"My friends are my estate" - or the best way to leave it for the next guy.
"My friends are my estate."
This is a quote from Elizabeth Dickenson.
I loved it the first time I saw it, and it became one of my favorites after my grandmother died.
The house my grandmother lived in was built in the 1840’s, and has been in my family since that time. 1840-2007 is one-hundred and sixty-seven years of family history in one house and a big barn - and no one ever cleaned anything out. They just threw things up in the barn. “Leave it for the next guy,” was the Colclough-Stone-DeWitt-Winslow motto on dealing with material possessions and your earthly estate.
My father and his brothers, all in their sixties at the time of my grandmother’s death, knew the game was up. In order to sell the house, they had to face generations of their estate. It was time to clean-out, and they jokingly referred to themselves as “The Next Guys.”
I could describe in detail the treasures they unearthed: from the deed signed by Alexander Hamilton to the early Lionel trian set all boxed up for my son to inherit. I can also tell you about the trash, from the hay bales from the 1860s they found in the barn, to the old bags of -well- trash.
The process took about a year and a half. It involved three generations of people who lived above the earth, and five generations of people who were pushing up daisys down the road. It was enormous. Repeatedly the term “estate” was thrown around. “Well, Grandma and Grandpa worked hard, and they always worked to build their estate.”
I lovingly took part in the process, and spent weekends and days looking through boxes, putting my name on an occasional items, and learning about the lives of people who came before me on my father’s side. And- of course - I started worrying about my own estate.
Was building an estate something I should be consciously concerned about? Did I need a big house, a better job and more treasure for someone seven generations down the line? I found myself worried about my journals from highschool. Put them in a box or burn them now? And then my hard-drive from college. Take an ax to it?
And then I found this quote among my grandmother’s things. She kept a journal everyday of her adult life, and within her journals she would scrap notes and quotes on pieces of paper. The irony of seeing this Elizabeth Dickinsin quote in her writing as my father and his brothers threw away hay bales from the Civil War was breathtaking, and comforting.
And I knew why she kept the quote. She also felt overwhelmed by the enormity of her material estate, and she knew she needed to focus on her values, and the important part of this human experience - relationships, love, the intangible parts of our lives that no one will ever find in a barn, and no-one will ever sell to a stranger.
I knew this little scrap of paper was one of the best treaures my grandmother had left me. From that moment on, I made it a policy to keep as few “Next Guy” relics as possible, and to live as lightly as possible in the material world, but as loudly as possible in the world of relationships, friends and earthly experience.
I will not completely lie, I did keep a few things. I kept a gold necklace, and two diamond rings. And I always wear them when I go out to laugh, joke and bond with my estate.
“A sensible man will remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways — by a change from light to darkness or from darkness to light; and he will recognize that the same thing happens to the soul.” — Plato
I read this quote recently on “The Happiness Project,” and it jumped out at me for two reasons.