By James W. Petty, AG, CGSM

When I look back upon my life, and the impact my father has had on who I am and how everything in the world is to me, my thoughts drift to a defining moment in my life. Shirts. Yes, that’s right. Shirts.

As a child, I always felt I had everything. I had plenty of toys, and books, and sports equipment. As a budding artist I had pencils and crayons, and stacks of paper to work with. And I had sufficient clothes to be presentable at school, at work, at play, and in Church.

As I grew into a young man, the clothes grew with me. But then an interesting thing happened. At some point I found myself “borrowing” my father’s shirts. I was advised on how to hang the shirts; how the collar was folded; and how to keep the shirts neat in Dad’s closet.

Then one day, the collars were too small, and the sleeves became too short. I no longer had an endless supply of clothing. I didn’t understand it – until one day, many years later, I did.

Looking Up to Me

My father was someone I had always looked up to, both physically and emotionally. But now, physically, he was looking up to me. That had an impact on me, because if he was looking up to me, in my mind, it meant he was also expecting big things of me. It applied to my work, to my education, to my Church service, and to my relationships. This is a concept I have kept in my heart through out my adult life. If my Father is looking up to me, he is expecting big things of me.

Several months ago, my wife and I had the opportunity of listening to a talk by the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey, in which he outlined his concept of “First Things First: To Live, To Love, To Learn, To Leave A Legacy.” Stephen R. Covey is an amazing writer and speaker, and this presentation turned a light on in our minds.

My parents are in their eighties, and are experiencing the difficulties of growing older. They manage well in their quiet existence, but our family has seen our father begin to fret about his life and worry to the point of discouragement, as he has struggled to accomplish important goals.

He is such an amazing man, and as a much-beloved physician, he has had the opportunity of touching and improving the lives of countless numbers of people. It hurt us to see him punishing himself over his perceived weaknesses. But when we listened to Brother Covey’s ideas about the importance of leaving a legacy, we both felt the rush of inspiration. Our parents needed to know what a wonderful legacy they have provided to others.

Preserving a Legacy

We proceeded to contact my brother and three sisters with the idea of preparing a family legacy book as a Christmas Gift to our parents. We encouraged them and their families to “share with Mom and Dad, G’Pa and G’Ma, what they have given us all: It’s a wonderful life we have because of them. Because they have lived, and loved, and learned, they have left a legacy for us all.” This was to be a volume containing the written thoughts, feelings, and memories of each member of our family, from the oldest child down to the youngest grandchild, regarding the topic “Mom and Dad’s Legacy to their Family.”

Over the space of the next several months, members of the family composed stories and remembrances of their lives and experiences with our parents and grandparents. They gathered favorite pictures, and the youngsters prepared drawings and outlined their hands and fingers for posterity’s sake. It was a process that took much longer than the expected few short weeks of the holiday season.

When the book was finally completed and compiled, we selected a special night when we could bring in dinner – Valentine’s Day. After a pleasant evening of good food and conversation we presented the binder to them; and then sat with them and read all of the selections, beginning with “Shirts.” It was a very moving experience to share these testimonies, and see our parents through the eyes of other members of the family.

Several of the children remembered “Mr. Carrots,” a patient of my father’s who brought fresh carrots from his farm as a token of his appreciation. We also remembered going out at night with Dad when he would make visits to the homes of patients who were unable to come to his office.

Grandchildren wrote of their love for the man who had shared his love of the scriptures with them and changed lives. As we read, we were reminded of his dedicated service to his family, his profession, his community and his God.

Mom was equally remembered for giant gingerbread cookies that made her a real hit at our school and among our friends. Our children drew pictures of her love for them and wrote of the ever-present special “pink milk” always found in her fridge. She was also wonderfully talented in arts and crafts, and shared her skills with dozens of homemaking classes. And like Dad, she too, lovingly served us and our neighbors and those they met as they traveled the world in their later years while serving professionally and as missionaries.

A New Outlook

The evening was a complete success, and our parents were in tears as we left. A few weeks later, my father phoned, and told me that he and Mom had been reading the book each day. Mom couldn’t remember the stories from one day to another, and each reading brought fresh tears of joy to her. He stated that this had given him a new outlook on what he had accomplished in his life. With tears in his voice he thanked me again and again for what we had done.

What had we done? Not a great deal. We hadn’t spent dollars and we hadn’t accomplished great feats, but the hearts of the children were turned to their fathers, and we had expressed our love to our parents in a powerful way.

Stephen Covey has said:

There are certain things that are fundamental to human fulfillment. The essence of these needs is captured in the phrase ‘to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.’ The need to live is our physical need for such things as food, clothing, shelter, economical well-being, health. The need to love is our social need to relate to other people, to belong, to love and to be loved. The need to learn is our mental need to develop and to grow. And the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence, and contribution.

In this gift of writing our parents’ legacy, we discovered they gave us all this and more. We have big shirts to fill. We learned they are someone we can always look up to and emulate; they expect big things of us.

We encourage you to learn the same. Take the opportunity this year in your family to gather your thoughts and memories to define the legacy of your parents and grandparents, or whoever is important in your life. They need to know the legacy they have established. You need it as well. It is a thrilling, spiritual experience that will help bind your family and inspire you to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.

2007 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.