I wrote the screen adaptation of The Ultimate Gift, which shows a grandfather leaving behind legacy videos for his grandson. Each one is an assignment designed to teach him something, with the hope that this spoiled kid, Jason, will become a better person. A person who could then get outside of himself and help others in the world.
The grandfather, Red Stevens (played by James Garner in the film) knew he didn’t have enough time left to help this young man change while he was alive. So he recorded the videos in one day, knowing they’d be watched over time. It was time he personally didn’t have; he was dying.
During the writing process, as getting into the grandson’s head to write his journey, I was struck by how frustrated I felt in penning his dilemma. I’d feel a range of emotions, of a kid who was on such a big journey with a person he’d been at odds with, who wasn’t even alive anymore to confront, to talk to, to challenge, to ask questions.
Before you can think about what legacy you want to leave, remember the legacies of those that came before you. There's no better way to find out who you really are.
In many cultures, particularly indigenous ones, connecting with and honoring ancestors is a way of life. Think of the Navajo, who, before making any decision that affects their family or community, consult with the seven generations that came before them. Or consider Mexico’s Day of the Dead, when families welcome ancestors back into their homes and visit their loved ones’ graves. In both cases, although ancestors are no longer in their bodies, their spirit is thought to be very much alive and awake.
In our American culture, we don't tend to think of ancestors in the same way. During our lifetime, many of us uproot ourselves from our hometowns and families, moving across the nation or the world in search of careers or love or ourselves. Outside of perhaps our immediate family, we barely keep in touch with our living relatives, much less those who have passed on. Psychologists, sociologists, religious leaders, and elders all agree that this isolation and displacement from our roots is to blame for many personal and cultural ills.
It doesn't have to be like this. Now more than ever, it's incredibly easy — and personally satisfying — to learn who you ancestors were, where they lived and what mattered to them. Most of this information can be found within a few clicks of the Internet.
Say you're like me, though, and don’t have dozens of hours to devote to genealogy sites, hunting down random names, dates and Census reports. If you're not keen on joining Ancestry.com or any of the other countless sites out there, here are simple ways you can connect with the lives and stories of your ancestors:
Today is the one-year anniversary of my grandmother's death. She died shortly before what would have been her 93rd birthday. I always knew she had great stories to share with us about her life, growing up in a Catholic family of 16 siblings, in Canada and the States.
Long before dementia harmed her ability to remember a lot of details about her past, I gave her a book called "Reaching Back." It was filled with over 100 pages of questions about various eras of her life and family members. Gratefully, when I gave this book to my grandmother, she willingly began to share her life story with me. It was the late 90s. She labored over page after page, using her own handwriting to fill in the blanks. She even added about six additional long hand notebook pages to elaborate on a story she wanted to be sure to leave behind.
My grandmother gave this book back to me in the early 2000s. I read it back then. But I can't tell you how meaningful it was to go back to reread this book after her death. How grateful I was that she took the time to fill in it! I was also glad I had the foresight to give it to her long before she lost many of her precious memories.