Rifling through old family records I discovered the obituary of my great-grandmother. Her name was Ola Whitfield, a simple woman born in the 19th century, and so much like the other sharecroppers in the Deep South at the time.
She worked hard, was sparsely educated, remained anonymous to the greater world, birthed a farmhouse full of children, and died young. Much too young, from an infection that would likely be cured by a single round of antibiotics today. She lived only 36 years.
Of course, I take great interest in her otherwise uncelebrated life, because without her, I would not exist. And I take great interest in her simple, confident faith; a faith passed along to those she left behind. It is a faith that has outlasted both her and her children. Even as the ink on her obituary fades and slowly evaporates with the decades, it appears her legacy will not.
That obituary, written in the vibrant language of the time, captures her simple faith so well. It reads, “Ola professed a hope in Christ in August 1901 and joined the Baptist church at Antioch. Oh, it was so hard to give her up but she left a true evidence of her faith: She called her husband to her side and told him that if it had been the Lord’s will she would have loved to stay with him and help raise the children.
“She told him to carry the children to church and Sunday School and raise them right. Such a consolation to us all to hear such words as she gives us to do the will of our Father. Therefore, we ought not to grieve for we have this sweet assurance: She is at rest.”
Granted, raising children “right,” (a Southern colloquialism for instilling proper social manners, respect for elders, and weekly church attendance) is no guarantee that said children will turn out well. They just might become ungodly little monsters. That wasn’t dear Ola’s point, I don’t think. In her unpretentious way, she understood the profound truth that she would live on in those who followed her. So she was being intentional, planning for her life to outlive her.
Actually, you don’t have to plan such a thing. The kind of person you are; the kind of person you will become; the kind of person you will be remembered as, will echo off the walls of your descendants’ lives for generations to come – even if your life is a short one.
There is a reference in the Old Testament, more of a proverb than anything else, which says the sins of a father are visited on the children, the grandchildren, and down three or four generations. In other words, your life will roll down through history and land at the feet and on the backs of those who come behind you: For good or for bad.
In our “what have you done for me lately world,” where time is measured by quarterly dividend reports or in two-year election cycles, we forget that the fruit of one’s life may reach maturity only after many years, decades, or even centuries. It could be that those whom we will never meet, those who will walk in our footsteps generations from now, will be the ones to gain the most from the lives we have led.
So when I read my great-grandmother’s obituary, I am thankful; thankful for her and the ones who have gone before me. I am grateful that those who never dreamed of me or my children, made decisions and lived in a way that bettered our future. And all this reminds me, challenges me, and humbles me that as the generations proceed, whether I like it or not, others will rely upon me and you for the same.
Is Ola’s yellowed obituary filled with as much wistfulness and nostalgia as it is with faith? Yes. Is it all a bit melodramatic? Probably. But this truth remains: Your life will outlive you. Make it a good one.