The Legacy I Live and Leave Matters

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“Today I shall behave as if this is the day I will be remembered.” Dr. Seuss

In the wake of his dad’s death in April, my husband John reminded me a legacy can just as easily be negative as positive. He said, “I’m my dad. I’m overweight, I have a bad attitude, and I blame others and feel sorry for myself when things don’t go my way.”

He was being especially hard on himself and his dad that evening. However, what he was experiencing and expressing is exactly what happens when we face death. After our goodbyes and burying the people we love, we’re left with whatever they left us – an inheritance or debt; the work of cleaning out their stuff; what they willed us or didn’t will us; what they gave to others that we didn’t get; what we got that someone else thinks they should have; the pain of family turning against one another; the fear we’ll turn too.

Mostly, we’re left with their legacy – the one we inherit even if they didn’t leave us money or goods.

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I thought about Dad’s legacy this past Sunday, August 13th on the twelfth anniversary of his death. Dad and I were estranged the final three years of his life. If I’d had a Fitbit back then, I would have exceeded every step goal walking back and forth to my upstairs bathroom window that overlooked our driveway, looking for his truck to pull in one more time.

I recognize now that Dad loved hard, took things hard when he was hurt by people, and acted hard towards them afterwards. I understand more about his response when I wished him a happy 70th birthday and he said, “I hope the next 70 are better.” I figured out some about why driving eight blocks to my house was too difficult for him and why him saying “I’m sorry” seemed impossible.

In light of his legacy and the one left by John’s dad too, I’ve pondered a question I heard at a women’s conference. The speaker talked about working with survivors of sexual abuse. I wrote about it here, “Whose Legacy Are You Living?” She said it helped to ask the women something like, “Whose legacy are you living, your abuser’s or yours?”

I was pretty sure I could answer for John and me. We’re living the legacies of our fathers.

Dad struggled with family relationships and with having friends. He struggled with self-esteem and self-doubt. He struggled to get over being hurt and sad.

Dad also painted, made pottery, and wrote love letters to us. One he wrote to me a couple of months after I was born is taped in my baby book. He played board games with me when I begged. He collected oriental figurines, he added to my doll collection, and he accumulated unusual postage stamps. Dad oversaw building a house for his mom, remodeled the house we lived in, and talked about buying and fixing up a beach house.

He bought a motel and opened an ice cream parlor after he returned from Vietnam that marked his retirement from the Air Force. He walked, rode his bike, and jumped rope in our backyard. A couple of times a week, he’d put on boots with metal hooks on the toes and, to improve his blood flow, he’d hang upside down from a bar he mounted between two trees. I’d watch him from the kitchen window. Dad read the Bible cover-to-cover at least twice. He crafted lanterns and planters to give away and built a toy box for each of his four grandchildren.

 

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I didn’t have to go on and on here, listing every memory of Dad that’s good and fun and quirky, but I wanted to. It reminds me how much our daily choices matter, just like my friend told her dad when he was dying alone and lonely. On his deathbed, he asked her, “How’d I get here?”

“Thousands of bad choices, Dad,” she said. It was all she could think to tell him. Their conversation haunts me, but hopefully it saved him like the thief who hung by Jesus on the cross. In the last minutes, his legacy changed.

So, here’s the thing about a legacy – we leave one, good or bad, whether we intend to or not. There are qualities from both of our dads we hope to keep alive, and ones we don’t.

Here’s another thing about legacy – it matters. John and I gave voice to this when we recognized how much our dads’ legacies shaped us, even our body shape, our weight.

The final thing about legacy – we decide.

Each one of us has been influenced by someone, but we’re not destined to live how they lived. We decide whose legacy we’re living – a parent, an abuser, a mentor. We decide whether we’ll live out their difficult ways or their productive and creative ones. We decide if we want to ditch everything they modeled and live differently. We decide whether to be sloppy about our own legacies or intentional.

I knew I’d inherited my dad’s creative spirit even though I hadn’t given him credit for my painting and writing until just now. He definitely passed on his appreciation for homes and remodeling them. I’ve enjoyed collecting things most of my life like artwork and shoes (a justifiable collection, I think). I started walking daily when I was pregnant with our son and kept it up for nearly three decades. It never crossed my mind until writing this, though, that I’d taken on Dad’s melancholy mood.

Legacy. We leave one. It matters. We decide on our own.

Whose legacy are you living? Is it one you want to keep going?

#gettingyourownlife #whilelovingthepeopleinit

In This Together,
Kim

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Whose Legacy Are You Living?

