“RIFFING OFF” is a term used in music and particularly jazz. It describes when a musician picks up a musical line played by another musician and then runs with it, adding his or her own style or take.
I love riffing off my co-writers—and when they riff off me. I also do it sometimes with HumbleDollar articles and blog posts. I read a thoughtful piece and then, as the day goes on, I think about the core concept or even just a single line, and let my mind dwell on it.
That happened when I read a recent Richard Quinn piece. He began by recalling his grandmother’s silver napkin rings, and then went on to discuss his and his wife’s collection of Waterford glass. I was struck that he conceded that today’s monetary value of the accumulated crystal might not be all that much, but that—in terms of memories—such items were “priceless.”
That got me thinking. I wanted for very little growing up. But I have almost nothing physical left from all the accoutrements of a privileged childhood. What I do hold on to is a tiny terra cotta pot.
One day, my father brought home a group of these pots, one for each member of the family. He proceeded to paint one thing on each: a crew cut on the big one represented my father, a ’60s updo my mother, nerdy glasses my bookish brother, deep blue eyes my sister. As for me, the youngest, there was the tiniest pot—with an open, yelling mouth. My dad hung all the pots on the patio together, and they became priceless. I still have mine, and I believe my siblings still have theirs.
Another time, my father brought home a stack of large cardboard boxes from his factory. I don’t recall who started it, but everyone in the family joined in making a long tunnel. It was just before Halloween, so we started adding creepy things inside, creating our own haunted crawl-through house.
We offered to let trick-or-treaters crawl through it to get to the candy. It was a neighborhood hit, and I remember rushing my own door-to-door collecting, so I could get home and help my family run the tunnel for others. Years later, my wife, sons and I riffed off that memory, creating our own neighborhood Halloween haunted tunnel, though with more modern tech. That’s now a family favorite memory for a new generation.
I share with Dick the experience of offering formerly valued items to my children, only to be met with a resounding “meh.” But let’s not lose sight of the things that have value beyond dollars and beyond what we can sometimes appreciate: the memories, the family moments, the unseen glue that connects us. Those are the family treasures we should guard and cherish.