Since the arrival of COVID-19, all the different age cohorts across the globe have joined countless previous generations of humanity who have had to navigate a tumultuous time. Part of this experience is the unfortunate realization that the contemplation of one’s own mortality and legacy is no longer just reserved for the ‘Senior crowd.’ A person’s legacy exists on multiple planes – familial, intellectual, religious, psychological, social and financial. And while legacy can be a sobering concept, the ability to document it can actually be an enriching experience and privilege.
It’s October — almost eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic. The notion of one’s legacy is perhaps even starker and more top-of-mind because this time of year signals the start of the dismal days of the fall. Despite the beautiful, multicolored foliage, this season is frequently accompanied by melancholy, wistfulness, thoughts of darkness and endings.
As a gerontologist, I know that statistics indicate a higher likelihood of death during the winter for older adults. This is partially because colder weather is inherently deadly, but also because the cold temperatures can suppress the immune systems which enhance one’s chances of falling sick. Additionally, the gloomy, shorter days can lead to feelings of depression. And hopelessness and loneliness are potent risk factors for poor physical and mental health in later life. One may hypothesize that this year, these numbers might increase – not just due to COVID itself – but because so many older people are despondent after months of anxiety-provoking incarceration and isolation in their own homes.
However, as we hunker down and confront the difficult fall and winter of 2020/COVID-19 with as much fortitude as possible, there is a way for us to engage in a Legacy Storytelling initiative which can offer older adults (and their younger family members) significant psycho-social benefits. Because the biographical side of human life is every bit as critical to fathom as the biological side. It can teach us to honor the dignity, complexity, humanity and uniqueness of the lives of older people. And it can teach younger generations about the power of resilience that older adults have usually developed over the years. Fortunately, unlike previous generations facing a public health and economic crisis, we have the gift of technology and thus the ability to communicate with each other – in real time – in different ways. Moreover, we can document these interactions in diverse formats.
I have also always enjoyed listening to stories and been cognizant of the importance of inter-generational interactions as well as understanding my family history. As the granddaughter of four individuals who fled from Hitler, I am well aware that I would not be around if their personal stories had unraveled differently. And, over the years, I have stitched together my own quilt of family memories – visual, auditory, sensory and olfactory. These included the taste of my Granny’s apple pie, my Oma’s kind, sea-blue eyes and her operatic voice, the tunes we sang at family celebrations and holidays, my Papa’s shuffling tread as he approached the door of the chocolate-filled closet, and my Opa’s humorous mantras. Certain episodes — such as when Granny giggled so much at a joke that tears streamed down her face – also remain firmly imprinted in my mind.
Once I emigrated from the U.K. to the U.S and became a mother, I started to mull over these ‘ties that bind’ more frequently. I felt that I had the sacred duty to collect as much information and insight into my ancestors so that I could transmit it to my children. In so doing, I was helping them craft their respective treasure box of memories, traditions, family values, beliefs and behaviors. And they were, in turn, becoming part of this chain of continuity.
I came to acknowledge that, in my youth, I may not have fully appreciated the exemplary behavior I witnessed in my parents’ and grandparents’ homes. I started to recall the words, actions, and behaviors gleaned from all the familial experiences and Influencers who had featured in my childhood. The hospitality extended by my parents or grandparents on a Shabbat or holiday to those less fortunate; those sitting around our table were warmly welcomed regardless of whether they seemed to be Princes or Paupers, married or single, religious or not, socially adept or awkward. The culture was one of bottomless buckets of kindness shown to those undergoing emotional, psychological or financial hardship. And this was demonstrated, quietly, in myriad different ways. The actions spoke louder than words, and engraved themselves on my memory. These included my father driving round to deliver a meal to a lonely old lady or accompanying someone to a doctor’s appointment after conducting copious research to ensure that they had the ‘best’ doctor available. Words of directional guidance about respect, morality and business ethics were also shared on many occasions, and gradually took root in my heart and mind as well as those of my siblings.
For me, the turbulence and discomfiture caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have fueled further reflection about the role of family and legacy. I have found it especially reassuring to connect with diverse family members – by phone or Zoom – as they are suffering alongside us, regardless of their geographical location. I have also realized that retracing the footsteps of those who came before us can now create a much-needed sense of security, belonging, solace and even hope for the future. Because learning about ancestors’ personalities, challenges and coping mechanisms can enable us to glean insights to help navigate our own generational suffering.
