Cloudy with a Chance of Phone Calls
I was halfway through my commute home from work when the phone rang. I grabbed my cell to see who it was so I could decide if I felt like talking. I have never been one to talk on the phone or anywhere else much for that matter. I am an extreme introvert and most of my life is spent in blissful silence. My drive home was typically a calm and peaceful time spent unwinding and reflecting or listening to podcasts. I rarely spent that time talking on the phone unless my wife called with some update or an errand for me to run. But today was different.
I saw my dad’s name on the incoming call, who normally does not like talking to me on the phone when I’m driving. I would usually let his calls go to voice mail and wait until I got home to call him back, but on this particular day my instincts told me to answer the phone.
“What are you doing?” he said in his normal tone. “Just weaving through traffic trying to get home from work,” I replied. “What about you?” Suddenly his voice began to crack and I could hear his emotion start to overwhelm him. I wasn’t used to my dad being emotional, so I knew something was terribly wrong. “Your Aunt Geraldine passed away…” The new took me off-guard and I paused briefly before I could respond. “When?” I asked. “Today sometime,” he replied, barely managing to get out his words.
We sat in silence on the phone for what seemed like an eternity. Aunt Geraldine was my dad’s closest sister and a beloved aunt to me and my brother, so the gravity of the loss was enormous. I searched to find something… anything… to say, torn between the desire to comfort my dad and struggling to process my own emotions. Suddenly my dad broke the silence. “Well I’ll let you go while you’re on the road. I just wanted to tell you.” We agreed to talk later and abruptly ended our semi-conversation.
The rest of my ride home was spent in a whirlwind of thought. Worries about my dad entered my mind as I thought about how he used to call Aunt Geraldine several times a day about nothing in particular. Whether it was good news, bad news, or no news at all, she was the first and last person he called about anything that happened in the lives of our family members. He also spent quite a bit of time taking her to the doctor or assisting with other important things that needed to be done. Given his struggle with anxiety, I was extremely concerned about how he would handle this loss and the huge void it created in his life. At the same time, my brain quickly jumped to consider my own loss and contemplate my fondest memories of my aunt. I remembered her regularly checking on my brother and I and encouraging us to work hard in school and get a strong education. She sent us books to read and showered us in praise for having good grades. She even kept tabs on us while we were away at college and made brownies and cakes from scratch for us to take to our dorms after breaks. Her desserts were so good she became known for them among my friends, who would stop by regularly to sample the goods. Her encouragement and guidance had helped inspire and motivate my brother and I to graduate from college and become responsible and productive adults. Now all I could think about was how her warm voice would no longer be there to tell me how great I was doing, how I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to, and how proud she was of me. Yes, Aunt Geraldine would surely be missed, but in that moment of reflection I had no idea of just how much.
A few minutes later, I arrived home and received a text message from Sharon, a close friend of the family and mother figure to my wife. She was asking us to contribute to a fundraiser to help a member of her family who attended high school in Alcoa, TN. “Alcoa? Hmm,” I thought to myself. My Aunt Geraldine lived in Alcoa for decades and was a teacher and guidance counselor in the school system for many years. I replied to the text mentioning that I had family in Alcoa. Sharon then asked for my family members’ last name. I figured the odds were slim that they knew each other, but I obliged anyway. A few minutes later, Sharon responded again and asked if my aunt was a guidance counselor. “No way. Is she serious?” I thought to myself. I confirmed, and after exchanging a few messages she discovered that her family members in Alcoa were familiar with my aunt. What were the odds that someone connected to my wife, who is from Georgia and not Tennessee, would live in the same small Tennessee town as my aunt and actually know who she was? They went on to describe her as a pillar in the community and said that practically everyone in Alcoa knew who she was.
My aunt? Aunt Geraldine? A pillar in the community? Who would have known that the warm-hearted auntie known to us for baking brownies and cakes was a local hero? I mean, I knew she was once a teacher and guidance counselor long ago, but no one in our family ever explained anything beyond that.
In the days following, I learned that her funeral would be held in the high school gymnasium to allow enough space to accommodate those in attendance. On the day of the funeral, I walked in to see hundreds of people sitting in the bleachers of the local high school gym to pay their respects to sweet, brownie-making Aunt Geraldine. The range of emotions I felt was almost indescribable as my heart hovered between grief and awe… between gratitude for the chance to know such a woman, and despair that she was no longer there to inspire or teach me. All at once, I was unbelievably happy for her and the impact she made, but disappointed that she wasn’t there for me to tell her she did great and I was proud of her.
