There IS the perfect gift out there for everyone on your holiday list, and all it “costs” is time.
When was the last time you sat down with a parent, grandparent, or favorite uncle and simply asked them a question or two about their life?… what they’ve seen and experienced, what were the important events that had an impact on them? Find that moment – create that moment where you indicate by your body language and your attention that all you want is to hear some “stories of a lifetime” – their lifetime.
Though this is a lovely gift at any time during the year, the holidays seem to offer more opportunities. Does grandma or granddad really need another sweater? No – they need to feel that someone is interested in them, that they are important. Does Aunt Martha need the newest cookbook? No – she needs someone to ask her about her famous family chili and how she got the recipe. Yes, this is absolutely the “gift that keeps on giving.” The joy on your grandma’s face while sharing her stories is matched only by the knowledge that her story will now live on through you.
I felt so incredibly fortunate to have a mother that knew my dad so well… better than he knew himself! There wasn’t one single item we showed my mom that she couldn’t recite the entire story and history behind it. This fascinated me and warmed my heart that she had all of this history stored in her brain. My objective was to get it out of her head and transfer that knowledge to the rest of us! We learned so much about things that we “thought’ were just things. For example, we learned that a cloth doily found among old ragged sheets and blankets belonged to my great, great grandmother. Who knew?
And then there was the knife set. There was a particular knife set I’d always remembered seeing in our kitchen drawers growing up. But knowing now that this knife set was a wedding gift to my parents, it will be a treasure to be passed down and kept in the family. These were a few of the many things for which I gained a fuller appreciation. I am so glad we cleaned out their home while they were still alive so we could draw out these stories and learn more about their lives together and about our ancestors. Some things are sentimental for my parents yet won’t mean much for us in the big scheme of things and will likely be donated. Other things, we will treasure because we now hold a greater appreciation for them.
I believe part of creating a legacy is about preserving your loved one’s most valuable asset; learning about life through their stories, hopes and dreams. Not only did I make sure to have these conversations, I began journaling their stories, insights and memories about their lives growing up. From a daughter’s eyes growing up, I saw my dad only as my dad… not the man he truly was. Imagine that – my dad actually had a title other than ‘daddy’. Through his stories and those shared by my mom, I grew to know the real “man” who was also my dad.
I learned a lot about him in the months following his 2009 accident through 2012. There were some things I could have lived without: dad’s choices about what to save, his odd sense of humor, his emotional distance, his impulse to please and help others to the detriment of himself and family and his inconsistency in walking the talk with his financial beliefs. Of course, there were things I admired and respected about my dad: he always provided for us and took his responsibilities seriously. He believed in education and lifelong learning. He proudly served his country for 20 years in the military. He sacrificed some of his dreams for the sake of the family. He always made me feel safe and protected. My mom and dad had been through so much together and he was always, always by her side. And, between 2009 and 2012, she was by his side in his greatest time of need. Their stories intertwined and that became a story of its own.
I was honored to listen and learn more about my parents. But, they also gained by sharing with me. One of the most powerful things I did was helping my parents document their hopes and dreams, fears, lessons learned, traditions they cherished and a host of other things.
Through this experience, I learned so much about my dad. I felt a strong need to help my parents find power and healing in their stories. I wanted to preserve our family history and I wanted to help them feel complete as they reflected on their lives. I helped my dad, who is always in his ‘mind’; get out of his head and into his heart. I learned that by asking him specific questions like: “if he could change anything in his life, what would it be and why” to “what his favorite childhood tradition was”, I could help him feel and heal. I learned my dad had never been on a real vacation and he wanted to go to Yellowstone. His favorite song was: “Man in my Little Girl’s Life”. His favorite Christmas carol was “The Little Drummer Boy”. My mom enjoyed writing so I gave her a journal and she went to town! I gained an appreciation for my mom’s incredible strength and her knowledge of minute details of their life together.
And my dad demonstrated how this knowledge is gifted down through the generations. He felt the most valuable advice he received was from his dad. His dad taught him how it’s not what you say but how you say things that matter most. My dad expressed vulnerability when sharing with me the one time he saw his father cry and what he learned from this experience. And now my dad’s stories created a new connection for me to my granddad.
By simply letting people know you are interested in their stories, you can create a connection that will stretch far beyond that initial conversation. Sometimes, when my dad and I were alone together in the car going to and from doctor appointments, he felt compelled to share some of his innermost feelings. He would recall a question from a previous conversation and want to talk further about it. What I learned about some of my dad’s innermost fears, dreams, and regrets was just how vulnerable, ‘broken’ and sad he had been. At times, I was surprised that he would speak from his heart so openly with me. I think he felt safe and trusted me to share his deepest feelings with me.
As he would share so profoundly with me, I thanked him for sharing with me and expressed gratitude for raising us and providing for us as he did. I affirmed he was a great father. I learned my dad was an actual man; a human being separate from being my dad. There was a lot about him I didn’t really know until now and I was grateful to have a different perspective about my dad.
My mom, too, would share some of her innermost fears and deep, hurtful things from her childhood, when we were driving together. As a result, I gained a deeper appreciation and understanding for her as a person. I felt immense sadness and anger for what she endured and, through my own maternal instinct, wanted so much to take her pain away. Through these valuable insights, I was able to put many of my own puzzle pieces together about why my childhood was the way it was, why my parents were they way they were and what coping mechanisms they used throughout their lives. I felt profound compassion and love for my parents. It helped us all heal. That is a gift in itself.
As a result of the value I found through this process, I was inspired to resume a practice I started many years ago for my kids. They don’t know it but I started a tradition of writing my kids annual letters about the year, key milestones we experienced, the things I was most proud of that year and included a few key things they wrote, made or did that year. I sealed up the envelopes, labeled them for the year and put instructions for the kids to open their envelopes when they turned 21 (or when I gave it to them). Somewhere along the line, things ‘happened’ and I didn’t make time for this anymore. Given everything I’ve learned about my parents and reflecting as a parent myself, I feel one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, other than values, core beliefs and life skills to become responsible adults one day is our heartfelt feelings about our love for them, how proud we are of them, recalling favorite childhood memories and our hopes and dreams for them.
So, this gift of sharing works in two directions. Take the time to ask questions and encourage story-telling from family members. Take time to write your memories about your children: their earliest childhood memory, their greatest accomplishment, and how much you love them.
I recommend taking time with your family and start new traditions of sharing! Opening your heart and helping others see things through your eyes is powerful. It’s the kind of thing that connects people and ultimately creates memories and bonds you will have forever.
Much of the sharing I’ve done with my parents were the result of my dad’s tragic accident, a cancer diagnosis and my parents’ overall declining health. I was lucky. I was really lucky because these situations opened my eyes to legacy building possibilities. Without those events, I’m unsure whether I would have done these things with my parents… at least when I did.
So, get your family the perfect gift this year! Take the time to ask questions, tell stories, document some family history! Get everyone involved! Learn from each other – young and old alike. You may well find this to be the longest-lasting gift you give (and receive!).
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