An inheritance is what you leave with people.
A legacy is what you leave in them.
Brilliant red and gold leaves blanket the forest floor. Bare branches appear in silhouette against the twilight sky. Fat raindrops splattering on the lake turn to pelting rain as the storm advances. Gathering winds sigh and whisper warnings to the pines along the shore. Ducks bob in the choppy waters, cackling and fluttering.
A sentinel drake breaks away from the flock and with a raucous cry, beats his wings against the water and rise to sound the ritual call. Bird by bird they follow, soulful cries echoing over the lake as they ride the southern winds into the darkening clouds.
“There was no horizon. I never thought I would lose the horizon along with everything else , but when you get old you realize whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.”
Cannon, Joanna. Three Things About Elsie: A Novel (Kindle Locations 75-76). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
A friend was recently criticized because her behavior was “age inappropriate.” She had no clue what that meant. And neither did I.
There are those who retreat at age 65 to their recliner and reruns of “Law and Order,” and those who run marathons at 80. Those who charge madly though life as if defying death, and others who monitor each morsel of food and clamber for the latest anti-aging treatment to avoid crossing its path. And then there are the motley rest of us who take reasonable care of ourselves and simply hope for the best.
I wasn’t expecting to grow old. It simply happened when I was busy living my life. Then one day I looked in the mirror expecting to see my familiar 45 year old self only to find the tired eyes of a wrinkled old woman staring back at me.
Of course I did know a few things about growing old. People complained that their friends all died. That didn’t seem so bad to me when I was 45 because I could always make new friends. But not now. No one can replace those friends who have walked though life with you, who know you and love you in spite of it all. As I write this, a dear friend is dying; a friend who cannot be replaced.
I heard old people complaining about their aches and pains; the time and money spent at doctors’ offices. But I took pretty good care of myself. That wouldn’t be a problem. Until it was.
They said they wished they had been better people, made better choices. I played by the rules; I made great decisions. Until viewed in hindsight.
I thought old people’s lives became small because they stubbornly refused to engage with the world. But now I wonder, did they quit interacting with the world because their lives became small?
When I grew old (assuming I did), I told myself, I would know what to do. The usual stereotypes wouldn’t apply to me.
In short, like most people, until I faced old age myself, I had little time for old people and even less understanding of them.
But inevitably, I too, found myself in a “landscape filled with loss”, and a life once expansive, now contracting. A scenario too frightening to contemplate at first. For a time it was easier to avoid the mirror, to keep a safe distance from friends who like me were old and getting older. But over time, the pretense just became exhausting. And ironically the more I quit pretending, the easier it all became.
All lives end. A truth I have finally owned, even embraced. And ironically it is this truth that provides the perspective I need to do the hard work of right living. Something I would have done well to have embraced at 45.
But I still don’t know how to be “age appropriate.” I don’t have a clue. I guess we work that out as we go along.
“In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place,where something happened, and then there are all the other places.”
Alice Munro, Runaway
It may surprise you.
Maybe not the longing in the first lover’s eyes,
Or a tiny hand clasping yours,
Or even the ragged last breath of a cherished one.
No, maybe just
the puff of dandelion seeds floating on the morning air.
A question I’ve been asking my entire life and I’m not alone. A Google search will return over 175,000 hits. Sadly, while they promise to dispel the myth of the Southern Belle, most characterizations eventually come down to sweet tea, southern accents, good manners, football and looking pretty with little attention to intellect. In other words, the Southern Belle.
I never bought this, and though I tried to be a southern belle in my teens, I could never quite make it work. And frankly, I don’t know that many southern belles. In my experience, the Southern Belle is just someone we made up to avoid the southern reality.
I always knew there was something else, something achingly beautiful and tragic that southern souls are compelled to share in spite of their differences. An elusive fragrance in the air, a whisper in the trees, a ghostly sprit in the bayous. Ingrained in childhood, handed down through generations, clinging to us tighter than skin. An elaborately crafted mantle designed to hide something dangerous. Something I couldn’t name.
But I think I know what it is now. It’s our heritage; the legacy of the Civil War. A war predicted to last a few months, that raged on for four years, taking the lives of 620,000 American men, more than all the wars to follow combined; approximately 20% of them under the age of 18.
