- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

When one hears the word “inheritance,” it likely conjures up images of young, self-indulgent heirs and heiresses (i.e., the the Hiltons) carelessly finding their way into gossip mags to remind us just “what’s wrong” with this narcissistic society.

But what recently struck me while reading “My Grandfather’s Son,” the refreshing biographic memoir of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was the kind of inheritance we often overlook. It has nothing to do with material wealth (Justice Thomas certainly did not have that) and everything to do with enrichment; specifically how one man’s inheritance can lead to the enrichment of so many others.

There is nothing inherently wrong with bequeathing material wealth. In fact, Proverbs 13:22 tells us that: “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children.” But generally speaking, to capture the definition of inheritance, is to look at all of its meanings. It is and can be “the genetic characters transmitted from parent to offspring” or “a quality, characteristic or other immaterial possession, received from the progenitors or predecessors as if by succession: an inheritance of family pride.”

Family pride. That takes me back to Justice Thomas. Surely he did not think of family pride during one of his grandfather’s rebukes or while battling the sweltering Southern heat as he tilled soil on the family farm. But Justice Thomas’ descriptive recollections about the manner in which his uneducated, hard-working grandfather (“Daddy”) chose to raise him and his brother reveal the magnitude of his inheritance. “I am going to send you boys to school and teach you how to work so you can have a better chance than I did,” he said. “We were his second chance to live, to take part in America’s opportunities, and he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort so that they would be fully open to us. Even then I understood that he had rescued me from difficult circumstances, but it was not until long afterward that I grasped how profoundly Daddy, Aunt Tina and the nuns of St. Benedict’s had changed my life,” Justice Thomas writes.

We have all had progenitors in our lives who have deposited or imparted wisdom, knowledge, a notion, a work ethic, a family trait. One can credit both of my grandmothers for my interest in all things “Martha Stewart.” My Southern maternal grandmother (a great cook) cherished her garden of fresh vegetables. My paternal grandmother (who made a mean seven-layer cake) was a stickler for proper formal place settings. Both were women who exuded great strength.

What we glean from various societies, countries and cultures can be considered an inheritance “passed on” from one culture to the next. Despite its overwhelming liberal politics, and the infamous furor over “Freedom Fries,” many Americans have adopted quite a fondness for the French provencal (or French Country) style of design, French food and wine for example.

But it is the United States, which maintains its leadership status on the world stage, that has a proud heritage bequeathed to us by the Founders through the Constitution that sustains each generation.

Although now, there seems to be increasing concern that certain characteristics and traits that are inherently American are being lost on each passing generation. Results of a report titled: “E Pluribus Unum,” found that “America is in danger of becoming not ‘[F]rom many, one’ - but ‘[F]rom one, many.’ ” Authored by the Bradley Project on America’s National Identity, the report is designed to begin “a dialogue” about how to reclaim America’s lost identity. It finds that while a majority of Americans feel our national identity is getting weaker, there is a “need” to pass on a set of ideas from one generation to another.

In Sunday’s sermon, a Northern Virginia pastor emphasized that: “It’s not enough for you and your family to do well.” He implored the congregation to consider what they (individually and collectively) were imparting, implanting or passing on to others in effort to enrich someone other than themselves. And to think about just what one was imparting.

As a country, we have an identity and a responsibility to pass that identity on. Individually, what one passes on has the potential to change a generation, in essence, change a country.

A young Clarence Thomas considered his grandfather’s strict rules “chaffing,” but acknowledged: “[A]s I grew older, made my own way in the world, and raised a son, I came to appreciate what I had not understood as a child: I had been raised by the greatest man I have ever known.”

We are still the greatest nation known. A nation where a man who began a life in poverty and hunger can become associate justice of the highest court in the land to interpret the very framework that was bequeathed to us, because of what was bequeathed to him.

It is incumbent upon us all to bequeath an “everlasting” inheritance.

Tara Wall is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Times. Her column appears on Tuesdays. twall@washingtontimes.com