How to Become a Champion Among the Living

We are the champions, my friends

And we’ll keep on fighting till the end

          — Queen, News of the World

Efraim would not become an American citizen until after the birth of his second child, even though he had spent eight years of his college education between Texas and New York a decade earlier. Establishing his own business meant long hours and never enough time for a family vacation, unless a weekend in Lake Tahoe or an overnight with the Indian Guides in Mammoth counted for something.

He would return to the Old Country for a year or two after university, heading back to the United States, never to see his mother or his father again. The family had been an affluent one, but he brought nothing with him, save a Rolex he bought in Switzerland, on the way back to the New World with his American bride and her daughter. Over the years, there would be not a single token or remembrance from the relatives back in the Old Country, not even a piece of silver, an ashtray, or a photograph.

He and his children’s mother would spend years divorcing, and when he was nearly eligible for Social Security, he would find a new wife, some two decades younger than he, from the Old Country. With age, his relationship with his progeny deteriorated, marked by more than the usual dissent found in most families. Cordial yet distant was the best characterization that could be placed on the ties. His eldest’s decision to adopt and embrace a religion, consume massive quantities of pork, and declare himself a Northern European, just like the family he’d married into, broadened the chasm between a father and son who never were close. Telling his youngest that, if forced to choose, he’d pick his new spouse over her any day did little for that father-daughter bond.

Before long, Efraim was in the middle of his ninth decade, and the realization that his plans to leave everything to his child bride would mean there would be no remembrance left for his own children. Somewhere along the line, he’d bought into a doctrine that his spouse should receive his entire estate and his issue nothing.

It was time for a plan. The only way he could leave anything for his children would have to come from current income, maybe bolstered by a home equity loan. And he knew that his two children wouldn’t go along with the plan unless their half-sister, the child of Efraim’s late ex-wife was invited. After all, he had known her ever since she was less than a year old.

He would take them on a trip to Spain to explore their family roots. It didn’t matter that there were no ancestors to look up, everyone having been ejected during the Inquisition. It didn’t even matter that no one could name a single ancestor who might’ve hailed from Spain. It was just the homeland, a place where people looked more like you than not.

Bird and Lark, the natural children, were reticent. After all these years, wasn’t it sort of ridiculous to get together and pretend to be one happy family? The stepdaughter, who loved nothing more than planning trips and searching for deals, would get on a plane just about anywhere if someone gave her ticket. Efraim approached Lark first, followed by her half-sister. Having enlisted those two, his next step was to ask them if they had a problem with their somewhat estranged and recently widowed-brother, Bird, tagging along, knowing they were in no position to refuse.

The stepdaughter took on the chore of researching flights, creating itineraries, finding lodging, and making plans. Efraim wanted everything planned out, day by day, in advance, and he wanted to pay for everything in advance with a credit card. No sense in losing the opportunity to pick up some miles. Armed with the credit cards, the stepdaughter spent winter evenings searching out deals, checking out Google Earth street views, logging on to Renfe’s website at some odd hour to snag the best discount precisely 60 days prior to departure. More emails circulated among Efraim and his children during these four months of planning than ever before, and binders were filled with confirmations and directions.

Finally, the perfect Madrid apartment appeared: 4 bedrooms, 5 baths, 4,000 square feet, a doorman building, décor straight out of Four Seasons, and a balcony overlooking Paseo Castellano in El Viso, walkable to Santiago Bernabéu Stadium and El Corte Ingles.

Lodging arranged, it was time to start booking tickets for the Prado, the Palacio Real, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, the Alhambra and the Nasri Gardens, bullet trains to Sevilla, a slow train to Granada, another bullet train to Cordoba and then on to Madrid, a commuter train to Segovia, the obligatory flamenco shows, limos to and from the airport and everywhere else. Directions to Mercado de Chamartín and Carrefour were mapped out.

Nearly a month of togetherness was something this quintet had never experienced, and yet it somehow worked out. Never in their lives had that many meals been shared in succession, and there was the perpetual search for whole wheat baguettes, copious amounts of fresh fruit, and ham-free restaurants. Amazingly, the sojourn in Spain went off without any of the usual fights that accompanied prior visits, even if it did start to resemble a continuously looping My Dinner with Andre, punctuated by the only running game all five knew: canasta.

Efraim ended up spending the price of an average mid-70s Southern California tract house on the trip, but it would be money well-spent.

There’s a moral here: spend your money creating experiences and memories. All of the estate planning in the world means nothing if there are no warm and cozy memories behind it. Nothing can put the decedent into a less-than-favorable light, shattering families, than purse strings controlled from the grave. Frequently, the bequest might not be more than the price of a new car, something your heirs might’ve bought without that gift from you. Inheritances almost never solve financial problems.

The sterling that’s been stashed away in the bank safety deposit box so long that the fees exceed its value means nothing to today’s generations. If you love that precious silver and fine china so much, then get it out and use it daily. Each piece that might break is one less for the next generation to deal with. Enjoy it while you can.

Your hand-carved dining room furniture is only slightly more appealing to Gen Xers and Millennials than a Naugahyde Barcalounger, which is about as valuable to them as your grandmother’s mid-century modern television console was to you. Gen Xers and Millennials’ disdain for your crap isn’t a command for you to liquidate those prized possessions. Take pleasure in what you have, but realize that yours is likely the last generation on the planet to appreciate your worldly possessions.

Maybe travel isn’t feasible for you and your intendeds. Or it isn’t your thing. Spend the money creating new skills, memories, or even making a fantasy approach reality, both with your family and separately. A surprise and unaccompanied trip to Machu Picchu or New Zealand, serious music lessons, a harp, cooking school, or even new (and wanted) dog or horse, gifted while you’re still living, will leave your mark on the recipient longer than any bequest. And you’ll be around to share in the joy. You’ll be a hero instead of just a run-of-the-mill testator.

You might even be able to repair some the fissures that time may have inflicted upon your relationship with those loved ones. And you could become a champion in the process.

Now, let’s return to that trip to Spain just once more. You know how some moments are Kodachromed into our memory? May 13, 2012 was more than just an ordinary Sunday night. Plácido Domingo would perform during Real Madrid’s season-ending celebrations, and Efraim and his son were never happier that evening, walking on air back to their apartment, singing “We Are the Champions” in a language neither spoke. No amount of estate planning could ever conjure up that kind of bond.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s