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Confronting a Family's Legacy of Erasing Their History

What would you say your legacies are?  

Based on my experience, some people, generally over fifty, would be able to answer easily.  But most people wouldn’t know how to think about the legacies they are leaving or don’t want to, for a host of reasons ranging from simple busyness to undue modesty to denial.  However, when I ask the following questions at workshops, answers pour forth because everyone can think of legacies they’ve received. 

Visualize or recall a legacy––any way you want to think of it, tangible or intangible––that you’ve received from someone who cared about you.  

What was the legacy and who gave it? 
What did it mean at the time?
How has it impacted your life?
What have you done with it?

Most people who answer this question for a first time come up with positive legacies. Usually, they are intangible, such as values or character qualities. Sometimes, they name tangible objects that reflect the values, beliefs or essence of the giver. 

But a woman in one of my workshops, whom I’ll call Roberta, came up with an unusual and poignant answer to this question. Her legacy from her family, she said, was “no legacy.” We paused, considered, listened to Roberta’s story and the peeled away the layers of meaning within that seemingly simple phrase.

Roberta’a  parents, especially her mother, were so eager to leave behind and rise above their difficult families of origin, so militantly forward looking, that they cleansed their lives of visible signs of those families and left their children virtually no tangible reminders of their heritage. 

The implicit mantra was “Never look back.” To that end, Roberta’s parents moved  the family frequently. Even when they remained put, her mother redecorated regularly and got rid of everything “old.” 

That is why one of Roberta’s most cherished possessions today is a collection of Christmas tree ornaments, handmade by her paternal grandmother.  These sequined, stuffed felt Santa Clauses, Christmas trees, and cute animals retain the magic they held for the child Roberta.  They are her only tangible reminder of the grandmother she barely knew but loved and the now longed-for family history that wasn’t honored or preserved.  Indeed, they are the only tangible legacy she has from either side of her family.

But, in fact, Roberta’s parents left her many intangible legacies: a devaluing of family and heritage, a sense of rootlessness and disconnection, and an ethic of striving to deny and leave the past behind in favor of some imagined future. Roberta unconsciously absorbed and recreated these values in her own life by not putting down roots or holding on to friendships. 

A few years ago Roberta became more aware of how she was unconsciously passing along to her now grown son a legacy she did not like, one she considered negative. She took steps to interrupt it and transform it into a new legacy of connection, community, and holding on to the best of the past.  

For example, she has established ongoing practice groups in her professional (psychotherapist) community, has led an effort to create more community among management and residents in her condo complex, and has built a close community in her Unitarian-Universalist Church.  At the church she was moved to befriend a young family who lacked family support; over the past several years they have “adopted” each other and Roberta has become a de facto grandmother to their children, now nine and five.  She is creating new legacies for both her families.

 What legacies do you recall receiving? How have they impacted your life? And what have you done with them? 


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