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“Legacy is not what's left tomorrow when you're gone. It's what you give, create, impact and contribute today while you're here that then happens to live on.”Rasheed Ogunlaru (Artwork by Kelly Rae Roberts)

“Legacy is not what’s left tomorrow when you’re gone. It’s what you give, create, impact and contribute today while you’re here that then happens to live on.”
Rasheed Ogunlaru (Artwork by Kelly Rae Roberts)

Earlier in the week, I pulled this message from a fortune cookie: “You will become a great philanthropist in your later years. ”

Since those years are fast approaching, I felt encouraged when my friend Diane invited me to a conference sponsored by Women in Philanthropy and Leadership. Time I read her invitation and saw the word “philanthropy,” I knew I was supposed to attend. After all, I listen to my cookies.

I figured the conference’s significance had something to do with my career and my writing. In a roundabout way, it did.  

Presenters spoke about changing the way we talk and think about ourselves as women, as well as embracing our talents.

Inspirational speaker Donna Tyson told her story of letting go of it all, her journey from a comfortable life with a lake view to selling and giving away everything she owned so she could serve in Haiti.

“I’m sure of one thing,” I said to my friend. “I’m not going to Haiti. At least, I don’t think I am.”

I made sure God knew I was joking. I know how he can be. Never say never.

By afternoon, I hung on every word from Mercedes Ramirez Johnson who survived a plane crash that killed her parents and 158 other passengers. I was touched, but not transformed.

I wondered if I’d overestimated the significance of the conference. I found myself almost hoping Haiti was my answer since I didn’t want to go home without one.

When the final keynote began her story, the likelihood diminished that I was going to Haiti or going home without some direction.

Allison Black Cornelius, Principal Consultant for training leaders at her company Blackfish Strategies, shared about being sexually abused at age seven by her male Sunday school teacher. Some 20 years later, she testified against him after a strange series of events (she said could only be arranged by God) brought them face-to-face in a courtroom. Her abuser was sentenced to prison and Allison’s life was forever changed a second time around. She now works tirelessly to keep kids safe from sexual predators.

At the end of her talk, a woman from the audience asked, “Is there a way to help my mom? She was sexually abused and can’t seem to get passed it?”

In the last five minutes of the conference, I heard what I came to hear.

“Yes,” said Allison, “and so far, it’s worked with every woman. I tell them, ‘We’re all living a legacy.’ Then I ask, ‘Are you living yours or his (the abuser)?’”

How about you? Are you living your legacy or someone else’s from your past?

WRite wHere I’m supposed to be – God, help me trade in the legacy I thought I deserved at age 12 for the one you knew I deserved all along.

On the side: I never thought to call an abuser’s life a legacy, but then I looked up the word. One of legacy’s synonyms is hangover, and hangover’s synonyms are after-effect and leftover. These expose the negative side of a legacy.

Read Allison Black Cornelius’ bio from her site www.blackfish.org.

Click here for more artwork by Kelly Rae Roberts.

What Happened That Was So Bad?

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“The real violence, the violence I realized that is unforgivable, is the violence we do to ourselves when we’re too afraid to be who we really are.” Unknown

While a friend and I talked about depression, she asked about my past and said, “What happened that was so bad?”

Although whining and blaming are unattractive, I didn’t mind a chance to tell my sad story. I launched about details I had never told her. Fortunately for you, I won’t share all of it here.

Emotional, religious, and sexual abuse contributed to what happened that was so bad. I knew better than to talk about my abuse with my parents because it wasn’t as bad as what Mom had been through, so I tried to help fix hers. The more I encouraged her to let go of her past and live happily ever after, the more strained our relationship became. She wanted sympathy, not solutions, but I needed her fixed.

My parents being unavailable and unpredictable contributed to what happened that was so bad. Dad spent nine months out of the year at the beach, running the family business. Mom either numbed out at home or couldn’t handle her emotions. I lived under threats like this one when I didn’t act like she wanted me to, “You’re lucky I didn’t do anything to hurt myself.”

Living around mental illness contributed to what happened that was so bad. Before Dad left for Vietnam, he moved Mom, my younger brother, and me in with my great aunt who raised Mom and her siblings. After Dad returned home and retired from the Air Force, we stayed put. It wasn’t long before my mom’s brother moved in with us. He walked around in stained t-shirts and with his pants unzipped, burned carpet and furniture with his cigarettes, and made sexual overtures that Mom ignored until he’d get so out of hand she’d temporarily commit him to mental institutions around the state.

I thought a sympathetic ear about my past would be comforting, but the more woes I shared, the worse I felt. What happened that was so bad was not about what someone else had done to me, but what I was still doing to myself. My family was long gone, but I still lived and talked about their crazy legacy.

