Several years ago, I read an article in “Readers Digest” that made me cry. I don’t often cry. But the story touched me deeply in a tender place, liberating long overdue tears while providing a minor release of buried pain.
It was the story of a man who was sent to visit his grandfather in another country one summer when he was a child. His grandfather lived in the middle of nowhere on a farm far up in the mountains. He was a hard worker, but had little in the way of material goods. So, he gave his grandson the one thing he had to give. Himself.
During that summer, he taught his grandson some important lessons. He spent time WITH the young boy instead of spending money ON him. He taught him to do things for himself, to take pride in the work of his hands, instead of always buying cheaply made, but expensive, things. One of the interesting skills he passed along to his grandson was how to make things out of wood. A flute. A bird feeder. A boat. And the boat was the central character in this story.
He was proud of the little boat he made and he sailed it at a nearby lake many times during that summer visit. But when it was time to return to the US, his father told him he would have to leave his precious craft behind. There wasn’t room in their bags for even one more item. So the boy reluctantly took the boat to the lake and carefully hid it in a small hole under a big boulder. Then he said goodbye.
This was in the early 30’s. His grandfather died soon thereafter and he didn’t return again until the mid-60’s, when he was accompanied by his own children. One of the first things he did was to search for the boat…and he eventually found it! He told his children the story of the little boat, then returned it to its hiding place before leaving. Over the years, they made several return trips and each time, he would pull it out and carve the date of his visits in the wood before hiding it again.
And then, he was the grandfather. He took his two teenaged granddaughters to the old remote farm up in the mountains where his grandfather had lived and died so many years before. He retrieved his tiny boat once more and told them the story of his grandfather, the lessons learned by his side, how he made the small craft and what it represented. His granddaughters listened quietly. And finally, the youngest one said, “Grandpa, I will come back and visit your boat. And I will bring my children.”
And so, I wept. Touched by the chain of love this family had created. The links over several lifespans that would continue long after they were gone. The grandfather that started it (or did he?) had been dead for many years before the granddaughters first heard about the boat. They never met their great grandfather. But he lived on in the grandson, just as the grandson would live on through his granddaughters and their children. The love would survive. Their chain of love was strong and enduring, even though the wood of the toy boat weathered and wore. There was a legacy of love in this family, passed from one generation to the next as children were nurtured and taught and guided. A beautiful legacy of love that spread and thrived as it passed from father to son to daughter to grandson to granddaughter. The flesh grew old and failed. But the legacy of love never faltered.
In my own life, I am part of a chain of abuse. A chain with steely links of rejection, depression, brokenness and destruction. This chain binds me as surely as the chain of love binds that man and his family.
I never met my great grandparents. I have no idea what they were like because their stories were never shared with me. But judging from my grandparents lives and the legacy they left behind, I can’t imagine they were given enough unconditional love, nurturing or attention. The thing I have noticed that stops me in my tracks, the really frightening thing is this: whatever is passed along tends to intensify through the years. It grows and thrives, becoming a strong, nearly unbreakable shackle.
My own father was not cared for by his mother when he was a middle-school child. She suffered a breakdown during a divorce. The divorce was at least partially caused by a father who chased after other women. His unfaithfulness nearly destroyed my paternal grandmother and certainly destroyed the marriage. He was also a drunk. My own father didn’t drink often, but his need came out in different ways. He was angry…violently so…and he was obsessed by pornography. As a result, he abused me sexually and physically. So the neglect he experienced became vicious, deviant abuse in my life. The kind of abuse that is criminal and does lasting, deep, horrible damage.
My mother had a grandfather who was diagnosed in later life as paranoid schizophrenic. My mother was depressed, angry, self-centered, manipulative and felt the world owned her. She, in turn, abused me physically, emotionally and verbally. She was never beaten and her own mother loved her, trying to make up for her father’s paranoia. The “abuse” she suffered was verbal (which is also damaging). But again, the bad was intensified. She was far more abusive than her own father had ever been. The bad became worse.
The chain of love never seems to diminish. It remains a steady, flowing stream of life, health and stability. But depravity intensifies and causes more damage with each generation. When a person is deprived of what they need to become a healthy, whole human being, if the chain is not somehow broken or the pattern isn’t significantly disrupted, the depravity expands and strengthens. Just as those addicted to pornography have to find more intense ways to thrill and stimulate themselves, the abusiveness seems to grow worse and worse, spreading like a cancer of the spirit and soul.
As much as we may not like it, as much as we may fight against it, the hand we are dealt impacts us. It doesn’t totally define us. We can overcome it in some cases if we’re willing to delve deeply into the damage. With much work and dedication…and maybe some luck…we overcome. Without significant intervention, we succumb to the hideous chain that binds us to our legacy. We have a choice. We can acknowledge it and fight it, or give in to it. We may love it or hate it, submissively accept it or get mad about it. But acknowledged or not, our legacy does leave a mark. It has a positive impact or a negative power. And that gets passed down through the generations, even if we are able to bypass a lot of the negative fallout.
It is our foundation. We may build a big, fancy, wonderful life on that foundation and the house we build may survive in spite of the cracks and faults of the foundation. But the chances of the house making it through our lifetime increase with the sturdiness, solidness, levelness and health of the foundation on which it is built. If the foundation is bad, the house deteriorates rapidly over time.
I am thankful to have broken the chain.
Fearful of my ability to change the patterns set in motion by my own foundation, wary of the damage my own brokenness might cause a developing child, I remained childless. I will leave no legacy behind simply because there will be no one with whom to leave it.. There will be nothing of me to pass down, to go forward in the heart and genes of another human being. No stories of my life, nothing to be remembered…good or bad. When I die, my lineage comes to a screeching halt. The only dates that will be carved in memoriam will be those on my tombstone. A tombstone that will not be visited by children or grandchildren. The legacy of pain and abuse will die with me. Laid to rest at last. Safe beneath the boulder where it will remain forever undisturbed, soon to be forgotten.