What is a good aunt’s legacy? What does a woman without children leave behind in the world?
One of the women I spoke with wants to make sure her American niece knew the Nancy the Spider (or Anansi) stories that she inherited from her African background. Another spoke of her struggle over not having somebody to pass material things down to, saying with a bit of relief, “That’s where my nieces come in.” Others spoke of the way they are teaching nieces and nephews to carry on other family traditions: baking together or learning to cook a family recipe, going on family vacations together, and passing on the stories of past generations.
For those of us without children who have family heirlooms and traditions we want to pass down, this issue of heirs can be something that weighs on our minds. What will be our legacy when we’re gone?
Elizabeth Gilbert writes:
In leaving no descendents, [sic] however, childless aunts do tend to
vanish from memory after a mere generation, quickly forgotten, their
lives as transitory as butterflies. But they are vital as they live, and they
can even be heroic. … Often able to accrue education and resources
precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare
income and compassion to pay for livesaving operations, or to rescue
the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. (Committed, 192)
I think most of us want to be vital as we live: helping monetarily, being physically present when we’re needed, passing on family traditions and lore, or even providing an example of a life well lived. And as children renew a vitality in their parents, they have that ability to bring vitality to a good aunt’s life, too, even if that life is, as Gilbert says, “as transitory as a butterfly.”
If my nephews and other unofficial “nieces and nephews” learn nothing else from my life, I would want them to know these things:
- Faith is too important to ignore or set aside lightly, but it has to be tended and cultivated in order to flourish.
- It’s never too late to create a life you love. Even if it means going back to school or leaving a decent job, it’s worth a bold risk to live out your dreams.
- Honesty matters. This is a lesson I learned from my dad, and it has to be one of the most critical aspects of my character that I’d like to pass on to others.
I’m sure there are other things – like writing thank you notes, and making peppernut cookies at Christmas, and staying healthy by exercising and eating right, and reading good books, and cultivating interesting hobbies. But these “family heirlooms” seem less important than the three listed above.
I was reminded of the importance of the second one – creating the life you love – in a profound way by one of my good friends, Sarah. She spent part of last week juggling being a mom, a sister, and a really good aunt, traveling with her daughter and son out of state to care for her nephew right after her sister gave birth to a baby girl. Sarah’s daughter was so excited about having a girl cousin that she told Sarah, “I can teach her so many things – like all about fashion and math.” Lessons in fashion and math. Awesome.
Don’t we all need that kind of loving mentor in our lives: an older, wiser family member who can help us navigate through life and get excited about all the riches it holds, like fashion and math?
I mention Sarah and her daughter because of a presentation Sarah shared on YouTube. Sarah bravely stood up in front of an audience to tell her story of dreams set aside but then taken up again after realizing that she didn’t simply want to live vicariously through her daughter. She wanted to live her own vital life, and by doing so, she’ll inspire others (including me) to reconsider childhood dreams we’ve set aside. This inspiration will become part of her legacy.
I hope you’ll take a few moments to watch her video below and let yourself be inspired. Is there a part of your life that you hope will become a legacy to those around you? Is there an activity or talent you set aside when you were younger that you’d love to try again? What’s holding you back? You never know when the life you embrace will become a legacy of inspiration for the next generation among your family and friends.