Will and Testament

Women's legacies from the Bible to Brooklyn

My mother and I have a strange ritual. Like any meaningful ritual, it energizes, calms, and nurtures. It is simple.

We talk about her will.

I am 53; she is 81. We have been doing this for years. When my husband overhears these conversations, he is appalled and quickly exits. How can you talk about anything so morbid? he exclaims.

So, this is clearly not a ritual for everyone.

A few years ago, my mother had some heart trouble and spent a week in the hospital. For endless hours, by her hospital bed, we did a variation on our ritual. We made lists, then changed the lists, then made new lists again. Who would get what if… ? Both of us were exhausted from worry and stress, but somehow we could always get up the energy for this.

What’s it all about? Why does adrenalin flow when we decide who will get the pearl pin, who the silver bowl? I have wondered if this is about my own greed, or my mother’s desire to control from the grave. Perhaps.

But I think, on some deeper level, we are attempting no less a feat than defying illness and possibly death. My husband and brother don’t want to talk about the will, and my mother and I talk about it obsessively, but all of us are, in fact, dealing with the same thing: aging and death, even the death of ourselves.

So my mother and I enact our comfortable ritual. Even after death, our conversations imply, my mother will continue to give me nurturance; I will continue to receive it. Continuity.

I am a family therapist, and I often ask clients if they have discussed their parents’ wills with them. The answers tell me a lot about the family’s communication patterns. The planning around the inheritance, however big or small, is an important developmental task for a family. Who does it, who knows what, who helps, who doesn’t, who is brought in, who is left out, who is perceived as being competent, who is perceived as being particularly in need. All these are important questions for the family.

Think of those opening scenes in mystery stories: the lawyer reads, the family gasps. Who knew what? Who was in on the secrets? Were there any secrets?

I looked at my own tradition for some precedents around this family task, and I found that, in fact, in Genesis inheritance is a major theme. Abraham is starting a new religion, and the bestowal of the blessing (that is, the reading of the will) is a key event. Stories focus on who will be anointed to carry on the great work. Who will be the chosen one of the Chosen People?

There are two central scenes in Genesis where we witness the “will” of the patriarch: Isaac’s blessing of his son Jacob, and Jacob’s long, detailed blessing of his sons and grandchildren.

These wills are shared before death, not after. When I read Jacob’s complicated blessing of his children, there seems to be some of the same feeling that my mother and I have when we discuss her will. There is something stirring, bold and real about receiving knowledge of the inheritance while everyone can still talk and look at each other.

Of course, as in so many scenes in the Bible, one has to ask, where are the women? We know where Rebecca was. Because she was operating in a patriarchal system, she is a figure who has to be devious. Her husband Isaac, old, blind, and not totally competent, has the power to give the blessing. Rebecca plots with her son Jacob, the younger twin, to make sure he receives it, and not his brutish brother Esau.

The background of this story is important: Before Rebecca, there is Sarah. Sarah, like most Jewish women in Genesis, has a fertility problem. Finally, late in life, she has her miracle child, Isaac. She guards and overprotects her son, promising herself that he will never be in danger. She persuades Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, so that Isaac will have no difficulty, no competition.

And yet, it is this child, Isaac, whose own father is willing to have him killed. Never mind that it is God’s test for Abraham. Sarah will find out that unbeknownst to her, and certainly without her permission, her beloved, over-protected child was brought by her husband up the mountain for the express purpose of having him killed. Legend has it that Sarah dies of a heart attack when she finally hears the story.

So to return to Rebecca, Rebecca must have heard of this terrible event, must have been told that Sarah, her mother-in-law, although beloved and respected by her husband Abra ham, was still cut off from information and decision making around this key plot. Rebecca knows that knowledge is power. And so she eavesdrops on Isaac and their firstborn Esau, and decides to become the writer and director of this inheritance drama. Isaac, allegedly duped by his wife and his younger son (it’s possible that he feigned being duped), gives the blessing to Jacob (disguised as his brother Esau with hairy arms)… and the rest is history.

Many years pass now, and Jacob is on his own deathbed. This time there are not two sons — one in the will, the other cut out — but twelve. (Dinah, the only daughter, is absent, having no role in an inheritance scene.) And the blessings are steamy, insulting, vengeful, prophetic, laudatory. Reuben, the first son, gets praise: “Reuben… my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank, and exceeding in honor’,’ but then — vitriolic — “Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer! For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace!’ (First-borns seem to have a hard time in Genesis). Simeon and Levi get chastised for their character flaws of aggressiveness; Judah gets A pluses (“The scepter shall not depart from Judah”); Joseph an A minus for courage and staying power; Benjamin, much beloved son, gets a strange one-liner: “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he consumes the foe, in the evening he divides the spoils.”

These are not vapid, Hallmark card messages. They are rich blessings and severe criticisms. There is no pretense that all are equally beloved or good; the blessing/”will” lies largely in predictions of what will happen in the future.

So what, if anything, does all of this have to do with my mother’s pearl pin, the silver bowl, our tete-a-tetes about who gets what? Well, so much of Genesis is about tracing the growth of a people through the generations. Blessings and curses, slaps and praises deal, in their way, with a family’s coming to terms with illness, disintegration and death. Isaac is blind and ailing; Jacob “finished his instructions to his sons, drew his feet into the bed, and breathing his last, was gathered to his people!’ There is no denial of the deathbed.

Some children have been rewarded, some blasted. Jacob does not go gently or ungently into that good night; he goes in charge, clearheaded, in control. These are grand deaths, and I hope I have a similar one. Jacob knows exactly what he wants to do, what memories he wants to leave, what choices he wants to make. There is a triumph of spirit and will, the same kind of spirit that adult children and older parents strive toward, the same spirit that so energizes my mother and me.

One last point before I return to my mother. In Genesis, in a notable reversal of real life, men tend to outlive their wives. Abraham buries Sarah, Isaac dies at 180 without any mention of Rebecca, and Jacob outlives both Rachel and Leah. (Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, but the other female deaths are not explained).

In real life, of course, mothers, in all likelihood, outlive fathers. Now that women have the right to own property, the great inheritance scenes will increasingly be played by our matriarchs. What does this mean in terms of giving and getting, in terms of exerting power in old age? These questions are terribly important. Mothers no longer need to eavesdrop like Rebecca; daughters need not disappear like Dinah. The experience for both my mother and myself of creating our own inheritance scenes has been loving, spiritual and in every way empowering.

Mary Cahn Schwartz is a social worker in private practice in the Washington, DC area. She has been an associate professor of social work at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and has written extensively on the relationship of women’s issues to ‘psychotherapy. She is a contributing editor of the Family Therapy Networker.