I have an old cast iron safe that was manufactured by the Victor Safe Company to commemorate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The safe was originally owned by my great-grandfather and used in his tavern in Morrison, Missouri in the first part of the 20th century. The safe is embossed in gold letters with his name, F.J. Hanne, and at about 30 inches tall, it is the perfect height for use as an end table next to the big blue armchair where I sit while reading in front of the fire.
The other night, I was curled up in my chair with my mug of tea on the safe next to me, and it occurred to me that Grandpa Hanne probably never envisioned the great-granddaughter he never met using his safe for such a purpose. More than 75 years after his death, he is still thought of fondly as a patriarch, merchant, and civic leader (and occasional bootlegger) and his life story is known by three new generations. I named my daughter Hanne after him, to continue his legacy.
Back in the 1920s, my husband’s grandfather, H.G.W. Parmele, made his own “Louisiana Purchase.” While hunting in the Louisiana backwoods with friends, he discovered, like Jed Clampett, that oil was literally seeping out of the ground. Being a man of vision and education, he knew how valuable this oil would be to future generations. He and his friends purchased the land and 90 years later those oil royalties are still paying dividends to his children and grandchildren. My husband and I use his dividend check each month to pay toward our daughter’s education, because we feel that “Bampa” would have wanted us to use it in a way that carries on his legacy.
A legacy doesn’t have to be material or monetary in nature. At Hanne’s graduation from the University of Georgia last May, the speaker was The Honorable Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy. After the standing ovation died down (this being only a week after the Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden), the Secretary gave a wonderful speech about the legacies the graduates would leave behind. He told a story that stayed with me. Secretary Mabus’s father earned his living in a hardware store in Ackerman, Mississippi, but he was also in the lumber business. He died in 1986 and the last year of his life he did not cut a single tree, but he planted thousands. As Secretary Mabus said, his father knew for an absolute fact that he would never see those trees grow and that he would never get any benefit from those trees. “He did it as an act of hope. He did it as an act of faith. He did it for granddaughters he never met and he did it for future generations of my family. He did it for the future of us all.”
In the past couple of years, like many people of my generation, my siblings and I have spent a lot of time with elderly family members, helping them with the transition from their comfortable homes into care facilities. Parting with a lifetime of accumulated possessions is emotionally painful, but there are things we can do to help with the transition. Talk to your parents and grandparents and ask them to tell you their stories. Write names and dates on the backs of family pictures. Ask them about the origins of their possessions; they may have antique furniture or artwork with an interesting history. See if there are specific gifts they would like to make while they can still experience the joy of giving. A grandson may treasure that art deco barware; a granddaughter may have the perfect spot for those 1950’s watercolors.
Keep a journal yourself; your children or nieces and nephews would love to hear your stories, too. Make sure you label your pictures. Investigate your family history and start a family tree. There is a reason why Ancestry.com ended 2011 with 1.7 million paying customers! If you would like to leave a financial legacy, consider starting an education fund for your grandchildren or nieces and nephews. At HMC Partners we can help you with setting up a 529 plan or a Coverdell ESA for that very purpose.
Only human beings have the ability to think within different timeframes. We can recall the past, we can reason in the present and we can apply our experiences to planning for the future. There are all types of legacies. Think about what yours will be. Maybe your great-granddaughter will be thinking about you fondly in the year 2087!
“Ancestry.com shares rise on upbeat outlook” – 1-5-2012 – International Business Times. www.ibtimes.com
Remarks by the Honorable Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, University of Georgia Commencement, Athens, GA Friday, May 13, 2011 www.navy.mil