“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” ~ Carl Jung.
Once upon a time, when I was very young, our family used to spend our summer vacations (our holidays, as we would say in the UK) camping on a field up above a rocky beach in North Wales. Back before global warming, this could be quite treacherous, the ever-present rain could turn that field into a mud pit! But for the five kids in our family, and the five matching kids in my uncle’s family, there was always fun to be had. My father and his eldest brother had started their families about the same time, so the first three in each set were roughly the same age. The last two alternated with my brother and me, so I ended up with one cousin a little older, and one a little younger than me. My father’s middle brother joined us with his three on occasion, and they matched up with our eldest three also (with an added twist of a set of twins). With that many cousins around, there was lots of fun to be had.
Since our family relocated to Jamaica when I was young, and those family vacations came to an end, but as everyone knows, family is family, and whenever we got together it was a party. When I returned to the UK after high school and went to nursing school, I knew I had a place to visit even though my cousins lived about 2 hours from me, and I didn’t get many weekends off. I remember joining my cousin Linda and my Aunt at their stall in the market. Whereas my father had his stall in Chapelton market with bibles and religious books, they had rolls of material that they hauled to and from the market, piling the stall with brightly colored fabric, textiles of an assortment of textures and weaves. It was so cold in that market place! The wind blew off the Pennines and cut right through any layers you wore, chilling you to the bone. And cousin Linda would warm us up with a cup of strong tea, and a never ending stream of jokes and laughter.
There is a show on the public TV station called Legacy List. A team will come to your home and help you downsize, or go through your boxes of belongings to find your family’s hidden treasures. It may be the home of the first African American woman to graduate with an MBA from Harvard Business School, and she may be looking for the deed of the piece of land her father bought in 1926, even though he only had a third grade education. It might be the grandson of a woman who migrated from the Caribbean to Boston looking for the portable sewing machine she used to earn a living through her dress-making skills. This week it was a woman who lived in the wealthy enclave of Llewellyn Park in New Jersey whose grandfather owned Scientific American and had connections with Thomas Edison. The team was able to find a book containing evidence (on parchment, no less) of business transactions going back to the 17th century.
The other show that fascinates me is also about legacy, the one where Henry Gates traces the roots of celebrities, tracking down previously unknown family lines, showing connections they didn’t know they had. Occasionally old scandals may be unearthed, like the old song hinted, except in one case it was ‘your granddaddy ain’t your granddaddy, and we don’t know if he knew’. So instead of the guest’s roots going back to Italy, they went back to Eastern Europe and a tribe of Ashkenazi Jews!
Sometimes the stories uncovered are quite painful. African Americans know that they are descended from enslaved people, but when the evidence shows up in the form of an unnamed ‘male, black, 6 y’ on a census page, the reaction can be quite visceral. In one episode, Pharrel Williams had to interrupt the recording, not returning until some days or weeks later to continue the show.
Many of us do not have items of great provenance and value hidden in our basements or attics (I know I don’t!). For most of us our family tree will not reveal people of status or standing in their communities. But we may very well have inherited things of far more value: gifts that cannot be listed in a will, or hidden away wrapped in a velvet cloth.
My cousin Linda died suddenly a few weeks ago, after a very brief illness. But it was evident that she had inherited and passed down a legacy of service. She spent a few decades working for a charity known as NightSafe, which helps young, homeless teenagers in the town of Blackburn. One of her fundraising efforts was to spend a night sleeping in her car, to highlight what it felt like to have no home to go to on cold winter nights (and that part of England can be bitterly cold). Her life touched countless young people who otherwise would have had no hope. And I was reminded of her father, who similarly died suddenly after a brief illness almost fifty years earlier. At his funeral, on a grey rainy day, half of the church was filled with the families of Indian and Pakistani immigrants, abruptly relocated from Uganda. His last years were spent as a social worker (having resigned from his ministry, like my father and their other brother, all three had been ministers), and he had impacted the Asian community with his kindness, caring and hard work.
If our purpose here on earth is to live a life for a cause that is bigger than us, both cousin Linda and Uncle Glyn did more than their share. This Friday morning, I have to reflect on this tradition of service to others, coming from a long line of people who chose to follow paths that did not provide wealth or legacies of land, money, or privilege. Instead, we have inherited a strong social conscience, a belief that people are worth more than belongings, that a life lived only for oneself is not a life worth living. And that is something to be immensely proud of.
I hope you too can reflect on your own proud legacy, and continue the traditions you inherited from your own ancestors. And if you can, please make a donation to cousin Linda’s cause at https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/RememberingLindaSharratt
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!