Ultimately, multiple factors led to my decision to ask my father to participate in a Legacy Storytelling Initiative via Zoom. The recognition that he had already endured five months of restricted movement and socialization, with my mother as his sole companion; the ongoing impossibility of an in-person reunion with my parents in London; my father’s love for family history as well as his impressive repository of stories, photos and letters from his parents and grandparents; and his upcoming milestone birthday. The goal was to collect details and storylines as well as cherished photos/memorabilia, and then create a meaningful Legacy piece.
This initiative exceeded the original time allotment – partly because my father is a talented raconteur and partly because of my own inquisitive market researcher nature!! During these animated interviews with my father, I heard, for the first time, about some of his early childhood’s most formative experiences. These included severe economic hardship, an evacuation at 2 am at the tender age of 61/2 in an armored truck to the accompaniment of falling bombs as well as a yearlong separation from his mother while she cared for his sickly grandmother in a different country.
This Legacy Storytelling initiative with my father has elicited deep emotions and thought-provoking discussions; there have been moments of laughter, tears, wistfulness and nostalgia. Overall, it has been therapeutic for both of us to revisit the world of yesteryear, to reexamine the branches from which we sprouted, and to recognize that our ancestors had moments of hardship during which they also had to turn inward and draw on their reserves of strength to endure and overcome. And despite the geographical distance between us, this has enhanced our emotional closeness.
He has enjoyed holding up photos of ancestors – some whom I never met — talking about his old friends, hobbies, teachers, work colleagues, and giggling as he relives some of the happiest and most significant moments of his life. He has also looked back on some of his most challenging periods (as he lived through World War II), recognizing with hindsight exactly how they fit into the broader historical backdrop of the Jewish people. He has described the evolution of his love for education, technology and the usage of technology in the world of education, and continues to work on the development of new educative approaches in the U.K. He also expressed his gratitude for the existence of technology as this enables us all to engage in ‘virtual’ socializing during this otherwise lonely time. And, the intellectual hunger he demonstrated in his youth continues to sustain him in his senior years, and enable him to endure the limitations and social distancing of our COVID-19 world. However, when discussing this reality, darkness descended on his face. He is not only sad about the necessary absence of visits from his children and grandchildren, but he is also deeply disappointed at the selfishness and entitlement he is witnessing globally as so many people continue to resist mask-wearing and social distancing.
Listening to my father’s words and watching different expressions flit across his face as he described events, characters and behaviors brought former worlds to life for me again. It has been especially poignant to watch him share some of the sepia-toned photos from his vast collection and to hear his heartfelt statement: “I enjoy the past. If you destroy all that, we have nothing. These letters and photos are my treasures.”
It is uplifting to see that, despite the suffering endured, each of my grandparents cultivated a family garden of Strength, Kindness and Resilience. And this has also reignited my desire to continue to uphold their high standards and values. Learning that some of the personality traits displayed by my ancestors were those I have either unearthed within myself and/or observed in one of my children was also heartwarming. Importantly, the experience has confirmed that the transmission of family religion, traditions, customs, culture, values and/or heirlooms is a valuable way to forge a link between the generations. It honors ancestors’ memory and values, and can rekindle the love and togetherness that united family members. This chain of continuity is simultaneously an affirmation of descendants’ pride in their heritage, a desire to adhere to the family unit and become part of the familial chain. Another key benefit has been the opportunity to ‘visit’ my father a couple of times a week via Zoom; seeing him has actually also enabled me to really assess how he is really feeling at this time rather than just relying on his verbal messaging.
History has taught us that no generation is hardship-free, that, ‘Midor Ledor,’ (from generation to generation) we are obliged to look inward to resolve our challenges in an exemplary fashion so we can serve as a source of inspiration to our descendants. This Legacy Storytelling initiative has highlighted that our family has always utilized challenging situations to spearhead self-improvement, and become role models for future generations. Another familial inheritance is the belief that the stormy rhythms of life are generally followed by calmer, sunnier ones; in the words of my beloved Opa – who weathered many storms – “after the rain, comes the sun.”
A dear friend recently remarked to me that people tend to look back on tough times, and try to find some beauty therein. This Legacy Storytelling initiative with my father has helped me find some beauty and hope in our very emotionally intense ‘now.’
I surmise that future generations will be interested in gleaning some insight into this pandemic experience from our generation – in-person, in writing and/or in digital format. My hope is that others will decide to adopt this initiative – during this troublesome COVID-19 time as well as afterwards — as a way to keep the value of ‘Midor Ledor’ alive.