Remember the Past and Preserve Your Legacy
July 8, 2015 Leave a comment
Do you ever feel as though the universe is trying to tell you something? Lately it seems like everything has one resounding theme: remembrance.
I’m currently reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and it is one of the best stories I have read in years. It is about a gadget-obsessed young German and a blind French girl during World War II, and how their lives are changed forever with the arrival of Hitler.
One of the themes in this story is remembrance, and while I don’t want to give too much away about the novel, it reminds us how important it is to remember and appreciate the little things in life, especially the people who have populated our own little microcosm in this world at one point or another.
Then last night, Heather and I went to see Woman In Gold, the new film starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish woman who lost everything but her memories when she fled Austria during World War II, including her family’s impressive art collection. Among those works is the painting Gustav Klimt did of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.
In the late 1990s, Altmann decides to try and reclaim her family’s art from Austria’s Belvedere Palace, and by so doing, her family’s legacy. So she asks young attorney Randy Schoeberg (played by Ryan Reynolds) to help her. By turns outrageous, suspenseful, and poignant, this is one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.
Now, some of you may think that these two bits of entertainment may seem more like pleasant diversions with a common theme rather than some kind of directive from the great beyond. And they are in their own way. But I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about my grandparents in recent weeks and the legacy they left behind, and I couldn’t quite figure out why until tonight.
My paternal grandmother, Frieda Fink, whom we all called Granny, was a very devout woman who loved her family, was kind to others, adored animals, and always made the best of whatever situation life threw her way. Like Altmann, she understood what it meant to struggle, but she never let troubles get her down.
She obtained her GED at the age of 58, went on to become a nurse, and eventually battled Parkinson’s disease. Regardless of her circumstances, however, she was always happy. In 1991, she told me something I have always carried with me, “There were probably a lot of times when I made mistakes, but what you try to do is do better and not live in the past.”
Also like Altmann in the film, my maternal great-grandmother, Catherine Warilow, (who I always fondly referred to as Grandma Cane because of the cane she used when I was very young), was someone who truly understood the meaning of loyalty and honesty, and she instilled those values in me early on.
When I was about seven, she came to live with our family, but she had to use a wheelchair full time by then. I remember going into her room and sitting on her bed with her. She shared little candy corns with me as she told me stories about faithful dogs and how loyal they were to their masters. She related the story of Hachi to me long before there was the film starring Richard Gere, and those precious moments have always held a special place in my heart.
When I was fourteen, Grandma Cane was in a nursing facility in California by then. My sister and I were out there for the summer visiting friends and they took us to see her. At first, she didn’t recognize me when I saw her and it made me so sad. But then the more I talked to her, the light of recognition ignited in her eyes and she clung to me with tears brimming over.
I played piano for her in the dining hall, a talent we both shared, and she couldn’t praise me enough. But I had to go, and her last words were, “Come back to see me. Do you promise?” I promised. “A promise is a promise,” she said. Unbeknownst to me, I wouldn’t get the chance to fulfill that promise, and she died soon after that visit. My heart still breaks whenever I remember her face and the vow I was never able to keep.
People like Granny and Grandma Cane live on in our hearts and memories forever, but sometimes we don’t throw the doors open to those memories as often as we should. Still, those ghosts of the past seem to knock at our door whenever they have something they want to remind us of, as if to say, ‘I’m still here. Remember me.’
But remembering the past isn’t enough. We have to share our history. The people in our lives may not have discovered a new country or found a cure to polio. But they taught us lessons we will never forget, and we need to pass those lessons, those lives, and that history along so they are not lost forever when we are laid to rest.
If Doerr’s novel, Woman In Gold and my own family have taught me anything at all, it is that we must keep the verbal history alive to preserve our legacy so our children, grandchildren and others truly understand and remember where we came from, but more importantly, why we are still here at all.
p.s. Below are the trailers for both the book and film mentioned in this letter. Enjoy!