For me, the past year has been a roller coaster of deep lows and notable highs. In the middle of some of the most difficult times, I’ve been surrounded by a cohort of friends and family, largely women, who have supported me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. In the depth of my being, though, I’ve drawn from women in history, especially my own, to remember that I can and I will forge on with strength and verve.
The concept of legacy has been on my mind, not the kind associated with material things like a big bankroll or a sprawling estate, but the kind you can’t put a price on. In the past, I thought of a legacy more like something a man builds or at least gets to put his name on, perhaps outdated thinking rooted in bygone ideology. A meaningful legacy is often immaterial, and though the women in my lineage were not property owners (nor did they carry prestigious titles), they left personal legacies to be proud of and I recognize their impact on who I am and how I approach life. The most important elements of my heritage and my favorite personal qualities are a sense of adventure, resilience, fortitude, self-efficacy, and compassion; all of which have resonated through the women in my ancestral line.
Over the years, my mother relayed stories about her predecessors and some of the most impressive of those involved the women in her line. One of the stories I liked best was about her great Aunt Lizzie Pabst (yes, that Pabst), who lived in San Francisco in 1906 when a massive earthquake shook the city. Lasting less than a minute, the earthquake and resultant fires killed 3,000 people and left half of the city's 400,000 residents homeless. Lizzie dragged her wood-burning stove out of her partially-collapsed house onto the sidewalk and cooked meals for her neighbor’s families among the rubble.
Josephine, or “Grandma Jo,” as my mother called her, had health issues that we now recognize must have been diabetes and she sometimes fell ill. Her diary tells one story of adventure out “in an automobile” having to remove all of the passengers and bags and help push the car up hills past giant redwoods on their way through Yosemite. Early model cars were not very powerful and the roads were still primitive, yet she was determined to explore nevertheless. Jo raised her family through the Great Depression, and during that time, took in other children whose own families could not afford to feed or care for them. She treated them as much her own as even her daughter, who recalled having bouts of youthful jealousy because of it. Great Grandma Jo never let anything keep her from experiencing the adventures that life had to offer, falling in love, or helping others in her community.
Josephine "Grandma Jo" Edwards Hannah
The legacy of these women who were committed to community and to youth carried forward to my grandmother, Virginia, Jo’s daughter, who became a second-grade teacher and spent her working life determined to promote literacy in any way she could. Even into retirement, she donated books to elementary reading programs, read with children as a literacy specialist in schools, taught English as a second language, and hosted fundraisers for rotary groups in her area. We never had a lack of books to read because Grandma Ginny saw to it!
These women have long since passed, but not without leaving a lasting imprint for the generations who followed. Part of that comes from having been known and having the stories that could be relayed. I know these things because there were some records, but mostly because my mother, Claudia, is a storyteller with a memory like a vault. She’s a brilliant woman who taught me never to fear adventure or avoid the joy of life, even in the midst of hardship. Maybe her love of reading and books came from her mother’s literacy work and her fearless approach to life from her grandmother. She read to us, her six children, when we were young. She also taught me to sew, cook, work hard without complaint, take note of the good, and the one treasure I cherish most, to see beauty even in crooked places.
I have a deep appreciation for my connection to my lineage through seeing and hearing about historic objects displayed in my grandparent’s home, (mostly being told not to touch them) but also listening to my mother recount the stories of the people who owned them. I used to pore over the cameras and fragile artifacts in my grandparents’ display hutch, and enjoyed the instruments my relatives played. In fact, the first piano my son Ridge played, an 1800’s Steinway grand, had belonged to my great-grandfather and then my grandfather, and finally my mother. He now plays beautifully and appreciates that music has such deep roots in his family. Not to mention that it was a pretty cool introduction to the instrument.
For my birthday this past year, my mother gave me one of those objects, which I treasure; a small pocket watch that once belonged to my great grandmother Josephine, for whom I am named. When I look at that little pocket watch, I think of the woman she was and the impact she had on those around her, even generations later. I think of Jo and know that I carry the same traits. Learning that so many women before me had the fortitude of spirit to create a meaningful life, and to go beyond themselves to make impacts on the world around them despite adversity, gives me inspiration whenever I need to surmount my own challenges or pursue my goals. I can draw from them and align with their best qualities. I can do hard things whether it’s challenging myself to learn something new or challenging the status quo in my industry. And I can do meaningful things in my community all the while.
All this has had me wondering - what is the legacy I will leave?
I believe resilience will be a major part of my legacy. I have continuously chosen to invest in my own self-efficacy and try to pass that belief in one’s self along to my children and really anyone I encounter. (I think it’s working.) For example, this winter, in the midst of a pandemic, with my three young adult children struggling to launch their adulthoods, a divorce that had become a legal battle, and a number of culminating home repair needs -- my furnace stopped for different reasons three times. In all of those instances, I asked others to try and fix it. I not-so-secretly wished that someone else would go in the dark dusty furnace closet and figure it out. Who’s going to get dirty so I can stay warm and comfortable? Each time I put my “big girl” pants on and figured it out. The pride I feel in fighting through the stress, sucking it up, diagnosing, and repairing it myself is enormous. Everyone in the house was also glad to have heat once again.
I’ve also been intentional about engaging in civic work. I regularly volunteer in my community helping raise funds for scholarships, nature conservation projects, local blind athletic programming, local business covid support. My kids and their friends have jumped in and volunteered along with me. I have also taken in young adults who need a place to feel safe, maybe learn a couple of things, while they transition into a permanent solution. I feed any hungry kid I come across if I can. I have a belief that they’re all of our children, and none should go hungry or have nowhere to go while I can help. I’ve seen my children adopt this in their own lives as well.
My sons and my daughter have this legacy in heart: that we don’t give up. We get busy. We get dirty. We sometimes get uncomfortable. We help others along the way when it's appropriate. We do what needs doing and we stand just a little taller knowing, ‘I can do things!’ and we share that spirit with others. That’s my life motto, and hopefully, part of the legacy my kids get to take forward.
I don’t always consciously choose what to do based on the legacy it will leave, I make plenty of missteps. At times I’ve felt I was failing to meet my own expectations for the woman I aspire to be, and sometimes get caught in the trap of comparing myself to someone I think is better than me. I am, we are, doing our best from day to day. No matter what, I decide how I live my life, what to do with mistakes, and how to engage those around me. And I never give up. Here’s the beauty of legacy: it doesn’t have to be grandiose, we can each touch those around us in simple, practical ways that have a big impact. Our intentional determination to break down barriers and forge a life that’s worth a story helps pave a new path for the ones that come after. WE decide what course to lay and we take steps in that direction. Someday, generations down the line, a kid somewhere-maybe my grandchild, will still be saying, ‘I can do things.” while creating their preferred future and maybe, just maybe, changing the world.
Josephine Jamison Sanders
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