What We Pass On

When I was five and living in a small Minnesota city my father's parents visited from New York. On Sunday morning we went as usual to Perkins, where I did what my parents had prepared me to do: I asked for pancakes but no bacon. With enthusiasm and pride I told my grandparents—Moshe and Lottie to most people, Saba and Sabtah to me—that because they were there, I was only having pancakes, no bacon.

Two decades later I went to visit the family of the woman who is now my wife. While most of the family ate snappy cheese and corn pudding inside the Millersburg, Kentucky, home, my wife's father's mother asked me on the back porch what my belief was about Jesus Christ. She listened to the first tepid sentence of my response and thanked me and walked into the kitchen to urge her granddaughter to be careful.

A few years ago I went with my wife and kids to the funeral of my wife's mother's third husband in a Southern Baptist church in a small town in South Carolina. In a departure from the church's usual practice, a well-known local musician sang “Imagine.” Two of the three eulogies were delivered from the altar by gay men. When the preacher led us in prayer and song, my kids and I, and I think my wife, were silent. We knew neither the words nor the tune.

My kids, now ten and eight, tell people who ask that they are both Christian and Jewish. I suspect my grandparents and my wife's grandparents would have said they are neither. I don't think my kids know that they are a thoroughly contemporary, diluted amalgam of Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and Jew. There's Scotch-Irish and English and Lithuanian and Polish in there. There's Kentucky and Alabama and New York and Israel and Minnesota and Chicago. There's other stuff, too. They see themselves as Oregonians.

In a short essay that's been on my mind recently, the author, Touré, thinks through how he will raise children with his soon-to-be wife. He writes that it will be his job not hers to bring blackness into the home. He tries in his essay to figure out what that could mean, but he seems certain that the job belongs to him.

Earlier this fall at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde's Third Annual History and Culture Summit, there was a good deal of attention to cultural inheritance—what we receive and what we pass on. Several people spoke of thinking seven generations back and seven generations forward. I can't go back four and find the looking forward even harder—and there we were thinking about this at just the third-annual summit, an old culture becoming new again.

This summit got me thinking about how the more pressure your culture is under—the more persecution and threat it suffers—the more likely you may be to think carefully about preserving it, recognizing it, passing it on.

One thing that's been passed on to me is an undiluted commitment to questions. This time of year, with the holidays and their various rituals upon us, my big question is about what Touré calls his job.

Merry or happy or bountiful or blessed whatever, everyone, and also this: what of what you've received do you want to pass on? What would you be fine leaving behind? And what can you do to transmit the good stuff, inherited or acquired later, seven generations hence?

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