Most of my ancestors in medieval times never lived to be 50 years old. In fact, 35 was pushing menopause, and if a woman had had 12 or 15 pregnancies, she was either extremely robust and lived to be 85 – or she’d die giving birth at 25 or 35. Many of the men died in middle age, too, not always from war injuries. John of Gaunt died at age 59 of natural causes. Reverend John Robinson, persecuted pastor of the Puritans before they sailed to America on the Mayflower, died in 1625 at age 50 in Leiden, Holland.
Once my ancestors emigrated to America, their lives stretched into their 70s and 80s. My grandparents lived into their 80s, and Grandma Opal Carter Robinson was 98 when she died.
I was 29 when my mother turned 50, and I was 34 when she died of chronic lung disease at 55. Although she was extremely ill, and suffered more from her medication side effects than the asthma and emphysema, she lived a remarkable life.
Judith Anson Robinson only had a high school diploma; and although she had an academic scholarship offer to university, she was unable to use it with her extreme health challenges. She married Kenneth Robinson at age 18, and after a year they moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where the air was dry and breathable.
Judith always had a stack of library loaners and how-to books across many subjects, and she took extension classes with the local PBS station and a syllabus. She was self-taught at bookkeeping, but she successfully managed the family business and finances, took on the IRS in court, and won.
She was an accomplished, award-winning artist who worked in acrylic paint, chalk pastels, watercolor, ink, clay, and other media. Some of her artwork is photographed HERE: http://entertainment.webshots.com/album/568301607faDYnR.
She only had a few years of piano lessons from a small-town nun who was quick to rap knuckles on mistakes – but she became a wonderful piano teacher who taught on a piano earned by selling cosmetics. In fact, while my dad’s income was managed carefully, and we always lived on a cash basis, the piano teaching money paid the tuition for my brother’s and my Christian-school education.
Judith was either too sick to attend church often, or was warned by the doctor not to, because of her compromised immune system. But she knew her Bible intimately, read Christian books, and watched Christian TV. She had strong views on right and wrong, and could have taught an ethics course on the community-college level. She was always interested in the “why” of behavior and thinking.
And she started with an inherited, inaccurate family tree and turned it into a pedigree so large and complex that software programmers in Salt Lake City had to enlarge version one of the Personal Ancestral File because her vast body of research wouldn’t fit into their parameters. She began in the 1960s and blew away the programmers with her little 128K Macintosh in 1984. No Internet. Just land-line phone and snail mail.
So my mom did all this and more in spite of her illness. When I’ve had a cold or flu, and I’m feeling rotten, I wonder how she got anything done, much less her list of accomplishments.
I’ve followed my mom’s lead in many ways: love of history and genealogy, performing church music, teaching music, expressing my creativity in writing and graphics, a tenderness for animals and nature, gardening, and lots of other interests.
But I wonder if any of this has affected anyone but me. What has been the effect of my existence in this world? Have I lived up to my potential – done all that it’s possible for me to do with the advantage of excellent health and advanced education? Has my writing touched hearts or changed thinking? Have my music students’ lives been enhanced by my counsel and my teaching? Have I been an inspirational example to one person? Has my friendship or fellowship enriched another person, and how? Have I been an instrument of God, to bless others?
My 21-year-old mother kept a journal of the last few weeks that she was pregnant with me. She and my dad visited a model home that they moved to when I was a few months old. They visited friends from their young-people’s group at the Baptist church. Mom fretted that I was three weeks late in coming; and she was embarrassed to be so heavily pregnant and buying castor oil to hurry the onset of labor, when the pharmacist knew what it was for. (Oh, the shame!)
Here’s the journal entry for October 15, 1958, the day I was born:
I’ve loved my baby for such a long time. Yet the joy I feel today as I hold her in my arms is beyond words. Praise God for the blessings and the happiness that we have in Christy, and we pray, with grateful hearts, to do the Lord’s will in raising her. Regarding the choice of her names: Christy is a feminine derivative of Christ, meaning “follower of Christ.” Kay is the word “rejoicing” in Old Teutonic. It is our hope that the name will truly describe her life.
On October 16, 1958, my mother wrote:
Between you and me, Baby, you might as well know that nobody in the world has ever loved a baby like you’re going to be loved by your mother. I’ve been saving up a part of myself for a long time and I’m going to start spending it on you. Surely this must be similar to the love Jesus has for us. I can see beyond the pink face and little slanty eyes to a beauty within you. It makes me so happy to look at you that it feels as if something in my chest will burst.
I wish I could talk to my mom and ask for her assessment of my 50 years of life. Have I created a worthy body of work? Have I proved my worth to my employer, church, friends, and society in general? Do I have a legacy? Have I fulfilled Mom’s hopes? Have I been faithful to the calling of God? Do I have a beauty of spirit? Do I have a measure of my mother’s taste and style? Is my thinking process logical and deep, or just quirky, lazy, and shallow? What about my relationships? Do I have the qualities of compassion, love, mercy, and justice that God requires? Have my fluttering butterfly wings displaced any air?
Fifty is just a number. It’s seven in dog-years. As one of my birthday cards says, it’s three and a half in giant-redwood-years. But it’s also the next check-box down the survey, a less-desirable demographic to marketers and sociologists.
My ancestors, even if they died young and we know nothing about their lives, nevertheless passed on their DNA and influence, for good or ill, to their children. What will I leave in my wake? Maybe I have the same amount of time left to live as I have lived already. Maybe I’ll go earlier from accident or disease.
There’s an axiom that says to live every day as if it’s your last. Now how is that possible? We must plan and act as if we have decades left. We have responsibilities and commitments to friends, family, and community that will pay off both now and down the road. But maybe that’s my sense of responsibility rearing up, and realization of the fact that I’m single, independent, and have no backup but God. (Which is not a bad thing!)
I doubt that those 13th-century ancestors thought their progeny would think of such things, 800 years later.