A mainstay of many ancient cultures is respect for the elders—those who have preceded us in life and whose wisdom gives guidance and comfort. But our modern culture only rarely honors those who have earned elder status. This is a great loss to young and old alike.
Those who are beyond our youth but who don’t think we’ve reached elder status yet can correct this and give a priceless gift to our families. If we create the time and place to gather family to listen to the oldest members’ stories, we preserve the family heritage, create new memories, and foster relationships across generations.
In April 2012, my family was discussing the upcoming 98th birthday of our Aunt Helen. She is the last of “the greatest generation” in our family, having survived the Great Depression and tended the home front while her three brothers fought for our country in World War II. We recalled the passing of others in that generation, and agreed that we shouldn’t wait to honor Helen, but should instead pay tribute to her while she is here to enjoy the moment.
I started calling Helen to listen to her stories. She’d start out by saying that she wasn’t feeling very well, but before long it was hard to keep up with all the memories that poured out of her. By the fall, I had printed a mini-biography that Helen could edit. In listening to her stories, I had also reconnected with a member of the family that I had almost lost touch with.
To prepare for the tribute dinner, I wrote a simple ceremony on the theme of “the family tree.” On Helen’s big night, family gathered at a banquet room near her home. At each table was a small tree on which we hung notes to her. A family member brought a beautiful hand-drawn family tree tracing our heritage back to the 1500’s. Another shared our grandmother’s mealtime grace before the meal. The youngest children brought small gifts to give Helen. Each person was given a card extolling the wisdom of trees: sinking roots and embracing with joy the changing seasons. Good advice for any family.
Before the celebration, to honor those no longer with us, we set a table with photos of family members who had passed away and gave thanks for their presence in our lives. We also named loved ones at home who could not make the journey.
And then the celebration began. My husband gave a funny speech that put Helen’s life in historical context. “Aunt Helen has outlasted almost everything from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Phyllis Diller.”
Throughout dinner, family members read Helen’s story out loud. In doing so, we recognized this lady had survived some very tough years. There were poignant moments as well as laughter, and frequent remarks of “I never heard that before!” One of the young adults wrote a note saying what an inspiration Helen was.
There is no simpler, more beautiful way to honor someone than to make room for their story to be told. By listening, we affirm the one who lived the story and we protect their story from being lost. The youngest family members observe more than we might know. Their questions and re-tellings later reveal that they’ve kept these family stories in their hearts.
Later that evening, when she heard her favorite big band music, Helen led the dancing. And when she looked around and said, “They all came!”, I knew we had given her a very happy memory and had honored her. We had also given a tremendous gift to the family.
Diane Gansauer is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant, trained in music performance, dance, theater, and storytelling. As the director of Lyrical Life Ceremonies, she works with individuals, families and communities to create personal, memorable ceremonies marking important milestones and transitions. Information on her work and is available at lyricallifeceremonies.com.