Growing Up Is the Work of a Lifetime

Maurice, 77, has a different take on the expression “live life to the fullest.”

The advice I would give to my grandchildren is to treasure every day of  their existence and to do their best at every task they face. 

I do not believe in “living life to the fullest” in the sense in which that expression is often used.  Most important when you look back on your life are the unselfish things you have done, the love and support you have  given to others, and the sense that you have made the most of your talents and  opportunities.

I have learned that growing up is the work of a lifetime and that  we should strive to continue growing until the end of our days.

“If We Don’t Forgive…” Sr. Clare’s Advice

Sr. Clare, 83, has been a nun for over six decades. She has devoted her life to helping the poor and to the spiritual life. When asked what older people are likely to regret, she told me:

I think generally speaking; unfinished business with others or with what they wanted to do or be. For example, not asking about family history, or failing to pay attention to family stories. Failing to have important talks with people, especially around forgiveness or assurance of one’s regard for them, and failing to forgive or reconcile.

There’s a wonderful saying – I  can’t remember the person who wrote this but something about: “If we do not forgive, we keep the person imprisoned in our heart and our heart becomes a hardened prison.”  

Wisdom from the past – for the youngest generation

Verna, 91, wrote this “list for living” to her great-grandchildren. It’s a good one to pass on to the next generation in your family (be it children, grandchildren, or further down the line!


1. So many things in the world have changed since the time of my grandparents and parents and the earlier times of my own life, and I know that there will be lots of changes in your lifetime too.

2. I hope you will always take school seriously (I was a teacher) and become well-educated to be ready for whatever kind of work or service you will be doing; that you will respect your body- take good care of it and try to have good health.

3. I hope that the governments of the world will do a better job of getting along with each other so that you can experience peace among nations.

4. I hope you will be a positive thinker, not negative or cynical; look for the good in people and things, and fill your life with love, kindness, and thoughtfulness for others.

5. Most important is to know God as you go into the future. I would hope that you will know the peace and joy and courage that come from following a life of love and service- the peace that passes all understanding.

5. Your real success in life lies is the kind of person you become, not with how famous or wealthy you are, so my most sincere wish is for you to live the wholesome life that will lead you to make good choices along the way, to Reach That Star that you are striving to reach.


Do the right thing, and things open up for you

Some of the elders in the Legacy Project gave a thoughtful, reflective review of their long lives, weaving their life lessons into that narrative. In many cases, their lessons came from encountering and overcoming adversity.  Mamie, an 82-year old who lived through racial discrimination and hardship, but looks back on a very rich life.

My most important life lessons? Well, my marriage life, I was married about thirty years, it was a good marriage. And I was a schoolteacher; I enjoyed that for thirty years. And my parents were good, we weren’t rich, but I had good parents and that’s more important than having a lot of money. We would sit down to the table and eat. And church has become important to me in my older years; I was glad that I was in church.

I was born in the South and I had to sit in the back of the bus, but over the years I’ve become proud of my heritage. I think we’re special.

When I lost my husband, my children became the most important thing in my life. My kids were important, two went to college. One’s a teacher and one’s a chemist.

I’m not rich or anything, I’ve got a fair income, but the main thing is I thank God that I am living, and I do have aches and pains but they come with growing old.

A big choice for me was becoming a schoolteacher instead of a lawyer or something. I found that it’s not making as much money, but it’s been more enjoyable. Sometimes in teaching you not only teach, but you’re a friend to those kids. It’s not just teaching, it’s listening to the kids. And most of my time, being a Black teacher, I spent quite a bit of time with the white students and I found out they didn’t care about color. If you were their teacher and on their side, that’s all that matters. And my decision to go to church rather than going to nightclubs was good. I never got into drugs; I found that was a good way of doing it. I’d rather be in church than going to the bar every week and doing this and that.

Being honest is the main thing. When it’s all said and done, you have to do things the right way. There’s no outdoors or backdoors to lying. Somewhere along the line, you have to be honest with yourself. And by being honest with yourself, doors are open. I’m not “religious-religious,” but I do believe that if I do the right thing and so forth, things will open up for me.

