Saying Goodbye – and Thanks for the Lessons!

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.

Faith Helps in Hard Times

The elders came from all the world’s major religions, but many had one thing in common: They recommend faith of some kind as an invaluable tool for getting through rough patches in life. Coming from the Christian tradition, Cecile described how she learned this life lesson:

We had great difficulties pretty early in our marriage. My husband had heart problems as a young man. He came home and of course heart patients are known for depression after heart surgery, and he became depressed and that was very, very difficult for me. And that’s when faith came in. I mean we had gone to church ever since we’d been married, the whole family, but that’s when I truly, truly knew that I needed God totally in my life, I couldn’t handle this on my own. And God was preparing me for the death of my son. My son had also become more committed to faith in God shortly before he died, at age 19, in a car accident. I had four younger ones at home.

Faith in God helped me again when my husband had his heart attack 10 years ago. He died the way he wanted to die. It was a shock even though I knew that the day was coming, because he always had heart problems. I miss him terribly, but I know we all have to die, and I know he’s home with God, and that’s just a blessing. If it wasn’t for God, I don’t know – I just have a beautiful life right now.

Faith – and Poetry – at the End of Life

Peggy, 86,  found her religious faith to be an enormous help when her husband, Larry, died suddenly several years ago. And she found release for her sorrow in writing poetry.

Peggy and Larry deeply loved one another and shared many interests and an intense closeness for over 60 years of marriage. For Peggy, her spiritual beliefs were intertwined with themarriage: “Well the basis for my understanding about what marriage is about is my faith, the idea of God before others and others before you. My faith has supported me constantly. Knowing and learning the hymns and reading the bible, all these times. There’s always something that comes to mind so you know that the spirit is leading you.”

I met Larry when I was fifteen and he was twenty. He had just been invited to come to our church by my cousin. And we had a Halloween party and I was dressed like a colonial maiden and he was dressed like a French gentleman. After the party he went to my cousin and said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”

They were married for a year and a half when Larryenlisted in the Marine Corps and went to fight in World War II. They stuck together “through the ups and downs” of a long married life, running a business and raising four children. In his eighties, Larry developed a series of health problems but remained mentally intact. So Peggy was not prepared for what happened one day:

He sat there late one morning  and I had gotten him to do the crossword puzzles which I’d done for years, and I got him involved with them. And he was doing the crossword puzzle, had his breakfast, then went over and sat on the couch and he said, “Peggy,would you come here and rub my back?”  And so I went over and rubbed his back and he said, “Oh that was fine that’s enough.”  And I went back, walked back right here, and I heard two loud sighs, and he was gone.

The loss was devastating, but Rochester2 adjusted.” In the end I thought it was a blessing, that Larry didn’t suffer. He didn’t want to go to a nursing home. And he would say, ‘Peggy, don’t you ever die before me or I’ll kill you.’

How does one cope with the loss of a partner after a life that began at a magical costume party and lasted over six decades? For Peggy, it is her deep religious faith. A poet, she used her writing to convey the experience.

Larry and I both decided to donate our bodies to the University of Rochester. Larry’s body was sent there and we’d have the ashes. When we went for the ashes, which they only had Larry’s body for about a month, sometimes they have them for three years. The doctor told me that they used his body for a very special lesson, so I was happy.

We took the ashes and we went to a park which has a place where Roy and I used to stop called Poet’s Garden and he was a poet and I was a poet. So I sat I wrote this in the garden of poets:

I’m thinking of you constantly as through the days I go

Aware of love eternal this I surely know,

That mingling with the wildflowers  the ashes that are you

Are waiting for the time that I will be there too.

The May apple, the umbrella that shields you from the rain

The scent of valley lilies softens any pain,

Waiting for our union which indeed will come,

When the Father of the Universe sees fit to call me home.