Will and Testament

by Jeff Oaks

I’m in the process of making a will. Since I’ve come into a little bit of an inheritance, nothing huge but something, I’ve been trying to think about what I want to do with my “estate.” That I have an estate is hilarious to me, because I’ve never thought of myself as someone who has lived his life or made his goal the accrual of wealth. There are of course people who have, who write books about it, who promise you Jesus wants you to, who see it as the only way to create change in the system. I’ve only wanted to be free to write what I wanted and to have some meaningful work to do in the world, which teaching writing fulfills beautifully.

I’ve taken steps of course along the way that would provide for a retirement for myself, primarily by contributing to a retirement plan through my university, but also by buying a house and car I could afford, paying off credit cards in timely ways; I’ve done most of that because I didn’t want debt and its anxieties to compromise the emotional and psychic space I need for writing. I have been fantastically lucky in a number of ways: had my undergraduate education paid for by Regents scholarships and parents, had my graduate education paid for by a teaching assistantship. I’ve lived in a small city where the rents were low, where I could use buses and a bike to get around town, at least until I found a job that allowed me greater expenses.

There’s no advice there really. If I were doing it now, I’m not sure I’d be able to do the same things. It’s harder to get a TAship at the university where I got mine; there are actually fewer of them than there were in the late 1980s. The city, which was undergoing a bust when I graduated and therefore landlords were glad to have tenants, has since recovered its feet and rents are climbing. The city is a bit more bike-friendly now, and a university ID functions as a bus pass, but elsewhere costs are horrific, including simple ones like parking. History helped me keep expenses low until I could find a full-time footing.

I have no kids or, with the improbable exception of my dog Andy, dependents who will likely outlive me. My older brother is in good shape. So, what to do with these “assets” that will outlive me? Every year the retirement account grows. My house has recently been re-valued upwards. And now there’s money from my mother. Let’s say, for the purposes of numbers, I am worth $250,000 now.

Even though that number is fictitious, it’s not far off. And not bad for a kid who simply followed his instinct to make the writing of poems the center of his life.

My first thought is to think about what good I want to do, if I can, with it. Most of my friends are in good financial states, and although I’d like to leave them something, I’m not too worried about them. Lately I’ve been thinking about leaving an endowment to the Writing Program, something that would do a particular good, like leaving $100,000 to be used specifically to fund travel of NonTenure Faculty. The university recently cut the $400 it used to give each of us to offset the expenses for the annual trip to the AWP conference; to correct that particular administrative slap against some of its hardest working employees would give me some happiness.

Then I think of at least a couple of former students who’ve become friends whose debt is crushing. A gift to them could ease their burdens at least a bit, maybe even take some of the more predatory banks off their backs.

Who gets the dog, though? And what’s a proper dowry (dogry?) for his future care?

Is this all just crazy? I don’t know. I’m writing this in the bloom of middle-age, in which I can imagine there will be no catastrophic illness or accident to derail my journey into a calm and happy retirement. Anything could happen.

Am I just being morbid? Not for my mother. One thing I learned from her is that there is no way to overthink your financial state. You don’t want to leave anything you worked hard for to the courts or to chance. Too many parties have an interest in draining your accounts, she’d say. My mother studied her checkbook and monthly financial statements with a laser-like intensity, looking for mistakes and hidden costs with the same attention a Melville scholar might bring to bear on Moby Dick. Now I begin to know why.

After a while a life can amount to something, even if you’ve not paying attention. For my mother, she was building a gift for my brother and me. She deeply resented anything that drained that gift, and although we tried to get her to travel more or buy something nice for herself, she usually resisted. We thought she was being silly not to use her money more. I wonder if I don’t understand her reluctance to spend her money now. She created a life for herself that was easy to maintain, that afforded her pleasure enough. Meanwhile she was building a gift that might free up our futures. It was in many ways the work of her life, her Magnum Opus. It’s a powerful feeling to think about the ways one might, as a parting gesture, break open a prison or two, fear loved ones from fear, become something like light at the end of a tunnel.