About advice for young people: I found out two things by being a teacher: one problem is drugs, and the second problem is they are having babies. They’re out there, they never go to school, they start out on the corner selling drugs, and they don’t know anything about education and so forth. And we’re paying more money to house them in prison than we are if we could get them in and teach them the right and wrong. I cry about it sometimes to see our young people out selling drugs and they think that’s important. But their parents never taught them the right way of doing things.

Now, about getting old. As you grow older, take it day by day. I know we cry about this and that but we know we’ve got to grow old, so we should try and do the best we can. I retired about five or six years earlier than I should of, but I couldn’t help it because health problems set in and I had to. But I would say if you can, try to prepare for retirement. But take a day at a time and things will work out.

Finding God and Serving the Common Good

I’ve talked in previous posts about the fact that some kind of spiritual belief was important to most (but by no means all) of the Legacy Project elders. For many age 70 and over, faith has shaped their core principles for living. In many cases, this deep faith led them to compassionate living – a desire to move beyond themselves and serve others. Let me share with you one spiritual elder’s thinking on this topic.

I sat in the cool, quiet Motherhouse of the order of an order of nuns, talking to Sr. Monica. Despite recent health problems, Sr. Monica is a slender, vigorous, highly focused 80-year old, who speaks with the thoughtfulness and precision of a former language teacher. In her order, sisters commit their lives both to God and to serving the sick, the poor, and the disenfranchised. The sisters take the Gospel message seriously, working to help people overcome obstacles that keep them from living full and dignified lives.

Sr. Monica shares a house with two other nuns in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood, allowing them better to identify with and share the lives of the poor. Her decades as a nun have seen seismic changes in the Catholic church (including dropping the nun’s formal habit for street clothes). But in my interview with her in the peaceful atmosphere of the Motherhouse, the core of her faith has clearly not changed:

I have just celebrated my 60th year as a sister. And I really feel very blessed and I’ve had a wonderful life and many wonderful opportunities. I have always felt very close to God. And my Catholic education just reinforced that with the example of the other sisters in my order.

I have a sense of God as a loving presence that walks with us. Not just me as an individual, it’s God hearing the cries of oppressed people, as the Exodus story says. God is there. And so paying attention to that and how do you find God in the beauty of creation, and in the beauty of the people around you, is very important.

The religious life that I’ve chosen is a mutual struggle to discern where God is calling us. You know, it’s hard enough to see what God is asking us to do right now, but especially where he wants us to go in the future. But it’s a very powerful kind of thing to come together as a group and make decisions that are mutually beneficial for the common good.

That’s a big thing for me, the common good. And we can live out a search for the common good in our life as Catholic nuns. Our vow of chastity is again a statement that stands in the face of using sex to sell everything, you know. Our life is a seeking of God, true love of a neighbor, and the commitment to dedicate one’s self to service, service to those affected by poverty, sickness, or death. I have no regrets that I have chosen this life.

Farewell, Sr. Maria – Thanks for Your Lessons!

The Sisters of St. Joseph are a remarkable group of nuns, devoted to the spiritual life, teaching and the pursuit of social justice. In the Motherhouse in Rochester, NY, I visited Sr. Maria, age 93. Although her body was beginning to fail her, she was clear-eyed and enthusiastic. I have thought about Sr. Maria often, and I was deeply saddened to learn last week that she has left this world (or as she would have put it, moved on to the next life!). Her lessons for living, however, stay on in the Legacy Project.

She told me right off that she was born on Election Day, 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was re-elected the President of the United States. Her parents were Polish immigrants, hard-working and deeply religious.

She grew up in a close-knit Polish neighborhood.

It was a close community because all the people in the neighborhood were from Poland, or Russia or Ukraine, so they were all neighbors from Europe and they maintained their own language. It was a homey place with little stores, mom-and-pop stores, and the meat market was a meat market. It wasn’t everything, it was a meat market. The grocery store had groceries, the bakery was just bakery. It was translation from Europe and it was maintained like that for many years. The Polish bakery was just marvelous. And it was a wonderful business, especially around Christmas time, Easter time, you had to buy tickets to wait in line to do your shopping.