Vivi, the alcoholic mother in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, describes it best in a conversation with her daughter’s fiancé. She said, “I know she blames me. Of course she does, just like I blame my mother. I didn’t screw up her life any more than my mother screwed up mine. She almost did. But all the real long-term damage … I did to myself.”

So, what really happened that was so bad?

  • I repeated my past by setting out to fix my husband and my children just like I tried to fix Mom. Even when a friend said, “Your family will get better when you get better,” I kept focusing on them. I felt overwhelmed (and still do sometimes) by focusing on/fixing myself and living my own life.
  • I doubted my decisions and myself all along. Self-doubt makes it hard to stand behind my commitments, as well as hard to enforce boundaries I’ve tried to set. Self-doubt makes taking care of myself almost impossible. I give in and give up instead of standing up for what I want.
  • I self-destructed because whining, being lazy, and blaming others come easier than practicing a healthy routine. I eat too much chocolate, stay up too late, and overlook opportunities to live a sensible and happy life. I defer to fear if things get hard. I’d rather wallow around with a problem than research a manuscript. It takes a lot of work to get well. It means #GettingYourOwnLife.

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I acknowledge the power of messy pasts and the power of destructive family patterns. I also acknowledge how powerful it is to take responsibility for what we’re doing to ourselves and to make a decision to do something different. I hope you’ll join the Conversation and the Change.

In This Together,
Kim

Thank you for the swamp photo, Joel Carter. It looks as desolate as my life felt for a while.

Thank you, Rhonda Hensley @ Inspiration Images and Media, for the photo of balloons. They represent change.

Giving Voice to a Silent Killer (a blog post about suicide)

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“Writing is a struggle against silence.” Carlos Fuentes (Image from iStock)

“A diagnosis is burden enough without being burdened by secrecy and shame.” Jane Pauley  (Image from iStock)

Our phone conversation left me teary. Our daughter said the news about Robin Williams’ suicide scared her. It made her think of me. Her comparison was disturbing, and oddly comforting. If I could choose an actor to be like, it’d be him.

In the aftermath of his death, Robin’s family, friends, and colleagues confirmed his kindness over and over by posting on Twitter things like, “A gentle spirit,” “Nicest guy I’ve ever worked with,” and “Robin had time for everyone.”

His roles in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poets Society were too convincing to be called “acting.” So was his performance during Good Will Hunting when he compellingly repeated to Matt Damon, “It’s not your fault.” (It’s a powerful clip if you can get past the language. I could.)

I went back several times to the theater with a handful of tissue to hear him tell me that same thing, “It’s not your fault.” I’d sit alone on the back row during afternoon matinees and sob. I’ve since watched the scene on my laptop hundreds of times.

Even though I knew why my daughter was afraid (she knows I mask pain with humor), Robin Williams’ death isn’t the one that terrified me. It was Harriet Deison’s suicide that kept me awake at nights.

After reading every article I could find on her, I’d imagine talking her out of driving across town in her Lexus to a gun shop where she shot herself inside her car. I’d imagine our conversations about hiding how we felt so others would think we were okay because we wanted desperately to be okay. I’d imagine helping each other step outside our depression and into the Light. I still wonder why this beautiful 65-year-old woman, a preacher’s wife at a prominent church in Texas, committed suicide four days after Christmas. I wonder why her husband, her daughters, and her grandchildren weren’t enough to help her choose life.

But, then, I think maybe I know.

My husband and I call it “The Dark Place.” It’s where I’m convinced family and friends don’t want to hear about my despair, but I’m desperate to talk about it. It’s where I beg God to show up, but he’s quiet, almost like he was never there at all. It’s the place where I’m overcome by pain, yet the pain of suicide seems practical and peaceful. The dark place is not just my closet where I curl up, it’s the thoughts I curl up with … the ones that say, “It is your fault.”

Until the movie Good Will Hunting, I couldn’t put into words what was wrong. The “it” (that I didn’t want to be my fault) was not being able to fix or fit into my family of origin. The “it” was not feeling safe and protected because I wasn’t. The “it” was having emotions that overwhelmed my family and me because none of us wanted to face what had happened and what was still happening.

The scariest part, even when it hurt, was I couldn’t stop living up to my title from high school as “Most Dependable.” I took responsibility for my family’s insanity because they wouldn’t. I also kept it a secret because maybe they were right, maybe it was my fault.

After Mom threatened me with boarding school because “all you do is cry,” I tried to stop feeling and talking about my depression and fear. I tried to stop making a big deal out of nothing (like sexual abuse) and taking things personally (like Dad staying away nine months out of the year). I tried to convince myself it was safe to love and lighten up even when my uncle who abused me ended up in a padded room at a mental hospital. But I couldn’t do it. Death sounded safer than life and suicide seemed the only way out since I told myself I was too unstable to leave.

