Family Politics

The transition from San Francisco to the remote Northeastern corner of Oregon brings on psychological whiplash. In the city, time coursed by in BART stops, dance club beats, and social appointments. Here, on the outskirts of nowhere, not much distinguishes one day from the next. It’s like moving through a Still Life painting—I climb over barbed-wire fences, traverse pastures, and pause against the quiet backdrop of mountains. I look up into the Spartan bare-branched trees and attune myself to minutiae: a cloud shifting stratus-to-lenticular, the occasional thud of an apple falling onto the dampened ground.

If there is to be any action outside the forces of weather and gravity, it’s by invention, and so people around here gather to stoke the social fires. On Thursdays they sing karaoke, and scoot their cowboy boots across the floor at The Hydrant. They drink lots of beer. And since there are not many restaurants to chose from, they host potlucks.

Dinner with friends the other night: cheese-covered Spanish rice, hot soup, and an olive-cabbage-pinto salad that brought a summer crunch into the winter evening. Conversation turned to the ring. Our host, Philip, works with gems. His wife, Jodie, is a loving presence who monitors her guest’s wellbeing like the warmest sort of mother, overfilling our plates and topping our water glasses. Across the table from me their friend, Loring, sat and remarkably worked four needles at once, stitching socks to give as Christmas presents to her family.

I mentioned the latest ring development: Anna Griffin, a reporter from The Oregonian, contacted me recently with an interest in writing about the ring. Anna’s column is sharp, strident, and political. But what kind of political angle would she find for the With This Ring Project?

I was excited. The Oregonian has a wide group of active readers, and it was just the kind of publicity the ring needed. But it also had me scared. Though I’d never really considered it before, maybe selling the ring was a political act. Although I believe fully in the auction, I’ve been nagged by the sensation of doing something transgressive. Is it okay to sell a family heirloom?

Historically, English law stated that the owner of an heirloom could dispose of it during his lifetime, but it must remain within the estate. In other words, it wasn’t cool to sell an heirloom to just anyone, like I’ve been hoping to do.

Though such directives maintained social inequities by keeping valuables contained in families, I can understand such laws. At its best, an heirloom preserves a family story. It’s a tangible reminder of the past, of our origins, and it symbolizes of our ancestors. An heirloom is a testament to the fact that we do not simply appear out of nowhere, but are inexorably linked to a long line of people who came before us: people who struggled, migrated, married, worked, survived, reproduced, and parented.

So, if an heirloom is symbolic of this fact, then is selling it dishonoring them in someway? Are we obligated to covet grandma’s punch set, and pass it along in the prescribed way, even if sometime we find ourselves totally broke, or discover that our values are different?

Since setting up the ring website, I’ve heard a lot of  heirloom stories—how a string of pearls from a deceased mother-in-law has been languishing in the attic forever, or how diamonds like my own have been holed up in a safe deposit box, owned by someone who feels too uncomfortable to wear it, and too guilty to sell it

My own thinking has been this: why keep that Japanese urn or Confederate belt buckle in storage when its value could be unleashed for good causes?

Not that I would advocate that everyone liquidate their heirlooms, and sell off their family history. Where we come from is important, and if an antique picture of Mary Queen of Scots transmits our family story in some way, then that is valuable.

Selling an heirloom is a highly personal choice, and my decision to do it comes from individual circumstances that make it feel “right” in someway.

Perhaps I am able to do it because my family has never been particularly close (except for mom!). We don’t use affectionate nicknames, hold few traditions, and rarely tell stories. Our estranged tribe is scattered to the winds–across California, Oregon, Nebraska and Minnesota and, especially since my grandmother died,  often fail to gather for holidays. We don’t talk on the phone, and routinely forget each other’s birthdays. Though we have mourned this, and wished it were different, we remain largely aloof.

I have regretted this at times–when I hear of brothers  rafting the Grand Canyon with their sisters, or watch whole Thai families running restaurants, or even when I see families bicker, because at at least they are interacting. But the upshot of my family’s discombobulation is that we are sort of free to be who we are. We’ve set off in our own directions, forged new lives, new identities, and are not particularly bound to follow in any particular footsteps. If I want to grow dreadlocks, I will. If I want to be tightrope walker, that’s okay too.

So, the little part of me that is afraid to sell the ring is just a little part–the part that wishes we were close, that wants to belong to be in a family where I’m obliged to tow the line. It’s also the child part– that powerful longing for approval that persists too long into adulthood.

Because I’m not 100-perent sure that my grandmother would like what I’m doing. In selling the ring, I guess I have a sense of ‘coming out,’ of saying ‘hey, my values are different.’

Someone recently asked me if I had $22,000 in cash–instead of a ring–would I still give it away. My answer was ‘probably not.’ I would likely spend the money on a new paraglider, a camper van, or on a trip to Morocco. But cashing in the ring for these indulgences would never sit right in my conscience. On the other hand, donating the diamond money to great causes feels like the right use, and serves as sort of an ‘out’ for a person like myself.


I still fret.  Friends assure me that this is actually a great way to honor my grandmother. They constantly remind me that it is MY ring now, and therefore MY decision.

But across the dinner table that evening in eastern Oregon, Loring, who was nearing the end of her sock, was much less reverent: “You know that all stuff about the deceased rolling over in their grave? I always say ‘well, they probably need the exercise.’”

NOTE: I’m behind on my blogging! Stay tuned for a visit to the amazing Quilts for Kids project at the beggars’ village in Kathmandu. If the ring sells, Quilts for Kids will receive $3,000 (see


5 Responses to “Family Politics”

  1. jeanine sturm Says:

    A thoughtful life is a life well lived. So many of us move forward through life motivated by the fulfillment of each desire as it arises. To not only eschew ritualistic tradition, but to do it for the sake of generosity and self-education is a step above.

  2. ted Says:

    I love how you can put it all out there.
    Balancing family expectations and personal choices will always be in play and societal pressures as well. Cash in hand verses an item for conversion, but isn’t it all in a state of flux. Values change and the value of things change too.
    Love you

  3. anitahaf Says:

    Very interesting thoughts. Like so many people I am behind your decision 100%. I think what you are doing takes courage and requires a good heart. Im sure your grandma would appreciate that 🙂

    All the best with it!

  4. becky Says:

    I think that’s amazing & I totally wish I had the money to buy it & pass it down in my family. (Well, for as long as they wished, anyway.)

  5. gonexc Says:

    Money well spent…

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