There are a lot of jobs we parents have: making sure our kids succeed in school, ensuring they develop the social discipline to make and be a good friend, and these days, scheduling unscheduled time into our hectic calendars so they can develop their creativity as well. For many of us though, there is another, albeit rarely discussed item on our priority list - keeping our own parents' memory alive for our children.
My children will never get to know their maternal grandparents; my parents have both passed away. Their absence has revolutionized my relationship with my children. I not only consciously try to work my parents into conversation, but I have also begun to think proactively - and often intensely -- about my own legacy and the lessons I am passing along to my children. I work harder to ensure I am creating the kind of memories I want to be remembered by. And I am not alone.
Emmy award-winning actor Dennis Franz is one of the long string of people I interviewed for my new book, Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents. He and I spoke about how he tries to pass on the memory of his parents to his children. When he was five or six years old, Franz' parents went on a trip to the Empire State building and made audio recordings of what they saw from the top of that landmark; he's kept them. He's also saved some of their other cherished collectibles. He told me, "Though I miss my parents dearly, I'm so glad that I miss them. If I didn't, it would mean that they didn't have as much of an impact on my life as they do. I would like to have the same sort of impact on my own children."
For political icon Geraldine Ferraro, it's also important that her children remember her parents. Her kids got to know her mother, but few know that her father died when she was just eight years old. "You hope when you bury a parent, whatever strands you got from them, you'll transfer to your children. You'll bring your children up knowing about your relationship with your own parents. I think it's important to do."
Still for others, what needs to be passed down are simple, memory-making rituals. "I treasure little moments I remember with my parents," Mariel Hemingway, the actress and author, told me when we had lunch at Fred's in New York City. "My mother did something when I was very young that I'll never forget. She let me rest my head on her chest when she was knitting or watching television. As my head went up and down I could hear her heartbeat, hear her breathing. It was so important to me that I do it with my own children."
The collective honesty of so many people I have spoken to has allowed me to glean some tips for keeping your parents' memory alive for your children. There are, of course, more ideas in Always Too Soon:
1. Organize and Show Photos: When you celebrate your child's birthday, show them pictures of their grandparents at their previous parties and even at their birth. Incorporate photos into family gatherings - perhaps at your next event -- pass around your favorite pictures of your parents at past get-togethers.
2. Reflect and Talk Openly: Be sure to share favorite age-appropriate stories about your parents - and add to them as they get older. For example, my mother loved nuts. She was a nut-a-holic. When my children dig into a can of walnuts in our house, I always say, "Grandma Lynn loved nuts." Or, when my kids draw landscapes and buildings, I tell stories about how Grandpa Sidney was an architect and he designed buildings too. It's a little something that makes my parents a little more real.
3. Discuss and Live Traditions: If your parents always did something special for your birthday or made holidays unique in some way - why not incorporate those same traditions into your family plans - and don't forget to tell them their grandma or grandpa did "it" this way too. One special summer tradition I shared with my father was going to Tanglewood, an outdoor concert space in Massachusetts. He loved listening to classical music. You bet when my kids are old enough (this summer!) I will bring them there for their first, informal classical music appreciation session - and I will tell them, 'Grandpa Sidney loved it here.'
4. Save and Give Heirlooms: Nearly every person I interviewed for Always Too Soon kept mementoes from their parents - that will be passed along to their children one day, if they haven't done so already. Whether you save pieces of jewelry, collectibles, clothing (or in one case dish rags) don't throw anything away you think could help your children know their grandparents. If you do part with them, your children will have fewer tangible things to remind them of their grandparents.
5. Experience and Allow Sadness: We all agree we want our children to be able to give and receive love. In that case, I think it's okay to let them see you get upset about missing your parents. You loved your mother and father too. Permit yourself to experience the pain that crops up from time to time - and allow it to be a lesson in caring, that it's okay to show feelings, and that grown-ups cry too.
And here is my favorite bit of feel-good wisdom, taken from Mariel Hemingway. "Even though I lost my parents young and that was difficult, I know that they gave me what I needed for my lifetime. Everything they taught me, good and bad, was something I could use for my well being."
And that keeps her, and me, looking forward.