Vol 9, Num 20 :: 2010.11.05 — 2010.11.18
The legacy I’ve inherited from my paternal grandparents is one of my most precious possessions. It is a legacy of strong ethnic identity and great stories, but more than anything, it’s a model of the fruits of the Spirit becoming ripe. I’m a second-generation Dutch-American, the granddaughter of two who survived World War II. Growing up, the fact that my father was born in Holland made me feel special or somehow distinct. I knew where I’d come from, and I was proud of it. I still am.
I listened with rapt attention to my grandparents’ stories of the war, immigration and life on this side of the ocean. I hung on every word, not only because their stories were fascinating and indirectly had to do with me, but because they entailed a degree of drama and struggle completely foreign to my life.
My grandfather died this year at age 89. The last part of his legacy was showing us how to die well. He became ill suddenly but didn’t resist death when it came. He was in no hurry to go, but was at peace and content to be finished living. As I knew them, both he and my grandmother were delightful characters — funny, quirky, strong, gracious, humble, smart — with a marriage I’d call a work of art.
Granddad’s early life was not easy. Both his parents were dead by the time he was 14. After sixth grade he was forced to quit school and learn a trade he disliked. In his early 20s, World War II broke out, which, for a Dutch man, meant spending three years hiding out to avoid being deported to the German war machine. After the war, his stepmother usurped his right to his late father’s shoe business. With nothing to stick around for, my grandfather took his wife and four young children on a boat to America, slipping in on the coattails of the Marshall Plan. Upon arriving in Grand Central Station in New York, their four-year-old son went missing (he was later recovered). They didn’t know any English. And that was only the beginning.
The lives of all saints are part of the story of God, and like our sacred texts, knowing them benefits us. In listening, we glimpse how people are transformed to be holy. We see sanctification played out in a modern context. My grandparents are my role models, my proximal saints. Their stories are my hero narratives, and I hold them close. One year, I audio-recorded and transcribed their memories in order to preserve this legacy in concrete form. I yearn to lean into the strength of character and courage that were theirs — to find, in listening, a road map of how to become like them by the time I am 80.
My grandparents’ stories are of extreme and, at times, dangerous situations. Nothing I’ve experienced compares to the kind of adversity they’ve faced. And after it all, they are not bitter. I can’t fathom what it would be like to have dozens of my schoolmates shot down as civilians, or to tremble and pray as a soldier searched the house to seize my fiancé. It’s hard to imagine what might compel me to leave everyone I’d ever known and head to a foreign land for good.
I wonder if I will have a legacy to leave, and what kind it might be. Will I have stories worth telling my grandchildren? A good legacy necessitates passing through the flame in some manner — suffering, and coming out joyful. What will it benefit my descendants to know I had my hand held and achieved only easy goals? A privileged childhood, college degree, job in my field, moving for novelty, a tropical honeymoon, owning a house furnished with matching gift registry swag — on and on. What does it mean that my greatest challenges at age 25 include vacillating over whether my boyfriend is really The One and working up the courage to take out another loan for graduate school? It would be embarrassing to look back and realize everything I’d done was for personal gain or to make my life easy and pleasurable.
Surely, every life entails struggle and suffering. I needn’t fear not having had my share by the time I’m elderly. Even those living comfortably experience inner suffering, become sick and suffer relationship loss. But does this stripe of struggle make for great legacies? Well, yes. Quiet lives leave great testimonies too, even if the stories wouldn’t make for a good movie. By no means do I seek a war experience or major hardship, but I want to show my grandchildren important truths with stories from my life. They will need to know that even when terrible things happen, your joy can return. When you lose everything, life goes on — the good has not run out. It never runs out. Now, it’s my job to keep in mind the legacy I’ve inherited as I live each year — my biological as well as my spiritual legacy. God was there for the Israelites and for Jan and Trijntje Leene. Now it’s my turn to work hard, serve others, give myself away, and be willing to do more than the safe thing.
I hope to be as content as my grandfather was when I lie on my deathbed. I know the most important legacy Granddad left was not his harrowing stories, but the way he demonstrated care and affection for his wife, steadfast faith in God, a gentle and dignified manner, and the way his eyes gleamed with love and delight when he looked in his granddaughter’s face. I, too, hope to leave a legacy of great love.