Moms tell a lot of stories.
We read storybooks at bedtime; we dream up imaginative play; we tell the stories of our childhood memories; we share the stories of those who shared their stories with us.
Together these stories construct the narrative of our family. The attributes that we want to permeate our family must be part of this narrative: kindness, generosity, gratitude.
The boldest and most enduring parts of this narrative are not told with words, however.
They are told with actions, intentions, and attitudes and comprise the lasting legacy that we make for our children and their children.
During this season of thanksgiving, I reflect on the legacy of gratitude cultivated by my family, particularly my grandmother who lived a life overflowing with gratitude.
My grandmother, Opal, led a tough life by most standards:
- She was born in 1913 as the youngest of 9 children.
- At age 5 when her mother died, her father who worked for the railroad remarried someone who did not like children.
- Because of her father’s job, the family moved every few years to another town along the railroad.
- As a young mom herself in her early 20s, her husband deployed in WWII.
- One of her daughters died in infancy.
- They were a family of modest means as my grandfather was a parole officer after the war.
- She became a widow at the age of 59, never remarrying.
- Her children all moved away to larger cities in different states to start their careers.
- She outlived all of her siblings and many friends in her one hundred years.
A true card player who played the hand life dealt her with determination and grace, she never let these situations define her.
When her husband was deployed, Opal used the wages he sent home to pay off the entire house before his return—while raising a toddler on her own. Without excess money to buy new clothes for three growing girls, she used her sewing skills every season to adjust the hemlines and sleeves on their hand-me-downs to look “fresh” and up-to-date.
She and my grandfather often hired his parolees to do work around their yard and home so the men could get back on their feet and remain out of prison. Of course, she also fed them full, hot meals while they worked.
When her husband was in the hospital, she visited in hot pants, usually yellow, to make him smile. For the next 26 years, she lived alone. And she never complained of being lonely or that visits were too infrequent.
At the age of 85, she initiated selling her home and moving to a retirement home in Richmond so that her daughters wouldn’t have to drive long distances to care for her.
My grandmother never told me these things.
She shared no comparisons, no grievances, no expectation of praise. She never grumbled about her hardships or doted her perseverance. Instead, she just did them and lived them and embodied them.
Opal was a woman that truly never complained, other than occasionally in her last five years that should would like her coffee hotter. She instead approached each day and each situation with true gratitude for what she had. When I asked her about it, she simply responded, “Well, I have everything I need, don’t I?”
One hundred years and no complaining. I’m pretty sure I can’t go a whole day without nitpicking something despite the fact that I have more than I could ever need.
My daughter, Opal, missed meeting her namesake by a few months. Her only way of knowing her will be through the stories and, most importantly, the values I share. When I look at the legacy of humility and gratitude that was left for me and further cultivated by my own mother, I think about what legacy I am leaving for my daughter:
Am I humbly grateful for all I have been given, no matter how it compares elsewhere? Or am I constantly trying to fix one more thing?
Am I satisfied in the simple action of doing what needs to be done, or do I need accolades?
Do I let the situations of life define my family, or do I define it with values and character?
As moms, we are the storytellers for future generations with our actions and attitudes speaking louder than our words. What are we adding to our narrative? What legacy are we creating for our children?