Many of the people in the Legacy Project are in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. I know I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re losing some of my oldest respondents. But every time I learn that one of these folks – who so generously shared their time with me – has passed away, it brings me up short.
I learned this week that three extraordinary elders we interviewed have left this life for whatever comes next. Let me share a lesson with you from each of them.
Margot, 97, welcomed me into her elegant apartment in a senior residence in New York City. Margot told me of her memories of World War I, her marriage to a successful businessman whose work led them to live in the capitals of Europe, her experience as a German Jew under the rise of the Nazis, and her appreciation for art and literature. This cosmopolitan life led to a lesson:
I lived in Paris, I lived in London, I lived in five countries. I have traveled all over the world. I can live anywhere. Flexibility, that is important. I get very upset when people complain. You wouldn’t believe the complainers. I tell you, you have to think positively. And if you think positively, then physically and mentally, things are all right. So one day I don’t feel so good, so what, you know?
Jan, 92, was born in Holland. He was 22 when World War II broke out and he joined the Resistance, running a distribution space for an underground newspaper – something that was extraordinarily dangerous. He was caught and imprisoned, but fortunately the war ended shortly thereafter. One of his lessons was to enjoy our freedom:
I believe that Americans at this very moment really don’t know what freedom is. I mean that you can talk about what you want, that you can print what you want, that you can walk without having the fear of being arrested. You don’t have to be afraid for your life. Being locked up and not knowing what was going to happen from day to day, that has influenced my life very much. It taught me how to live and to share things with other people.
Then there was Dorothy, 85, who told wonderful stories about her childhood on a poor southern farm in the “middle of nowhere.” Her grandmother taught her important lessons about how to live:
I had my grandmother who was really the guiding influence in my life because I knew she loved me and without reservation. One day I was watching Granny make soap in a big iron pot. Oh Lord, that pot must have held twenty-five, thirty gallons. And she was making soap and I said “Granny, do you always succeed the first time you try anything?” And she looked at me, she said “Oh Lord, no honey.” She said “Sometimes you have to keep trying over and over and over again.” And I can remember that lesson very vividly.
Dorothy herself never stopped trying – she was the first to go to college in her family and proud of it!
The elders I interviewed would be the first to tell you that everything has a beginning and an end, and not to worry about them. But as each of these lives winks out, the light it can shine gets lost. That’s why we need to record their lessons for living while they are still here! And Margot, Jan, and Dorothy: you are missed.