Why Gladys Valentine Trumps Dick Clark

Verla--head onWhen TV icon Dick Clark died this week, the Internet exploded with tributes and personal anecdotes about the man and his legacy.

Best-known to the world as the genius behind “American Bandstand,”  I remember him as the man who taught me to love music and dancing and who modeled that the color of our skin should not divide us.

Legacy is one of those important-sounding words we use  to describe how a person changed the world with their life. Jonas Salk found a cure for polio. Steve Jobs changed the way we use technology to create and communicate.

Their legacy isn’t hard to recognize, but what about the rest of us? Do you ever think, “What will be my legacy? How will I be remembered? Have I done anything that’s made a difference?

No need to fall into a pity party because your stamp on the world may not be global. The truth is everyone leaves a legacy, whether they know it or not. The only question is what kind it will be.

One person who made a deep impression of my life was Gladys Valentine (a name she was given because she was born on Valentine’s Day). She was my grandmother.

She lived an ordinary life in a tiny farmhouse in Galesburg, Kansas–not exactly the epicenter of greatness. Her life was tough–a fierce amalgam of poverty, marriage to a mean man, failed crops, and a stillborn child. Yet nothing seemed to bow her indomitable spirit.

Every summer a posse of grandkids and great-grandkids would vie for invitations to visit her one-bedroom farmhouse, which had no air conditioning and temperatures routinely topped 100 degrees. We were “guests” by only the loosest of definitions. We were more like extra farm hands, albeit pint-sized. Still, there was something magical about the place.

Wheat harvest was my favorite time. At dawn I’d drag myself out to the fields to take up my post behind Uncle Ralph on his rusty old combine. For hours he would guide the  machine through the blazing hot fields of wheat as the sun beat down and wheat chaff glued itself to our eyebrows, skin, and ears. It felt like important work.

Some years a drought or floods or tornadoes seized the wheat before its time. Farmers would gather at Dutch’s Grocery Store, smoke Camels, and talk with vacant eyes about how it would be a tough winter. For Grandma it meant no new cloth coat and another year without indoor plumbing. I never saw her shed a tear. She’d “make do.” She always did.

Grandma worked harder than men twice her size and half her age. She was up before dawn to feed the chickens, gather eggs and slop the hogs. Then came the enormous breakfast she prepared each day for the farm hands and assorted hangers-on who showed up at her table at 6 a.m. After the men left for the fields, cooking began all over again for the other meals of the day. Mounds of fried chicken accompanied giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, homemade biscuits, pole beans and at least two kinds of pies.

She could wield an axe with exquisite precision, chopping off the heads of endless unfortunate chickens destined for the lunch table after the grandkids plucked off the smelly feathers–an onerous job from which there was no escape. Afternoons meant more chores, laundry, mending, and forays into town to pick up feed. Always something.

She loved to eavesdrop on her crank-up wall phone and listen to bickering neighbors who shared the line. With great delight she would place her hand over the mouthpiece and report their arguments word-for-word. We felt like dangerous little spies.

After everyone went to bed she’d sneak a bowl of homemade ice cream from the freezer and listen to “Fibber McGee and Molly” on the giant Philco radio. It wasn’t much, but, to her, it was enough.

I asked her once if she was happy. The question mystified her. “Happy? Well, hon, I don’t think about it much. I have work to do, enough to eat, and folks around me that I love. What more do I need?”

By example, she taught resourcefulness, the value of family, hospitality, perseverance, gratitude and, yes, even fun. There was no media frenzy or tribute dinner when she died. But her legacy lives in all those grandkids still paying her legacy forward.

There’s still time to be more intentional about your legacy. If you need a blueprint to guide you, check out Romans 12:2-21. The words were inspired by Jesus. His legacy has lasted more than 2,000 years.

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