The Gifts of Inheritance: What Do We Inherit and Why?

“What do we inherit, and how, and why?”
Dani Shapiro

One of my favorite concepts is called “two-handed giving.” Leaving no hand open for receiving. The height of altruism.

Gifts of inheritance are more like heavy parcels that abseil from the sky. They knock us over, and we’re forced to claim them, carry them. Are they appreciated? It remains to be seen. They are definitely nonreturnable.

Vladimir Nabokov believed that memory—or more specifically, “the act of vividly recalling a patch of the past”—was a hereditary trait.

His British contemporary, Graham Greene, a novelist who often explored childhood emotions as a means to understand the adult, claimed he inherited a fear of bats and birds from his mother, while Penelope Lively surmised her love of gardening was inherited through the female line.

Meanwhile in stories skimmed from his childhood, Roald Dahl credited his love of nature to his father’s overwhelming need to take his pregnant wife for “glorious walks” in the woods, hoping an in vitro experience of beauty would take hold.

What are gifts of inheritance? How do they affect us? Do they make us who we are?

Wedding dress. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My wedding dress. Something mothers traditionally pass on to daughters. Photograph by Chris Cook.

Genetics, snapshots, keepsakes, spaces. The physical things we inherit, keep, claim, and pass on.

But what about nonphysical items?

What we really inherit is consciousness. A sense of who we are.1


you look just like your mother
I guess I do carry her tenderness well…

From Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey

This inheritance anchors us. It is so fundamental to our sense of self and our connection to who we imagine as our “kin” that we fail to see it as its own thing—like a mirror that shows everything but itself.

Until, like a mirror, it shatters.

When a genetic test proved beyond doubt that writer Dani Shapiro was not related to the father who raised her, she undergoes a disintegration of identity and an investigation of truth and a reconstruction of self.

“If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father? If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?” Shapiro demands and tries to answer.

I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There were certain things I thought I could count on. I looked at my hand, for example, and I knew it was my hand. My foot was my foot. My face, my face. My history, my history. After all, it’s impossible to know the future, but we can be reasonably sure about the past.

By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history—the life I had lived—had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city.

From Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance

Shapiro’s sense of self becomes so fractured that she feels physical detachment. “My body wasn’t my body,” she mourns. As she reassembles her new self, piecing together what happened, and what it means, Shapiro tries to make sense of what her parents knew, especially her father. She ultimately finds empathy towards herself by extending it to someone else first.

Did she learn that empathy from her father?

Photos of booties. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
Crocheted booties worn by my mother-in-law and my daughter. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Where did you get those big eyes?
My mother.
And where did you get those lips?
My mother.
And the loneliness?
My mother.
And that broken heart?
My mother.
And the absence, where did you get that?
My father.

From Warsan Shire’s “Inheritance”

For most of us, inheritance is more than genes; it’s the steadfast progression of what others—our caregivers, teachers, relatives—want for us.

Principles. Boundaries. Morals. Direction. Happiness.

No wonder people have so much fidelity and pride in family, nationality, and heritage. Through these links we extend ourselves beyond corporal limitations into infinity.

In his radiant memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates chronicles a young life shaped by a father: “An intellectual, born as it happened among people who could not see a college campus as an outcome.”

Young Coates was molded by his dad’s pressing need for his son to awaken and embrace a full measure of self.

This is all my father wanted—for the long struggle to wake us up to be present in class as it was at home. The struggle infused all his dealings with me. Whenever he could, he violated my weekends with his latest pet lesson.

From Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle

Coates gained consciousness of the plight of the young black man; he became aware of the systematic silencing of black voices and awake to the reality of a repressed future.

I believed in the intellectual of all of us, that mine was the legacy that aligned pyramids and spotted the rings of distant planets with only the naked eye. That was my greatest inheritance. But I turned this good news to bad ends, and ran with the sort of crew that surveyed all these new teachers, and picked out the ones who would never understanding.

From his father, Coates also inherited a deep desire to give that consciousness to others so that we too might feel enlightened.

Somewhere, somehow, on this road to our self-formation, we claim personhood. We say “I am.” A fierce act of independence that breaks us from our kin and from our parents as I am me is often followed by I am also not you.

Footprints. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My daughter’s footprints at birth. She has my high arches, her father’s straight toes. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Look, my eyes are not your eyes. You move through me like rain heard from another country.

From Ocean Vuong’s “For my Father/For my Son”

“My eyes are not your eyes,” writes Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong in his collection of odes to identity, fathers, and personhood.

The majority of me came from my parents. But my parents do not contain all of me. I didn’t see this significance until I had my daughter.

My daughter is bold and charming and has a searing temper—she is much, much more than me and my husband and all our kin combined. And if she is more than me, that means there is still a part of me that is not her.

Personhood is our complete concept of self. Expandable, contractible, but with boundaries, definitions. I am this.

I worried when I became a mom that I’d lose the “I am this.” That the “I” would disappear, and the “this” would blur.

Your eyes are not my eyes, nor do we see the same thing. But we are still, as kin, connected. Vuong’s poem continues: “This means I am touching you—this means you are not alone.”

In one of her many memoirs of being and becoming, Maya Angelou wrote she inherited/learned anger from her mother. I learned anger from my father. But I learned how to manage that anger from my husband.

We are more than what we inherit. A lifetime of more. We are more than what we give our offspring.

I think of the poet Keats. John Keats inherited the family disease, tuberculosis. He knew he was going to die. And he did die. Young, like his mother. But Keats, glorious, lustrous Keats also wrote incomparable poetry that ballasts the hulls of heaven.

Where did the poetry come from?