By the time we hit New Years, Christmas is already a fading memory. When we're asked what gifts we received, it may already be hard to recall. However, I would venture to guess that over the years, there are at least a few memorable standouts, like a handmade baby blanket grandma made that is now a family heirloom or a lovingly assembled photo album of a special trip.
I can recall favorite gifts but I can't put my hands on them, because the most treasured gifts are not objects I can hold. The Christmas gifts that meant the most to me look more like legacies that continue to be "unwrapped" again year after year. One treasure is the family recipe for Hungarian Coffee Cake that has been served at our Christmas breakfast for nearly 50 years. A week before Christmas, my grown-up daughter reinforced how important that family gift is to her, too. She wanted to be sure we would celebrate Christmas morning like we did when she was little…with candles on the coffee cake while we sing Happy Birthday to Jesus. It seems to be the sweet moments that we want to relive again and again.
Of course, there are also legacy "gifts" that I don't like remembering. Some of them rotate around a strict grandma who made the holidays more of a test than a treat. In my mind's eye, I see the pretty dish full of candy in the living room--and recall knowing better than to ask if I could have a piece. Just the memory evokes the feeling of being criticized if we didn't behave to grandma's standards. She left a lasting legacy of sorts, too.
Family life wasn't always so sweet at home, either. As a college student, I remember feeling eager to leave home to get back to campus to escape the stress. By then, my Mom and Dad had hit a tough stretch. They were in the squeeze between generations that I am in now. Health concerns and work pressures had ramped up and it showed in our home. They were building family legacies that were not the kind I wanted to pass on to my kids…discontent, worry, tension, secrecy, and raised voices in the next room. Thankfully, the equilibrium returned, but those lasting memories felt more like baggage than treasures at the time.
I also hit some deeply difficult times when my kids were collecting memories of their parents. I never dreamed that becoming a single parent would be a part of our story. There were days when I thought, "What baggage did my children get today?" While not all that we take with us from childhood is good we can trust that God can use even the deepest trials for good if we allow Him to be our healer.
It strikes me that even my sour grandma actually left me a sweet legacy as God used the memories to help me choose a different way to live. I'm convinced we decide to be like our families or we choose to be different. We can choose to fight a family heritage of anger with a new legacy of kindness. Those of us with a heritage of secrecy can choose to be transparent and forthcoming in our relationships. Both positive and negative legacies can be gifts if we use them to make decisions about how to live our lives.
Billy Graham said, "The greatest legacy one can pass on to one's children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one's life, but rather a legacy of character and faith." Continuing to build a lasting example of what it looks like to confront struggles instead of avoiding them can be a part of building a family of faith. Modeling how to uncover the treasure hidden in the trauma can be part of our gift of character to our children.
Recently, my daughter and I were talking about the hurdles we face in relationships. I shared that if I were witness to a significant struggle in her most important relationships, I would not be a bystander, even at the risk of offending her. I would deliberately approach the hard conversations, knowing that my job as a mom is to support her through all that life dishes out.
John Glenn once said, "I'm not interested in my legacy. I made up a word: 'live-acy.' I'm more interested in living." In this New Year, I'm resolving to be purposeful about having more conversations with my young adult children that take stock of the legacies they are taking with them into their adult years. I am hopeful that I can live in such a way that demonstrates how to keep what works and make improvements on what did not. Learning how to choose what to keep and what to change can happen through honest conversations.
Our young adults will unwrap their legacy gifts again and again throughout their lives. Some will look like family traditions and others will reflect the character we modeled for them. I'll look forward to helping my kids hang onto the best of both. Hopefully that will still include Christmas cake with birthday candles!