And at the end, for the South, there was bitter defeat and a legacy of shame, poverty and rage
Wounded and weary, fathers, sons and husbands, reviled and shunned,straggled home to homes and crops devastated in the path of the war, while northern soldiers returned to a hero’s welcome to homes untouched by war for the most part, with fanfare.
Salt in wounds already festering. And yes, the slaves were freed, but with no support, no access to the tools they needed to prosper. Free, but not equal. And so the war ended long ago but the struggle continues. No wonder there is such free-floating rage in Southerners. It is rage born of grief that has nowhere to go but inside.
State sovereignty is sometimes offered as a righteous rationale for the war, and it’s tempting to cling to this slender reed. But the Civil War was about slavery and all of us bear the responsibility for it. Slavery existed in all 13 colonies prior to the Civil War. My ancestors owned slaves. Black people owned slaves as did American Indians. But none of this matters. Slavery is wrong. Just wrong.
But before I get too sanctimonious I realize I cannot know what I would have believed, or what I would have done, in a time when slavery was the acceptable norm. I can only hope I would have had the clear-minded courage to speak my truth.
I take some solace in the knowledge that not all legacies of the Civil War were bad. The southern woman rose from its ashes. Left with farms and businesses to run and children to raise, they had to be strong to survive. They relied on each other; they formed strong communities. Their faith was their only source of hope through terrible loss and deprivation. They had to be resourceful to provide for their basic needs; they made clothing and quilts from draperies, feed sacks, scraps from worn out clothing. Together they birthed their children and buried their dead. Food was scarce, they had to raise their own; they became expert gardeners and didn’t flinch at killing a chicken or butchering a hog. They were recyclers before there were recycling bins. The land and its creatures provided their needs and so were respected; they were environmentalists before Greenpeace. They found beauty to ease their harsh lives in the things they had; a rose, a treasured teacup, a button from a favorite dress.
So it’s not surprising that southern women are strong, that they are passionate about family and community. That they are unapologetic about their religious faith and famous for their elegant quilts, their welcoming homes, their sumptuous recipes and lush gardens. That they value hard work and frugality.
These are the Southern women I know.
It’s true, you’ll know a Southern woman by her accent and colorful turn of phrase. She has good manners and she won’t leave home without her makeup. But she is made of stronger stuff. Much stronger.
Visiting Grandma by Felix Schlesinger
Lately I have become obsessed with my maternal ancestors. Not in a genealogical sense – I really don’t care whether I am related to anyone famous or have royal blood, and the proportion of my DNA originating in Scotland, Italy or England is of no interest to me. So I won’t be ordering the kit
It’s not the DNA, but the lives of these women that fascinate me. Since there was no birth control and children were valued as workers, it was not uncommon for women to have 10 or more surviving children; most lost at least one to sickness. Moreover, because of the physical demands on their bodies and lack of access to medical care, death in childbirth was common. Surviving husbands in need of help with their households remarried as quickly as they could, bringing their children with them, creating small communities. All of this in an environment facing epidemics of Yellow Fever, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever without antibiotics, immunizations or dentists. And don’t forget wars. One of my grandmothers (3rd great 1775-1824) lost a father and brother in a Tory raid and grandsons to the Civil War.
Life was tough. But they rose to the challenge, there was no other choice.
As I sit here in my air-conditioned living room, typing on my wireless laptop, drinking coffee from Columbia, it is almost impossible to imagine how my great grandmothers began their days. At my age, if she lived that long, she was likely living with a daughter and her family and if healthy enough, charged with the care of the smallest children and the family mending. Breakfast would have consisted of food raised on their farm or bartered with neighbors, and depending on their economic situation, could have ranged from sausage and eggs to corn mash. There was no radio, tv, household appliances or indoor plumbing. Access to books was limited, often to a worn copy of The Bible and most women never completed high school. Nearest neighbors were miles away and a letter could take a month to arrive.
Last week I had a melt-down over the internet service. Admittedly, it was stressful, maddening, and ate up most of the day. But really? Internet? This is a problem my grandmother could only have dreamed about.
My grandmothers were hardly saints, as I well know from family stories. I’m sure they complained about their hard lives. I could never agree with some of their beliefs, but they were women of strong convictions and the determination and courage to stand by them. The more I learn more about them, the more grateful I am for their examples and humbled by the grace with which they lived their difficult lives.
So the next time I’m tempted to go rogue over some minor discomfort, I plan to stop and consider what my grandmothers’ response might be.
I hope it’s in the genes.