All of my grandparents are dead. Sorry to start off on such a maudlin note, but it is the truth. I miss the grandparents I had the chance to know for the things they taught me, the moments of joy they created and the people they were. I miss the grandparents who passed on before I was old enough to remember them because I can see the outlines of their love and support, the shadows of Christmases and birthday parties. As my parents age and my friends have babies and life keeps doing its whole life thing, I keep thinking about the meaning that we pass on through generations. Those nuggets of wisdom that pass between family, friends and strangers that can’t be found in letters or proclamations or (oh my god, are our children going to read our tweets?) even diaries.
Maybe writing for the internet has made me meditate on my legacy with an unhealthy frequency. I’m leaving behind a body of work, sure, and it’s easily Google-able and accessible, but when there are so many others doing the same, will anybody care? What does a digital footprint matter compared to what my friends and family might say of me when I’m gone? And do I really want the things that I wrote last year, two years ago, last week (here lies Nora, she hated turkey and felt just okay about the movie Mrs. Doubtfire) to be part of how people piece together the parts of who I was to create the version of me that lives on in memory? Or maybe the better question is: Why would I care anyway, if I’m dead?
I recently spent an afternoon at a workshop with a bunch of women writers who are a few generations older than me. All of them were so interesting, smart and open in a way I found refreshing. I was struck by how they would slide over big events in their lives, the mechanics of getting from point A to point B, to focus on the emotional heft of the journey from the vantage point of looking back.
So, in search of a little perspective, and to pull me out of my navel-gazing slump, I reached out to a few women — some from the workshop, one I was put in touch with through friends, one who happens to be my mother — to ask about how they think about their lives. What guides them? Do they think of what they’re leaving behind often? Do they strive to cultivate a life worth remembering? They delivered.
“We all have a greater purpose while here on this earth. I believe it is ordained that we always leave things better than we found them, make a positive difference, and give until it hurts. I learned this in religion class and Girl Scouts at a very early age. I raised my children always verbalizing my mantra, It is not about you, but it is about the other guy. Can’t you just picture a world that adhered to that principle? It would be a universe devoid of war. Every day I think about how I can make things better in the little microcosm surrounding me.
I would like to be remembered as a giver and a doer. I want first to be remembered as a special mother; a kindly, caring, competent teacher; and a community servant.
My husband always gave me full credit for how our children were raised, and how they became the wonderful adults they are today. He traveled a great deal for work, so much had to be my responsibility. Both children gave tirelessly to their schools and colleges growing up, and today still do what they can even though they have demanding jobs and families of their own. My son is an attorney doing General Counsel work, and my daughter is a pediatrician.
After moving around many times for my husband’s job, we were finally able to settle in a quiet, friendly little town that we could call home. I always said that the hand of God had sent us here, and to show my appreciation I became involved, very involved. I still belong to four women’s clubs and have an office in the county federation of clubs. I have headed a number of other organizations in town as well. I recently had a grief book published after my husband died in a tragic fishing accident. I am hoping this book highlights the plight of widows and widowers in our culture, in hope of educating the general public about what they can do to help these sad, lonely folks. I go out and give talks on my book, offer my time to my many clubs and to the town. I just hope I can continue to my work in good health for many years to come.”
“Secretly as I aged, I strongly suspected that there was a purpose in my life but the thought of it came and went. Around the same time, I knew I wanted to leave some form of legacy, but to whom? We did not have children. And absolutely I wanted to be remembered.
As I continued writing my first novel and part of my second one, the responses to what is my purpose and what kind of legacy I could leave and to whom, came to me through the creative process. When I actually read what I was writing, I could see my lessons learned were showing up in the characters’ scripts and feelings. Wow, what an ‘aha’ moment.
Consciously I do not know if my purpose and my legacy influenced the way I lived my life before or after their discovery. I can say that so much of living my life was influenced by my willingness to accept myself with love, compassion and gentleness and treat others the same. My challenge each day continues to be to accept differences and be loving and kind.”
“Now that I am 55, I am more conscious about the number of productive years I have ahead of me, so I think about my purpose in life daily. I have always wanted to help create positive change in my immediate community as well as in communities abroad lacking access to basics like clean water. I am a business owner, so much of my time over the past 30 years has been dedicated to building a business (focusing on me) while squeezing in volunteer and philanthropic work a few times or more a year. Now, I spend more time thinking and planning ways to have my commitments managed in the opposite order.
I would like to be remembered as a woman who achieved balance; a grounding source of unconditional love for her family; a supporter of personal growth, achievement and empowerment for those she touched; a positive energy to the creation of peace and respect for everyone and all forms of life.
Each day, I start my day with prayer followed by meditation. The prayer allows me to reconnect with my purpose for being here (life) and meditation gets me centered with where I am in my journey and what my priorities at this point in time should be. Doing this each morning helps me to stay conscious about my real purpose and prevents me from getting caught up or distracted with things that don’t really matter. I have always had centering rituals, but as I gain years I am more conscious about aligning every thought, action and desire with what is most important. This results in authentic relationships and more inner peace.”
“Encouragement and support are gifts I try to offer to most people I encounter as well as to my dear family and friends. I’m always hoping by encouraging participants in my writing groups that they will achieve much more than they think they can.
I try to be patient, satisfied and believe there is good in the world with what’s right in front of me. I’m hopeful and grateful for the way my life has played out and the many gifts (family, friends, companion pets) who have and do grace my life.”
“I have thought of a higher purpose for as long as I can remember, especially when it comes to work. The few times I tried to just work ‘a job’ I was really miserable. I needed to be doing something that meant something beyond a paycheck. For a while it was art: the jobs that allowed me to pursue theatre were serving a greater good, but when I decided to leave that field I was drawn to teaching. My natural affinity with young children led me to Montessori and the brain research we can now do shows that this is the most important time in a child’s life. I loved working with young families and helping them figure out what was important to them as a family.
I would like to be remembered as an honest person whose character was evident in all she did. This is something I certainly learned and saw exemplified by my mother. A student of my Dad’s once said, ‘Your girls don’t play any games’ — a hindrance in my social life perhaps, but something I cherish in my dotage! I’d also like to be remembered for my devotion to my family, for being one of the people who ‘show up’ when it’s important, even if difficult. And, of course, my incredible wit!”
If I can get on my soapbox once more, I’d like to encourage you to email, call or visit the older women in your life to ask them about…anything. What they think about most now that they’re older, what they miss about their youth, what’s the best thing they’ve ever eaten, you may be surprised by the answers that turn up.
Illustrations by Meredith Jensen.