And the church was the center of activity, things were centered about the church, and when we think of people not having a social security, well that wasn’t in vogue yet. But the people – the church groups, the people from the same villages of Poland – grouped together and formed societies. So there would be St. Casimir society, St. Stanislas, St. Lawrence, and each society would have certain plans to provide for the members. We paid like maybe fifty cents a month for dues but if you were sick you would get groceries for a week, two weeks and other benefits. And people from these societies had projects like a dinner dance, activities connected with church to raise funds.

It’s sad because people now are not as close. We knew everybody in the neighborhood. I could name every family on our street, the name of their children, and you respected everybody’s family. If someone else’s mother told you not to do that, you had to listen, you had to obey. And growing up we just thought that our neighborhood, that’s all there was. Our own little world, the stores were there, the grocery stores, the meat market, the bakery, the shoe repair shop, everything was right in line.

Sr. Maria didn’t speak English until she started school, “First grade was a little difficult because I had to learn to speak English and learn how to read in English and my mother didn’t help me because she didn’t know the words, she didn’t know the language. If she tried to say it, she would say it with an accent. So in school I sat on a little step and a girl whose parents were Americanized already would sit with me to help me read, listen to me read.” She was determined to speak “like an American,” and achieved that goal.

Some her most important life lessons were learned during the depression. Her father’s work schedule was reduced, and the family had to learn how to live on very little. “Bread and butter was a treat.” Her advice to people going through current economic difficulties is this: “We should be grateful if we have what we need, even if we don’t have all the delicacies we want. We never knew we were poor. There were people who were poorer. We had enough to eat and that was a big blessing.

An even more important lesson Sr. Maria learned during the Depression was compassion. Even though her family had little, they shared with those who had less.

There was one family whose father didn’t have a job. Wherever he worked he lost his job, so there was no income coming. But I remember some evenings, maybe once a week, my mother would fix up a basket with some groceries, maybe a head of cabbage, some potatoes, vegetables, and put it on their porch after dark. And she herself had come from Poland and they had had hard times. And I remember seeing her many times, if she was going to eat a piece of bread she would pray over it first and she would kiss it sometimes too. Yes, they were hungry many times, so we grew up with that respect to appreciate what we had.

As Sr. Maria retired and grew older, the importance of compassion as a life lesson increased.

The idea that everything we do to help someone else, there’s a return value in it. You realize that you did something for that person, and at the time you didn’t understand it well yourself. Sometimes I receive a message, a note or card, from a student that I taught fifty years ago, and they’ll say that they appreciate what I did for them, that if I hadn’t done that they would never have succeeded. Like this one boy told me recently that if I hadn’t coached him special when he was my eighth grader he never could have gone to high school. He wouldn’t have had that motivation. You couldn’t help everyone, but you did as much as you could to as many as you could.

It’s not surprising that someone who had been a nun for over 70 years would recommend include pursuing a spiritual life among her major lessons:

Well. I think that the first lesson would be that you have a relationship with God and you live by his teachings and his commandments. Because by ourselves we can’t really do too much. And we have abilities and powers, but everything that we have is a gift from God to use and to give it back to Him.

For Sr. Maria, this lesson led again to compassion:

And I think being considerate for other people is important. And there are many small ways and gracious ways to do kindnesses and thoughtful actions. And if I know that I have something I know someone would like, maybe I can graciously get it into her possession without her knowing it. You try to help other people, you encourage others, you assist others.

At the end of our interview, we talked about the end of life. Sr. Maria told me:

Well, you do think about it more often and you do realize that we’re not here forever and we have to face God in the end. I’m not sure if I’m completely at that stage yet. Well, God has been good. You know, I don’t know if I pray as much as I ought to pray for death and acceptance. It’s still kind of, I know it’s going to come, and I tell the Lord: ‘I’m ready Lord – but maybe not yet!” Life is a gift from God and it’s important to keep busy – not just busy, but active. Meaningfully active.

It’s never easy when we lose one of the Legacy Project respondents, but we can still profit from their lessons. And that’s a good argument for asking our loved ones about their lessons for living – while they are still with us!