Get over it. Yeah, I tried that too.

Here’s where I’m supposed to neaten up my blog post, let you know God’s the answer (he is, but I’m not preaching because talking-tos didn’t help me), and tell how I stopped wanting to kill myself. Like my daughter says about solutions, “I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.”

I can offer some hope, though. Robin Williams and Harriet Deison saved me a little bit. My kids, my husband, my friends, and even my family of origin saved me a little bit. Most importantly, I’m saving myself a little bit by writing blog posts like this one. I hope if you’re in a scary place, this blog post saves you a little bit.

“Writing is a struggle against silence.” Carlos Fuentes

Is there something you need to share or something you need to do to save yourself? If so, it may save others a little bit as well.

WRite wHere I’m supposed to be – To heal, we must allow ourselves to feel. And some of us also need to talk about the feelings even if others don’t want to hear them. And this, my reader friends, is why I write. Thanks for letting me talk.

Click the link for an inspiring article and video sent by my daughter right after Robin Williams’ suicide. Going Public with Depression is by CNN’s Kat Kinsman.

Click the link to read the obituary of Harriet Deison.

Click the link to read a compassionate account by Steve Blow of Harriet Deison’s life and death: For Harriet Deison, a life to admire gave way to a death beyond understanding

Stalling (a post about honesty)

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“No legacy is so rich as honesty.” William Shakespeare

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
William Shakespeare (Artwork by Kelly Rae Roberts)

Stalling. I’ve done a lot of it lately.

I put off posting on my blog because I was afraid of what you might think. Afraid I’d be misunderstood and judged. And the worst, afraid I’d be told I shouldn’t feel the way I already do.

After thinking through all that, I wasn’t up for sharing about our daughter’s ultrasound, the one that showed the sex of our grandbaby.  We’re having a granddaughter, by the way.

A month after hearing the news and I couldn’t be happier about Claire. Originally, though, I couldn’t have been more scared.

Oh, Claire’s just fine. My fear is about matters of the heart, you know. Isn’t it always?

I wrote Claire’s blog post the week we got home from seeing the ultrasound. I rewrote it the next day, the next week, and the week after that. Finally, I put it away.

When I tried writing something else, nothing fit in the place of Claire. When you read it, you’ll probably wonder why it was hard to share, but this is the kind of relationship I have with my blog posts.

The problem is, my honesty scares me.

I argue for a little less transparency, although I’m not sure why I bother. I’ve threatened to abandon my blog altogether even after reading confirmation from other writers. In her post “Me Too” by Heather Kopp, she writes about readers relating more to what’s wrong in our lives than to what’s right. She says it helps others when we’re willing to tell the hard stories.

So I figure, let Heather be honest and I’ll write fluff. The problem is (yeah, there’s another one), it’s not working. Fluff and I never did get along, probably because of what my husband says, “You’re too honest for your own good” – whatever that means.

Okay, so maybe I know what he means. I also know he’s trying to help, but I’m grasping more each day that …

Honesty is for my own good, and it’s the legacy I want to leave my children and grandchildren.

Do you stall when it comes to telling the truth about your life? It’s all about fear, isn’t it?

Write wHere I’m supposed to be – Writing about why I’m not posting seemed the best idea for now. At least I’m showing up. I believe God’s okay with it too since he sent two guest bloggers for April.

On the side: Beth Pensinger’s blog post appeared last week. Beth Vogt’s post will go live this Wednesday – you won’t want to miss it. And, yes, Claire’s way-too-personal (for me) blog post about matters of the heart will be posted before the end of April.

Click here for more artwork by Kelly Rae Roberts.

The Crown of Unconditional Love, one young man’s example

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“Love is, above all, the gift of oneself.” Jean Anouilh (Photo from iStock)

Sheldon was an unlikely Homecoming King, yet he was crowned during loud applause and a standing ovation that evening at the high school football game. 

Sheldon spent most of his academic day in a special education classroom. His disabilities kept him from participating in sports. Since he wasn’t in the mainstream of the student body, he was seldom a part of parties and goings on. Also, he was unable to drive so he wasn’t out and about like most teens.

Somehow, though, Sheldon’s bear hugs, the way he excitedly said your name, and his loud hellos worked magic on the students and faculty. So much so that when the evening came to announce the winner from the Homecoming Court, Sheldon jumped in circles and squealed when he won.

Recently, Sheldon posted a belated birthday wish on our son’s Facebook page, some 10 years after their graduation. I noticed he’s working as an associate at Goodwill Industries.

