Have you ever thought about the legacy you might leave for others, or the legacies passed down to you by previous generations?
Whether or not we have direct descendants, or know our ancestors, our lives and stories have the power to connect with and impact others in numerous ways.
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of older people in the community about this, with the hope that it would start a conversation and help them connect with each other through their stories.
Central to the conversation was the idea that their stories matter.
And so does yours.
A tale of two grandmothers
I want to start with the story of two grandmothers—my grandmothers.
My mother’s mother was Leslie, better known as Mickey. She was a kind soul who willingly took me in after I moved to the city to attend university. But I never knew much about her childhood; she seemed to be a closed book in terms of her own growing up. For example, my mother was a teenager before she discovered that the man her grandmother was married to was actually her step-grandfather—and that her real grandfather had essentially deserted the family when Nanna was a little girl. Mum and I always had the sense that we weren’t to ask questions—and so we didn’t.
My dad’s mother, Moyra, was more open about her life. She never wrote any of it down (although she wrote a lot of letters and kept a diary in her later years) but upon my cousin’s request, she gifted us with a series of cassette tapes on which she recorded some of the stories of not only her life but those of her ancestors.
I confess that I showed no interest in the stories of either of my grandmothers until it was too late to ask them directly. Despite spending a lot of time with both of them while they were alive, I’d never really thought about who they were before they became my grandmothers. I certainly didn’t appreciate the legacy they had left for me.
What does it mean to leave a legacy?
The Macquarie Dictionary defines legacy as ‘anything handed down by an ancestor or predecessor’.
I think one of Moyra’s legacies was the gift of hospitality and welcome. Growing up, I witnessed it every Sunday we visited my grandparents’ home for a roast lunch. Not only because of the way Moyra welcomed us with her wonderful hugs and warm words, but because there were always extra guests at the table. There was always room for one more.
But what I didn’t know until much more recently, is that her gift of hospitality and welcome had been passed down to her by her parents. And I only appreciate that now because of her stories that she recorded for us.
Moyra, who grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland, was a keen student on the path to university. After the Second World War began, the family often welcomed visiting servicemen in their home. Then about a year into the war, the family moved to Gosport near Portsmouth in the UK, where Moyra’s father was working as a chaplain to young men in the armed services. The family continued to open their home to young servicemen, who were often far from their own families. Not long after the family had settled, however, Moyra’s father died suddenly. The family continued their hospitality, with much of the work falling to 19-year-old Moyra.
My grandmother never did get to go to university. But the gift of hospitality and welcome became a central part of who she was for the rest of her life, and a huge part of the legacy she has passed down to not only her children and grandchildren but to all sorts of people she welcomed into her life, attested by the huge number of stories told at her funeral by people who counted her as a surrogate mother and grandmother, which also goes to show that who you leave a legacy for may not be a blood relative.
Why your story matters
One of the most common comments I hear is, ‘But none of my family is interested’.
I can guarantee you that one day they will be. How I wish I’d been more interested while my grandmothers were still alive. If I knew then what I knew then, I even would have dared to ask Mickey a few questions.
When I was interviewing members of the War Widows’ Guild while researching Many Hearts One Voice, one of the comments I often heard was, “Oh, I don’t know what I can say that’s of any relevance.” Yet, without exception, they all had interesting stories to tell. It was their personal experiences that added the texture of lived experience to the overall story I was trying to tell. What was also gratifying was the number of relatives of those war widows who commented on how much it meant to them to have their mother or grandmother’s story recorded and acknowledged.
Just like the war widows’ stories, your story can matter—to your family and beyond.
Not only will recording your story matter to your family (even if it doesn’t seem so right now), it can help current and future researchers to fill gaps in the historical record, contribute to social history and offer insight into the texture of lived experience of a particular era in a particular place.
Over the past few years, I’ve been researching the area around Lake Monger during the Second World War for a fictional writing project. One of the most valuable sources of information has been the oral histories held in the local history centre at the library because they offer me descriptive details of ordinary life that are often missing from the history books.
Feeling less alone
Parts of your story may have the power to make someone else feel less alone. I’ve just embarked on a life writing project to write my story of mothering a child who was born with congenital heart disease (CHD). One of my main motivations is that I want it to be the book that would have helped me when I was in the midst of arguable the most difficult time of my life.
Your story matters to you
And your story can matter to you. Even if you never show a soul, there is something about the process of writing things down and exploring our stories that can help us reflect upon our experiences, to gain insight into how they have shaped and grown us. Perhaps it will even help us understand our place in the world and the legacy we pass on to others.
An act of generosity
It’s common to feel our own lives are not very exciting (even if they have been). And yet you’ll be surprised at how interesting they can be to others—depending on how we write them.
I wonder if we can re-frame the telling of our own stories and ask a different question of ourselves: what aspects of our own story might help or encourage someone else in some way, to make them think, ‘Ah, I’m not the only one.’
Could telling part of your story be an act of generosity?
… and courage
But sharing your story also take courage.
Brene Brown says:
I agree with this, but I want to add a caveat. I’ve heard several writers talk about the importance of writing from our scars and not our wounds. In other words, it’s okay to feel emotional when telling a story that is significant to us; however, if we are still deeply distressed by an experience, then perhaps it is not yet time to tell that story. And that is okay. Self-care is also important. As is seeking help to process our experiences if necessary.
A final word
Author Charles de Lint says, “Don’t forget – no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.”
So remember: your story matters.
Over to you
What legacies have been passed down to you?
What legacy do you hope to leave for future generations?
And what story do you have to tell?