I pull out the stained and dog-eared coiled booklet to use once again. It’s a stand-by in my kitchen: a self-printed cookbook from my Aunt Helen. It’s filled with beloved family recipes, clever quotes and personal anecdotes from her life. Many years ago, in a collaboration with her daughters, she produced this little gem and distributed it to the family. It has always had a special place in my heart and home but now that she has passed on, it stands as something more: it is part of her legacy to me. Its deepest significance lies not in the delicious recipes, handwritten notes and homespun wisdom that fill its pages, but in the life that shines through them. My aunt, faith-filled, compassionate, funny, generous and wise, was a blessing in my life and her memory, touches me each time I bring out the cookbook, bringing joy. That, more than the book itself, is her true legacy to me.
We all leave a legacy behind us, whether we intend to or not. Contrary to popular belief, however, it is not the wealth, property or valuables we bequeath to people. Our real legacy, as Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister points out in her book The Gift of Years is the quality of our lives. People, she notes, will remember us for what we meant to them, how we influenced them and touched their hearts, for good or for ill. “What we have been will be stamped on the hearts of those who survive us for years to come,” she writes, and I have found that to be true.
I have seen legacies both good and ill. I saw the good a few months ago when attending the funeral of a friend who had died suddenly and too young. His adult son gave the eulogy and instead of listing a string of his father’s accomplishments, this young man spoke of his father’s character. He described his dad’s generosity and compassion, his fidelity through the years as husband, father and eventually grandfather, and of his deep faith that was translated into service. Speaking of these things and more, he ended by explaining how knowing his dad had made him into a better person, husband and father. That, I thought, is a true legacy!
I’ve also seen the second, the ill, and it is a heart-wrenching thing. Years ago I knew a man whose abusive behaviour toward his wife and children poisoned their home and left them all broken. When he died there was genuine grief, but it was intermingled with anger, resentment and pain. Years later, an adult son wept while describing specific episodes of violence he had experienced at the hands of his father. The wounds were still fresh and his father’s legacy was a bitter one.
Legacy, we see, is fashioned throughout our lives, in the entirety of our lives. It consists of our encounters with others and the quality of our relationships. It lies in the goodness others have known at our hands, the values they have seen us uphold, the attitudes we have expressed, and the generosity, compassion and warmth with which we have welcomed them.
It is a sobering thought: profound questions will arise when we pause to consider our own legacy. What are we leaving behind in the hearts of others? How will we be remembered by those closest to us, by those we have served? Is it a legacy of love or of pain? Have we been grace and blessing in people’s lives or will we be remembered as trial and tribulation?
These are serious and perhaps hard questions we ask ourselves, especially if, in honesty, we judge our legacy to be a negative one. More likely, for most of us, it will be mixed. We long to be grace and blessing to people but, in truth, painfully, we acknowledge that our attitudes, actions and encounters have left wounds and scars for which we are sorry.
Fortunately, there is hope. Awareness is the first step in making changes and if, in considering our relationships, we recognize that our legacy is less than we want it to be, we have time to change it. It means, almost certainly, that we will need to do things differently. Scrutinizing our behaviour, we note where we have been wrong, judgmental or hard-hearted. Assessing relationships, we choose to let go of grudges, make amends where necessary, and seek reconciliation where possible. We critically consider our attitudes and prejudices, seeking genuine wisdom and gentleness of spirit in all we do. We pray for the grace to be grace in other peoples’ lives and to have that be our legacy.
My Aunt Helen was never materially rich. She didn’t have jewels, property or money to hand on to her descendants. Humbly, she offered what she had: great cooking, a hospitable and welcoming home, a warm and loving heart. In doing so, she gave us so much more. We were all the grateful recipients of a life well lived. Her generosity of spirit left us a legacy of love. What could be better than that?
We celebrate both Mother’s and Father’s Day this time of the year. Considering them, I feel challenged to reflect on the legacies I am leaving as mother and grandmother: gift and grace or wound and curse? I know I can always do better. Helen serves as my inspiration to be as life-giving as she was. When I think about it, what could be better or more important than that?
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.