Once in a while, I get in these moods where I start reorganizing and cleaning something. This last Saturday, it was the freezer because I could not find some soup I had vacuum packed. Somehow I always get distracted. Something led me to some bookshelves where I began rearranging books. As I did, I found a book I had originally given to my grandparents at Christmas in 1980: “A Grandparent’s Book: Thoughts, Memories and Hopes for a Grandchild.”
Again, being easily distracted, I sat down to read the book. I had written an introduction on the inside cover, addressed to my grandparents. At that time, I was newly married, had no children and had been practicing law only a few months.
The book contained nearly 150 pages of questions for my grandparents, with space to answer. In my introduction, I asked them to answer the questions, each from their own separate viewpoint, during the course of the next year, and then to give the book back to me as my Christmas present in 1981. The book asked questions about their youth, their marriage, my mom, me and what all they had been through, as well as what was important to them and some of the lessons they learned.
The favorite gathering point at my grandparents was a large breakfast table. We spent hours there exchanging stories and news with my grandparents. I know each day my grandparents started their day at that table, having their breakfast and coffee and visiting with each other. They went over their bills there. They relaxed there with each other and guests. I know they spent a lot of time at that table filling out the book I gave them. And sure enough in 1981, at Christmas, they gave the book back to me, completely filled out in their own handwriting.
I know I have always treasured the book, and I am sure I read it soon after they gave it to me. But now it has been 35 years.
When I re-read the book this last Saturday, I rediscovered so much about my grandparents. I learned what was important to them. I learned about how incredibly in love they were with each other and how they were really best friends for all their lives.
My grandfather passed away in 1984; my grandmother in 2010. I got to spend a lot of time with my grandmother when I was in charge of her care for 10 years, but I also remember those years of getting to spend time with my grandfather until his death.
I am so thankful for the book.
I have people come into my office, and I always ask them about their story. The stories are rich, fascinating, heartbreaking, inspirational and sometimes unbelievable to the point that should be made into a movie.
Many families come to me at difficult times: diagnosis of a significant chronic illness; loss of a spouse; loss of independence; loss of a parent; or loss of a child. Some are caregivers in difficult circumstances.
From almost every client I have dealt with, I have learned something about life. I have learned about how to deal with difficult situations, with difficult people and with difficult circumstances.
I have learned the need to appreciate life when you have the opportunity. I have learned about not letting little things break up a family. I have learned no matter how different your kids are from each other, they are all special (some maybe more “special” than others).
I have learned that you are no less a person for being the first one to reach out. I have learned it is important to respect and love your spouse, and, if you are lucky, that your spouse is your best friend.
I have learned you should not look back. Life is what it is. Always look forward. Enjoy this moment, and be excited about the future.
I have learned you should never give up. I have learned that no matter how bad you think things are, people have been through a lot worse and have done well.
When I visit with people who have been through the Depression, or World War II, or the Korean War, or lost so much in Vietnam, I have learned about true sacrifice and true hardship, yet I still see a smile on so many of their faces.
I have learned it is important to enjoy Sunday dinner with your family; that it is important to spend time with your family at the holidays if that is possible. I have learned that any time you can get together with your family, do it. Let it be a time of peace and festival.
I have also learned how important friendship is. Do not waist it, take it for granted or abuse it.
There is a Jewish tradition called an ethical will. In it, the person writes out the values they want to pass on to their family. It is sprinkled with family events. It is part of the estate plan.
When I read the book from my grandparents, I realized what a wonderful gift they had given me — their version of an ethical will. They passed on so many lessons, values and history.
I would encourage you, no matter what your age, to write your own version of the Grandparent’s Book. (We have something we call a Love Letter, but I am sure there are other things like that you can find). The values that are in that book from my grandparents spoke to me differently today than perhaps they did when I was just 30 years old, but both times they spoke to me. I believe they will make a similar impact on my children as I pass the book on to them, and as they re-read it through the years.
So take some time and write your own ethical will; take some time and write your own book. Make it part of your estate plan.
When my grandparents wrote out their answers in the book, they wrote it in their own hand, using that special language they always used. When I got done reading it Saturday, I truly felt like I had just spent two hours sitting at the breakfast table with my grandparents. I could hear their voices in my head, as if it was 35 years ago. I could see their smiling eyes and hear their laughter as they told the priceless stories. I could feel their love once again.
Never has cleaning the freezer been so rewarding.
Randy Clinkscales founded Clinkscales Elder Law Practice in 1985. He is a 1980 graduate of Washburn Law School and has represented clients at the administrative, county, state and federal levels.