Twenty questions that offer a lasting legacy

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

 Perhaps anticipated entry into the fifth month since my daughter’s death has elicited my renewed intrigue with the idea of legacies. It might also have been triggered by the work of a college classmate who is living with a dire prognosis of a life being seriously shortened by cancer. She wants to gift her family with memories, her remembrances of life, as a way to enhance their own.

Whatever the reason, my interest was affirmed when one of my daughters, the designated executrix, received a memory book from the funeral home personnel who facilitated the arrangements for Jeannine’s memorial service. Surprised and somewhat stunned, she phoned to tell me all about the gift — and to get my opinion regarding the possibility of a family project centered on the compilation of memories. We grew more and more excited at the prospect of a memory bank of stories, tales of love and laughter, joy and sorrow. We mused about the possibilities: a variety that would expand our individual understanding of a woman who was both sister and friend, daughter and confidante, niece and aunt.

The pages bore headings comprised of suggested questions and accompanying blank areas for response. Clearly, this would make more concrete the reality that Jeannine was gone from this earth, but she would not, could not, should not be forgotten. So, I began to think even more seriously about the project.

My own questions arose. Given the truth of therapist Carl Rogers’ declaration, “What is most personal is most universal,” the individual questions become universal ones — ones, I believe, have been asked by individuals and communities for generations.

How would we like to be remembered? What impact did we have on the life of others?

It seems we fear to ask or respond to them when we are alive. It seems our fear is founded in our saying too little, too late or too much, too soon. Fear of saying too much too soon makes truth appear too little and often too late. Perhaps we can all indulge ourselves in time offered to address the proposed twenty questions. Starting with ourselves is far less threatening and quite possibly more revealing than we might imagine.

Once we have personally engaged with the questions, we can move to sharing them with one other person, a friend or spouse or son or daughter or sibling. Try it with someone you trust, someone with whom you are willing to be vulnerable. Some ground rules could be set. No interruption, comments, or commentary allowed. Only silent listening is expected.           

That might be round one. It could be followed by round two, when the listener responds by answering the same questions, offering their remembrances of you. Sounds like a powerful experience to me.

Here are the proposed questions and statements:

1.     Personality traits I have.

2.     Favorite memories I’d like to share.

3.     What I’d like to be remembered for.

4.     My best qualities.

5.     What I am passionate about.

6.     My hobbies.

7.     My accomplishments/awards.

8.     My friends.

9.     The organizations I love.

10.  My community involvement.

11.  Where I went for vacations or travel.

12.  On a rainy day, I love to ...

13.  Few people know that I ...

14.  My worst fears are …

15.  A perfect evening out would be ...

16.  The world event that had the strongest impact on me.

17.  The hardest thing I ever had to do.

18.  I always wanted to ...

19.  The cause to which I am most devoted is …

20.  A defining moment in my life was ...

Can you imagine how much is learned from this experiment? I tried to imagine it, even as I typed the questions and mentally probed possible responses. I wondered how many, if any, of my replies would resound in the rejoinders of others. I wondered if I really know myself as well as I thought I did.

I wondered what Jeannine might have offered in response to these life questions. I wondered if we really knew her at all. Yet, the questions themselves evoke knowledge. They empower wisdom. They bring about transformation. They make it clear to me that we are both less than we think and more than we realize.

Suddenly, I am brought face-to-face with the wonder of it all. As Richard Rohr phrases it: “There is now a changed capacity to hold it creatively and with less anxiety. It is what John of the Cross called ‘luminous darkness.’” Life is much more spacious now, the boundaries of the container having been enlarged by the constant addition of new experiences and relationships. You are like an expandable suitcase, and you became so almost without your noticing.

To add Carl Rogers’ personal/universal idea to the mix makes the puzzle more intriguing. If my responses are authentic, they will somehow reveal a universal “self.” Who I am will reflect humanity in some way. My likes and dislikes, qualities and hobbies will resonate with others, echoing the sound of community.

Christians read in their Scriptures a pointed command given by Jesus at the last meal he shared with his friends. He broke bread, blessed it and gave it to them, saying, “Do this in memory of me.” He did the same with a cup of wine, blessed and shared.

The words now become crucial ones. They are not simply words to read or say or pray. They are commands to discover who God is in our life. They are calls for revelation, calls to answer essential questions. Who am I? Who are we? To whom do we belong? Where are we going? How are we getting there? Who are we inviting to journey with us?

Do this in memory of me. What is the “this” we are to do? How are we to break bread, take it, eat it, and share it so that we might truly remember and be re-membered in the action. If the memory is faded or shaded, what will we be doing? If there is no memory, what are we to do?

Let’s ask the questions, respond to them, and find joy in the discovery. Do it, and remember.


Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” (a trilogy of Scriptural meditations), lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.