwest to take an internship, and then at age 75 moved again to NYC from its suburbs when she was a widow. Barbara used that gift of trying the unknown when she went on dating sites after her divorce and when she moved to a small bucolic village where she knew nobody at age 60. Her mother had taught her nothing has to be permanent but trying might work and definitely would enrich her life.

Others’ Greatest Gifts 

We’ve also paid attention to what our friends have taken from their families and asked them what they inherited in lessons rather than stuff. One friend, Sally, who is upbeat and very caring, saw firsthand kindness and giving in her home. “My mother would drive to the inner city two days a week—something she did for years—to teach reading and read to unprivileged children.” Also, Sally says, both parents were philanthropic, not only giving of their time but their money, too. 

Rena says the greatest gift from her parents, who emigrated from Greece to the U.S. after World War II, was an awareness of the opportunities and freedom she had to make her own future. “I never thought that I was limited, because I stood for two immigrants--my father was Jewish and survived the Holocaust and my mother, who was non-Jewish but whose mother hid five of her father’s cousins in their home, gave everything to me to succeed and create my own happiness,” she says. It was when she took a trip to Greece after graduating from high school that she realized what her parents had gone through. “They took the risk of moving to a different continent and country — without money or language, friends or family They made a life, learned a vocation, had a business and sent three children to college,” she says. Rena said she never thought she was limited, and after a career in fashion in Chicago, marrying and moving with her husband to his St. Louis hometown, she became marketing director of St. Louis’ toniest mall, Plaza Frontenac.

Andi, a designer and artist, says her parents handed her an interesting and rich cultural and visual life. She’s turned those gifts into a dual career as a partner in a design firm and partner in an art company. She has worked on many interesting projects, both locally and nationally.

“Emma,” an architect, got her love of nature, the outdoors and sports from her parents. From an early age, the family spent time at their weekend mountain retreat, climbing, canoeing, looking for birds and deer. “It was probably the most peaceful, calm time we all shared together,” she says. Decades ago, she passed on those passions to her son in his thirties despite raising him in an urban setting.

Greatest Gifts to and from Our Children

And then we started thinking, what are the greatest gifts as parents we’ve given to our children, all in their 30s and 40s? Are they the exact same ones we inherited or different or a combination?

Margaret took from her parents but expanded their lessons with the key ones she passed on being the value of hard work, to be content with fewer material things than others might, quick to help, show gratitude, forgive quickly, be open to criticism as a way to keep learning, disagree humbly—no one gets it right every time, compete but remain fair, use talents for your work and to give back to your community.   

Barbara says she always shared the joy of working at work you love rather than doing anything for a monetary reward, not comparing your situation about anything to anybody else’s but finding contentment with what you have, speaking up authentically but without trying to cause hurt, always making time for key family and friends and sometimes saying adieu to relationships that no longer work. 

Our children also have given us great gifts, and we consider them among our greatest treasures. They’ve made us more honest and transparent. Unlike our parents, we keep fewer secrets from them since we think we communicate better and more openly, and they keep fewer from us, even if they know we might not approve. We apologize much quicker for our mistakes, which some of our parents never did, explain more often that we try to do the best we can, always try to move on rather than hold grudges for any problems between us and heed their advice to us—please, don’t email us too much, but text.

We also talk about many subjects that our parents never would have broached, including sex and sexual preference. In general, Margaret says, her parents raised her “to be seen and not heard,” which meant she couldn’t speak up without consequences—and might be sent to her room. Barbara’s says hers wanted her to voice her thoughts or so they said but when she disagreed, they were not always eager to hear what and why she felt the way she did. But they mellowed over time about differences, and she hopes she has, too.  

Our kids have also shown us how important we are to them in their own unedited ways. All of them came out and instructed  us at the start of the pandemic that we need to be super careful—not go for haircuts or colorings until deemed safe, not to doctors unless an emergency, not to restaurants except maybe outdoors, not to any social gatherings and certainly not anywhere without a mask, washing our hands thoroughly and keeping our distance socially. They made it clear they wanted us around for much longer, and how good is that!

But most important, our children have given us the gift of hope for they are our future and the repository of our gifts again to pass on.

As we approach the New Year of 2021, we say put the gifts we’ve been given to good use to help create a better world. This, we believe, is our greatest legacy. Happy holidays!


2 comments

  • Leslie Reby

    Dec 26, 2020

    Good article, such good advice. Its always about family and we have been so fortunate in that regard. Best holiday wishes to you and your loved ones and a much better year ahead soon.

  • Jane Sitrin

    Dec 25, 2020

    What a wonderful article.
    I will send it on to our girls. Stay safe and well.
    Let’s hope for a better 2021for all of us.


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