Lev died April 7, 2009—eight years ago tomorrow.
There I was, unprepared for all that I must do, immediately confronted with practical and legal realities. Overnight, I moved from the role of smiling spouse and gracious hostess to that of executor, trustee, CEO and—most dreaded of all—matriarch. I am not sure that anyone had confidence in me. I certainly had none in myself.
Because I faced a six-month deadline to replace our financial advisors, the family began the search almost immediately. I could not have done it alone. The children, their spouses, Lev’s attorney and his accountant were all involved. When we interviewed prospective advisors, one particularly pompous candidate kept referring to “the matriarch.” I did not know who he was referring to. It finally dawned on me. He was referring to me! Matriarch was barely a word in my vocabulary, certainly not a role to which I had aspired or for which I had rehearsed. It took me more than four years to comprehend all that the role encompasses. In summer 2013 I wrote my children:
Not every widow is a matriarch. Sometimes, the role of head of the family passes from father to a child, usually the oldest son, because the widow lacks leadership, independence, self-confidence and initiative. She shifts her dependence from her husband to her children. That wasn’t something I was ready to do, and I don’t think it would have been fair to you all if I had added to your responsibilities at this place in your lives. Now that I’ve finally figured out the job description, I guess I can spend the rest of my life trying to meet the qualifications for the position. It’s really a pretty daunting task. I’m lucky to have you all to help me. So thanks.
The role of a matriarch is:
- To protect, preserve and—if at all possible—grow the estate;
- To protect, preserve, promote and pass on family history, values and traditions to the next generations;
- To protect, preserve and promote family harmony;
- To step proactively into the role of titular head of the family through personal leadership, initiative, moral authority, self-confidence and independence;
- To live her life consistent with the values and character traits she hopes to pass on to the next generations;
- And, by the grace of God, to do all the above with love, respect, kindness, affection, affirmation, generosity, fairness, integrity, transparency and gratitude.
I’m a long way from being able to check anything off the list, but I have grown increasingly aware of the vital role we widows play in holding the family together and sharing family stories—parables if you like—that illustrate and teach family values.
Too many families end up in court. According to Mark Accettura, an estate attorney, “Even when there is no overt conflict, it seems that nearly every family has some amount of tension percolating just beneath the surface as they address family inheritance issues.” Other studies show that 70 percent of wealth transfers fail to survive the second generation, 90 percent the third generation—not because of poor advice in most cases, but because of poor family communication.
The Rockefeller family is the extraordinary exception to the rule. Five generations. It’s not their enormous wealth that made the difference. It’s how they have handled it. And that is what makes David Rockefeller a worthy role model for those who want to transmit family values to the next generation.
Rockefeller, the last of Generation 3 and the patriarch of the family, died last month at 101. During his lifetime he gave away an estimated $2 billion. “But along with the immensity of his largess, Mr. Rockefeller used his charitable gifts to instill in his children a sense of the family philosophy of giving. In doing so, he also transmitted family values—including humility, responsibility and engagement—to a group that now numbers 40, including spouses.”
The New York Times story, “Giving Like a Rockefeller, Even if You’re Not Super-Rich,” described how he did it. At the top of the list was a sense of gratitude—for what he had received and for the opportunity to carry it forward. His grandchildren told stories of his constant gratitude and graciousness. He bonded his family through travel. He encouraged his children to pursue their own passions. He listened with respect to the younger generations.
Lev was no Rockefeller; but he also had a profound sense of gratitude, coupled with an incredibly generous heart. He never saw what he had as his. He considered himself a steward of what had been given him. Now it’s my turn to pass on those values to the grandchildren.
Photo: Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia–a gift to the nation from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., David Rockefeller’s father…and a gift to me every time I return for another visit.