Posted by: ritagone | April 8, 2015

The Inheritance of Parents

If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like? … The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness. Our parents may be able to leave us money, houses, and land, but they may not be happy people. If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all. — Nhat Hanh



I can’t redeveloping-good-parenting-skillsmember where I saw the above quote, but its truth sure had an impact on me, both as a child of parents and as a parent of children. I do remember spending a great deal of introspective time thinking about this question “If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like?”: since I know my parents weren’t happy with each other, how did that affect me as both a child and an adult? And this: How was I determined to be a happy parent to my children, given the way I was raised, with unhappy parents?

It bears thinking about, for sure, because it impacts so many people.

Just when you think your life is fairly dull and unimportant, you begin to realize that, as a parent, you are casting ripples that are so far-reaching as to be terrifying. Your children get married and have children, and those human beings are affected. And then they probably get married and have children, and so the circle widens. Or, even if they don’t marry, they are at the very least coming into contact with other people, and have the ability to be positive influences or serial killers partially because of you and the way you treated them…all because of the way your parents related to you.

It’s pretty frightening.

When I say that my parents weren’t happy, I’m not exaggerating. My father – to whom I was very close – sat with me in a restaurant when I was a teenager and informed me that when I turned 18, he was going to leave my mother. (He never did, so in hindsight he probably shouldn’t have unloaded that information on me at 15 or 16. It was a heavy burden for me to carry. And what his decision had to do with my age I now have no idea.) The sad part is: had I had a frank conversation with my mother to let her know his intentions, I know her response would have been: NOTHING. I don’t think my mother could respond to anything on an emotional level. She just wasn’t equipped.

I knew why.

My mother was the youngest of 13 children born in Kiev, Russia. She never knew her parents, but she and three older siblings emigrated to Chicago when an uncle who had already moved there had enough money to send for four of his relatives. So you know those movies set in the early 1920’s with the ships loaded with immigrants who are tearfully staring at the Statue of Liberty as they pull into the harbor to unload at Ellis Island? That was my mother’s story. But it’s not a cheerful one. The uncle was late arriving to get them for reasons that I never heard and maybe my mother never did either, so the four siblings spent three weeks on cots in the dormitory there. I can’t imagine the fear and abandonment they must have been experiencing. They were given a new surname, Singer, based on a sewing machine billboard, because their Russian name was impossible for the American authorities to spell or pronounce. Their past identity was ripped from them before a new start could take its place.

By the time they were picked up and started their new life in Chicago, the insecurities that plagued her all her life were already ingrained in my mother, never to be overcome. Meeting and marrying my father did nothing to assuage them. To this day I don’t know why he – a first generation confident Chicago boy – married her, what he saw in her other than her physical attractiveness, but it was a marriage that probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

I wonder how many marriages in the 1920’s produced unhappy parents like mine?

There are worse home environments than the one I grew up in. Always there are two choices: allow the negative environment and influences to settle into your bloodstream and permanently disable you for the rest of your life (which is what happened to my mother), or shake your fist Rocky-style and say, “I’m going to rise above this,” and then do whatever it takes to make this happen.

Finding Jesus for me was what made it happen. Finding Michael didn’t hurt either. I think we were happy parents because we were happy with our lives and certainly happy with one another. I think our two kids were happy kids. But I saw as they became adults that that still wasn’t a guarantee that life would be sweet and kind to them, and they would have to fight for their own chunk of happiness.

I know people now who have had horrendous childhoods, the stuff of emotional DeNiro movies or HBO mini-series. And yet they have grabbed onto something from within and become more than survivors; they have become conquerors. You know who you are, and you know how much I respect you.

There are others I know who had similar upbringings that would curl your hair and then as adults themselves couldn’t quite get out of their own way. For them, there needs to be an extra measure of grace and good will.

Still, the words of Nhat Hanh ring so true: “If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all.” Amen and amen to that!



  1. Rita ~ Thank you for sharing your mother’s story and hence, yours. God certainly used your mother’s brokenness as an impetus for you to seek and find hope, joy and happiness in Christ. Your life and laughter are a witness to your triumph. We are all grateful for you and the gifts you share with us.

  2. A great post, Rita. Such an interesting background. So glad you chose the happy path. You’ve added so much to our world!

  3. This was a wonderful post! It truly captures the difference between my upbringing and that of my husband’s.

    “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”. spoken by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

    You climbed into your mother’s skin and decided not to stay there. Thank you for your insights.

  4. This is a powerful reflection, thanks Rita!

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