“How appropriate,” I thought. “Our son and his friends are lucky to have him in their lives.”

When reading his message, what struck me is how a decade ago I felt sorry for this young man. I remember being grateful to the students who went out of their way to be accepting, you know, doing him a favor – how they helped Sheldon, rallied around him, and even gave up a popularity contest to allow him to win king for a day.

If I had written this post back then, it would have been about the heart of those students.

Though I’m still impressed by their kindness, what I didn’t recognize was Sheldon was royalty long before that crownInstead of all we did for him, he did us the favor.

I’d love to hear your story if you have a Sheldon in your life.

WRite wHere I’m supposed to be – Thanks, Sheldon. You set an example for what you do so well, love unconditionally.

Alex, Sheldon & Rusty @ Carolina Forest High
Thanks for sharing this photo, Lyndsey Shelley.

 

On the side: Sheldon passed away today, September 16, 2012. He posted a birthday wish to our daughter just 17 days ago. She said, “I’m sad, but I think he had a good time while he was here so that makes it a little easier.”

When our son called to tell me, he said, “I don’t think Sheldon ever had a bad day.” That’s probably not true, but what a legacy to leave … to brighten friends’ days so much that they think you never had a bad one.

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Southern-Style Wisdom Passed Down, enjoy it like we say it

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“South Cackalacky – it’s not just a place, it’s a state of mind.” Unknown

Our relationship started like most, all over each other like “white on rice.”

John would pick me up in his 1966 blue and white station wagon and borrow a one-liner from his dad, “You look finer than frog hair.” We’d eat dinner, dance at a local club and usually end up parked behind his dad’s service station, “playing smushy face.”

John worked with his dad who everyone called EL (Everett Laverne or Ever Lovin’ – you choose after reading this). John pumped gas, took apart Volkswagen engines, and continued to be shaped by his dad’s sayings.

When I’d drive off after visiting them at work, particularly on a date night, I’d roll down my car window so EL could tell me, “Be good. If you can’t be good, be careful. If you can’t be careful, name it after me.”

Our wedding in a nutshell was the day John “bought the cow because the milk wasn’t free”. EL was there for us after we married, with cooking advice for me, “I wouldn’t eat that with your mouth,” and counsel to John if he wasn’t acting husbandly, “Smooth move, Ex-Lax.”

We were confident when we had children EL’s words would live on and influence them as well. Both times I was pregnant, he said, “You look like you swallowed an air hose.” If he hadn’t told me, who would?

In the kids’ younger years, he saved our son’s life, “You’re starving the boy to death. He’s so hungry he could eat the north end out of a southbound mule.” He saved our daughter’s social life, “If you keep cuttin’ her bangs that short she’s not gonna die, she’s gonna ugly away.”

John quoted his dad during our kids’ elementary school years. When enough was enough, he told them, “I’m going to beat you like a redheaded stepchild.” Every kid knows that’s a bad spanking. If they cried about not getting their way, John said, “I’m going to give you something to cry about.” And if they were good, they were “gooder than goat grease.”

He relied on his dad’s insights during the more-trying middle school days, when the kids whined, “Why can’t I? Everyone else is doing it.” He’d answer, “Don’t let your hippopotamus mouth overload your hummingbird butt.” As soon as our daughter “got a little too big for her britches,” he told her so. The day our son took a step toward him, John stepped up as well, “You aren’t big enough to whoop your old man, and by the time you are, you won’t want to.”

When our kids were high-schoolers, we heard, “If I had a TV, a phone in my room, a car, my own laptop, your credit card, and if I didn’t have to work for any of them, I’d be mature.” John said, “If a bullfrog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his butt.”

One of the kids would leave the house in a huff, “Limp on down the shoulder on the rim.”

They’d disappear when they thought we wanted them around, “I think they went to the bathroom and the hogs ate ‘em.”

And when teachers called about homework not being turned in, “We buy you books, send you to school and all you do is chew the backs off. We don’t want anymore calls, understood?”

The kids have long since moved out and moved on. On their packing day, John shared the same wisdom his dad shared with him, “The door only swings one way.”

To John and EL’s credit, their legacy lives on. Our daughter lives in South Cackalacky (that’s South Carolina, Southern style). And I overheard our son telling a friend, “My dad said when I was big enough to whoop him, I wouldn’t want to. And he was right.”

Surely you have some sayins to share with us. Go ahead. I’m dying to read them.

WRite wHere I’m supposed to be – Southern-style livin’ may not top the list for being politically correct, but let me tell you, I’m tickled pink with how our family turned out. Thanks to old-fashioned, ever-lovin’ common sense.