Throughout the service, I watched as various citizens of the community got up to share their experiences with Aunt Geraldine. Though each story was different, the theme was the same: Aunt Geraldine had taught, encouraged, inspired, and endeared countless members of the community, enriching their lives and leaving a permanent impression on their hearts. The majority of the people who spoke at her funeral were not family members, which speaks volumes. At one point, a former pupil of Aunt Geraldine’s asked everyone who had been taught by her to please stand. I scanned the audience to watch at least two hundred adults stand in acknowledgement of an educator who had long been retired from her profession, but not from teaching. They had taken the time to come pay respects to a woman who, in many cases, had been their teacher 40 – 50 plus years ago. It was something I will never forget.
I left that experience in pure admiration of a loving aunt who, it turns out, I had only partially known. I wondered how someone who had touched so many so deeply and even won awards for her work and impact in the community could have ever been truly impressed by me learning multiplication tables or getting good grades. I now realize that she was likely more pleased and encouraged than impressed, and she made a big deal out of even the smallest accomplishments to keep me moving in the right direction and believing in myself. All of us should be so blessed as to have someone like that in our lives, no matter how much or how little time God lets us borrow them.
As a tutor, mentor, trainer and coach myself, I had always thought that the passion for teaching and helping others excel was something in my blood… the same blood that flowed through my Aunt Geraldine. However, I now also believe it was something she planted in my spirit all those years she inspired and encouraged me. In my work with children, I talk a lot about legacy and being thoughtful and intentional about the impression and impact one leaves on their friends, family, community, and world. Witnessing my aunt’s legacy left me both humbled by the thought that I could never make such a difference, and inspired by the notion that such an achievement was possible for someone from my own gene pool. I was intimidated by the fact that I could never fill her shoes, but invigorated by the realization that I could expand my own footprint to any size I wanted. God had given me my own unique pair of feet, and the size of my shoes could only be determined by me.
Greatness Leaves Traces
I miss my Aunt Geraldine dearly. I miss her brownies, I miss her cakes, and I miss the voice that was even warmer than her freshly baked desserts… the voice telling me I am doing great, that I can do anything I set my mind to, and that she is proud of me. But what I do not miss is her spirit, because she planted it deep inside my soul right along with the hundreds of other souls she touched in the heart of little ole Alcoa, TN.
So I ask you, when your days are over and you leave this earth, what seeds will you have planted within the souls you’ve encountered over the course of your life? Will they be seeds of pain, hate, heartache, and discouragement, or of joy, love, peace, and inspiration? Will the lives you touch be better off for knowing you, or will they regret the day they met you? Will others push you out of their minds, or think of you and smile? The answer for many of us will be somewhere in between, but one thing’s for sure: only you can determine the size of your shoes and the imprint they leave behind. My prayer is that you craft your legacy so that when your work is done, others will be in awe at the thought of filling your shoes, but inspired and empowered to expand their own.
Start crafting your legacy today by answering these questions!
- What three things do you want the people closest to you to remember you for once you are gone? Consider the impact you want to have on their lives. What are you currently doing to help you be remembered that way? What could you do that you are not doing that will make the impression/impact you desire?
- How do you want to be remembered by people outside your inner circle? Answer question number one when it comes to people other than those closest to you. (acquaintances, colleagues, customers, community members, the world, etc.)
- What would others say they will remember most about you? Answer this question for those closest to you, as well as for others you come in contact with (just answer honestly based on what you think). After you list your answers, ask your close friends and family their impressions and compare their answers to yours. Were your answers on track? Where do they differ? Are there any impressions you would like to change? What can you do to change them? If you have made a negative impression/impact on someone close to you, ask them what you can do differently to change it. Evaluate whether their suggestion is in line with your values and identity. Is it something you can do and stay true to yourself?
Exercise: Pick three or four of the actions you listed that will create the impression/impact you want to leave on others. Over the next week to two weeks, focus on aligning your actions with the legacy you want to leave by doing the three or four things on your list. Even schedule tasks into your routine that will impact others the way you want to be remembered.
As you complete each action, observe how others react. Are you making the difference you want to make? How does it feel? Journal your experience and reference your progress regularly. Identify what is working and not working and make adjustments where needed.
Congratulations! You are on your way to building the legacy you want to leave! Share your thoughts and experiences below to encourage or connect with those who are on the same journey.