I clearly remember the time in my life I decided to major in English in college. I loved my English teacher when I was a senior in high school, and I had read a poem by William Wordsworth that just seemed to speak to my soul. That’s it, I thought. I’ll devote my life to a love of reading and writing.
At about the same time, my future husband was deciding he was going to study engineering.
What a difference those two decisions have made through the years! He has an education that is always in demand and earns a good paycheck, while my decision to study English and journalism to become a reporter has relegated me through the years to a job market bloated with journalists, all willing to earn low salaries.
Thank goodness that some engineers don’t mind sharing their lives and paychecks with the low-paid reporters and writers! Those decisions we each made in the bloom of youth have reached down through the years to affect our lives every day.
Thinking about that decision started me thinking about other decisions . . . Sometimes decisions we make don’t really matter. Sometimes they matter a lot and to the generations that will follow us.
Our family had occasion to contemplate that universal truth when several of my children, my sister, and my mother visited the Eastern Shore of Virginia last year where my mother had spent the first 18 years of her life.
All my life I had heard stories of the old family farm that had been lost to the family through the bad investments of my grandmother’s guardian. I had never thought much about it—what was the big loss of a shabby farmhouse and weedy fields?
As we searched for the farm, an ancestor of that guardian gave us directions to the house from the front yard of her beautiful ancestral home. Her generations back had been neighbors to our family generations back.
Much to our surprise, however, the old family farm was nestled on the edge of an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay. And it was far from shabby—it was a beautiful two-story house in the midst of being renovated. The owner had died a few years before, and the house was empty, so we ventured onto the property to visit the family cemetery in the back by the water where our ancestors quietly rest.
Well-maintained farmland stretched on all sides, and a sign proclaiming the name as “Holly Fields” swung at the end of the long road. We could hardly bring ourselves to leave, and the disappointment that this beautiful property had been lost to us through the bad decisions of one man long dead gripped us all as we drove away.
When we got home, we did a little research. The property included 80 acres, and the tax assessed value was almost $800,000.
It took me almost two weeks to get over a constant sense of loss and grieving. How would my life have been different had I grown up in such a beautiful place? Would my seven children have loved to roam that property, fish from the banks in the backyard, and pick strawberries from the neat fields? What would our station in life have been on such a country manor?
To add to my feeling of loss and disappointment at the way one decision had perhaps changed my life was the fact that a similar story had happened on my father’s side of the family. One careless decision had caused one of my progenitors to be disinherited from the sprawling family dairy farm and wealth. My cousins through another ancestor, one with better judgment, were able to comfortably retire in Florida when the farm was sold to develop into condos. They used to stop and visit us on their way through Virginia, and I wondered how things might have been different. They always took us out to dinner, and I always felt like we deserved it!
I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful middle-class life and have never faced an empty pantry, but still I wonder how my life would have been if decisions made generations ago had been just a little different. I finally had to remove the picture of the “old family farm” as my screensaver because I just thought about it too much!
But life is full of such consequences, those that come from decisions made years before in our family line and those that we make and will affect our family members who follow us.
Some of the saddest are the inheritances of church inactivity. We see it all the time. Parents take a break from Church activity because of life’s problems and their children don’t grow up with a culture of Church activity, children and youth programs, scripture study, Family Home Evenings, and testimonies. Years later the parents return to activity and regain their testimonies only to find that their children, now grown and with children of their own, have no interest in being a part of a Church that was never part of their childhood.
Such situations illustrate that the iniquities of the fathers can truly be visited upon the third and fourth generations (Exodus 34:7 paraphrased). The parents try to gather their children back into the fold—an infinitely more difficult task than it would have been to keep them in the fold. Generations can be lost because of decisions undertaken casually.
After 40 years in the Church, I find that situation one of the saddest.
The converse, however, is generations and generations of children growing up in the Church because of the commitment of one generation to stay the course and walk the strait and narrow way, or most exciting of all, to be the first generation to embrace the gospel and open the way to the gospel for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, to follow.
In the struggling southern Virginia city where I live and teach at a community college, the consequences of previous decisions play out in a culture of under-education, poverty and welfare, tobacco and alcohol use, crime, and poor health down from one generation to the next as we at the college try to break the cycle through education. But it’s so hard, and there is so much working against these students who dare hope their children might be better off than they are. I often wonder as I see the challenges my students face just how far back a decision was made to quit school, to work in a low-paying mill, to find solace in a bottle—a decision that has reached down through the family line to keep the children and grandchildren captive.
In the end, however, who was to say whether or not I was supposed to live in the beautiful home on the nook of the Chesapeake Bay or on a sprawling dairy farm in Michigan. Probably my life has been exactly what it was supposed to be. My decision to become an English major and writer might not have brought high salaries into my life (until my novel makes it to the bestseller list!), but it has brought me the satisfaction of putting words together in a way that can touch people’s lives.
And the Lord must have smiled with approval upon that decision since he sent me an engineer to pay most of the bills! Plus, I might not be welcoming my children home for the holidays in an Eastern Shore manor, but they are all good writers, an ability that blessed their lives.
They say they are going to buy the “old family farm” one of these days—maybe they’ll let me come live with me!
Susan’s latest novel is “Miracle of the Christmas Star,” published by Cedar Fort, and can be purchased from her website at www.susanelzey.com or www.amazon.com. She also writes a weekly humor column for her local newspaper which can be found by doing a site search for “7XMOM” at www.godanriver.com