NICOLE RUSSELL: Family is the most important and lasting legacy

In today's era of Instagram influencers and YouTube followers, it seems like everyone wants to be famous and rich, or at least have a massive social media following. But what about leaving a legacy? It's not something you hear about much these days, especially not from the people competing for social media attention. 

My grandmother Norma just died. She was 93 years old. She was born in 1930 on a farm in North Dakota. She often rode her horse to school. Now, almost 100 years later, she was able to FaceTime her great-great grandkids with a smartphone. An incredible life span in incredible times.

She had a masters degree, unlike most women her age, and she liked to laugh, play games, and took mild pleasure in the soap operas of her day, to the chagrin of my grandfather, a Baptist preacher.

My grandparents were married for 70 years. Some people don't even live that long, but they got to celebrate that milestone just a couple weeks before she died. He is stoic Norwegian and passionate about politics. She was lighthearted, relaxed, and loved to read. Opposites in some ways but they loved Jesus and they committed to one another. 

Eventually, they had four kids. They stuck together through good times and bad. Seeking higher education, my grandfather eventually earned a doctorate ‒ and poverty. My grandmother saw so many events, from the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement to the terrorism that caused the Twin Towers to fall.

Together with my grandpa, who is still living, she leaves behind a legacy few will know about but the people who loved her: Their four kids, nine grandkids, and four great grandkids. To these people, this couple started it all. To her four children, she was nurturing in her own way. She was fun and sociable, if a bit exasperated at times with four young children. She came from a different era, a different time and place that put more emphasis on survival than comfort, on work ethic, rather than feeling good. 

From my grandparents, the four siblings learned everything from how to farm to how to read the Bible and pray. They were raised on one-liners like "Don't start something if you're not going to finish it," "don't do a job if you're not going to do it well," and "You can wish in one shoe and spit in the other and see which one gets full first." Not bad advice. 

My grandparents didn't care about fame or wealth, just loving their family, serving God, and doing their jobs well. Sometimes this meant living well under their means. Other times it meant residing in a cramped apartment. Life wasn't always rosy but I never knew either of them to complain. Ever. 

As my grandparents got older, they moved in with one of their older children. The four kids ‒ now grown adults with kids of their own ‒ have a text group chat where they mostly tease each other, give family updates, and talk about how best to care for their aging parents. I have often thought about how well my grandparents raised their kids, because when it was time for the roles to reverse, the adult siblings did so effortlessly. One should hope for such a positive effect on their children after sixty years of life.

My grandma, once chatty and fun, began to lose her mental capacity ‒ her memory and her zeal ‒ for some months before she died. This is when I saw a side of my grandpa I rarely had seen before. Now, with his wife months before death, he still sat by her side, cared for her, and spoke to her with tenderness. If he was tired of caring for her he didn't show it. If he was frustrated with her lack of memory or her inability to make prolonged, interesting conversation, he didn't mention it. 

At their 70th wedding anniversary, their closest family gushed over everything they remembered, everything they had learned from them. Some told funny stories or anecdotes, others brought up a memory that made people cry. Still others just listened, too emotional to share. Surely my 93 year-old grandmother looked around the room at so many generations of people who loved them, and then next to her husband, a man who survived the Korean war, cancer, and Covid, and thought: This is it. This is living. 

And so with that, she went on dying. Soon after, her spirit joined the Lord in heaven. 

My grandmother will never be famous; neither will my grandfather, when his time comes. Their children, and their children's children, likely won't be either. But through my grandma and grandpa, all of us have felt unconditional love, and they have seen an example of enduring marital love, and with that they have continued to love each other, and their children, the best they know how, even when it's uncomfortable and awkward and inconvenient and tedious. As it often is with family.

When I spoke to my grandpa and offered my condolences through tears, he simply replied with the only thing he knew to be true: "It will be okay," he said, knowing now he will bury the woman he just spent 70 years with. "The Lord is with me." 

Few people outside my own friends and family may remember my grandmother, but I will. I'll remember the lessons I learned from her and my grandfather ‒ the importance of faith, family, work ethic, and true, lasting joy. I will remember the simple pleasures of laughter, food, a good book, and warm company. Loving your family and knowing the one true God is better than amassing a million followers. Leaving a family behind that remembers you with warmth and gratitude is truly the greatest legacy one can have.


Image: Title: grandmother
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