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The Grief of Inheritance

When a long-lost relative dies and leaves you money, it can be bittersweet.

The Grief of Inheritance
Illustration by Barbara Ott

The woman on the message said her name was Barb. She explained that her friend Raissa had died and — Barb knew how crazy this all sounded — she’d found my name on Raissa’s life-insurance policy. I assumed it was a scam. I called her back, anyway. How could I not?

My father’s family is small and disconnected. Whoever had managed to survive the gulags during WWII had come to America, but they existed like distant satellites, wholly unconnected to one another. I had never even met my uncle — my father’s only sibling — or any of my first cousins. Dad wasn’t a particularly sentimental type. Being born in Ukraine in the 1930s will do that to you, I guess.

I do not know if Raissa was my father’s first or second cousin. I simply referred to her as my aunt, though I’d met her exactly once when I was a toddler. She and my mother kept in touch sporadically over the years, long after my parents divorced, and I’d occasionally be pulled into a phone call with a woman who would address me as “my hon” in a Russian accent tinged with a Midwestern twang. I wrote to her throughout elementary school and high school, collecting her return letters in a box.

When I was seventeen, she sent me a bracelet that had belonged to her as a teenager, adorned with dangling charms commemorating her sweet sixteen and graduation.

“It’s a family heirloom,” Raissa explained. I didn’t understand why she was giving something so personal to me or how something so insular could be an heirloom. It would take me years to finally figure it out.

Sometime when I was in college, Raissa disappeared out of the periphery of my life. The letters my mother and I wrote to her came back undeliverable; the phone number we had for her was disconnected. It was just before the birth of social media, and finding someone was harder then. My mother and I called the police station closest to her last address, but she wasn’t technically a missing person. Raissa had our information. I told myself that if she wanted to reach out, she would.

***

After I got the voicemail, I called Barb back, and we awkwardly explained the roles we had in Raissa’s life. I told her about my father, who had just died a few months earlier. She told me how she and Raissa had become friends through work, and she told me about my aunt’s life for the past few years. Around the time I’d lost touch with Raissa, she’d had a series of strokes (I vaguely remembered one letter where her penmanship was rough and crooked — she had taught herself to write with her left hand).

Barb told me she moved around, jumping from the home of one friend to another's as her health declined.

“Why didn’t she call us?” I asked Barb. She didn’t have an answer. I’ve had the same phone number for twenty years; Barb had looked it up in Raissa’s address book shortly after she’d found the life-insurance policy. She told me dozens of numbers had been scratched out over the years, but my ten digits were pristine.

By the time I learned of her death, Raissa had been gone for two years. I hadn’t spoken to her in nearly two decades. My last attempt to contact her had been nine years earlier — when her invitation to my wedding had come back undeliverable. My mother and I would occasionally do an Internet search for her name, which yielded nothing besides an old address (even today, this is still true). Over time, Mom went from musing about what happened to Raissa to saying, quietly, “I think she’s dead.” I dismissed this idea until a few years ago, when I realized the probability of it and told her that she was likely right.

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After that, I stopped doing Internet searches. Mom still did.

The storied cliché is that when a distant relative dies and leaves us an inheritance, it is a blessing. We get to benefit from someone’s largesse without having to feel the grief of loss. But the reality is that the grief is still there. It is not the clear anguish of having lost someone close to us but the murky, strange pain of losing someone we barely knew and all the potential our relationship held.

I thought that I would one day visit my aunt and she’d tell me that I reminded her of my paternal grandmother, whom I had never known. I’d hear stories of my father when he was young (had she even known my father when he was young? Was he ever young?). I imagined a bond composed of heart-to-hearts that would never happen and strengthened by all the things I hadn’t known we had in common. The most perfect relationships are the ones that never come to be.

Over the years, my mother would tell me that I reminded her of Raissa. “You know,” she would say, nonjudgmentally, “she never had children either.” In the wake of her death, finding myself her only heir, I think of this often. When I imagine her final years, I am sad not just because I wasn’t there but also because I wonder if I’m seeing a prophecy of my own end.

***

A short time later, I receive a check from her insurance company. The life of a writer isn’t particularly lucrative, so for me, the amount is substantial — roughly 20 percent of my annual income. I email Barb, gently asking if there were any associated costs with my aunt’s death that had been unaccounted for, or …? I try to leave it open-ended, in case Barb needs anything. She tells me that there are none. My aunt had had enough in savings to cover everything.

I don’t know if I can keep money from a woman I barely knew, but selfishly, I want to hold on to it. It’s the last thing I have of her. Also, hello? It’s money. For now, it sits in my bank account, where it holds infinite potential. I could take my mother to Lake Michigan, where Raissa’s ashes were scattered. Or go to New York and finally meet my father’s brother. Or put it in my nephew’s college fund. I can’t say which of these choices Raissa would prefer. I never knew her well enough to figure that out.

I try not to dwell on the relationship that never was. Instead, I focus on what is real. That my aunt worried about my future and my well-being. That for me, our relationship held potential, but for her, what we had was enough.

After her death, I dig up the charm bracelet and put it on. Someone compliments me on it, and I thank them.

“It’s a family heirloom,” I say.

Geraldine DeRuiter is the founder of the award-winning Everywhereist blog and author of All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft, a memoir. @everywhereist