The Footprints We Leave Behind

My father’s calligraphy

How many of us live our lives with relatively little thought about how or whether we leave any recognizable footprints after we are gone? For good or for ill, each of us leaves something behind that has changed someone else’s life. Or even many lives. Who we have been – or what we have become – leaves an imprint that lives on after we die. So what happens if we decide to pay attention to that? What things might we do differently – right now – if all of that is true?


Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, and White Hair Grace will take a break and breathe in memories for a bit. I hope that you will be doing the same and that there are good memories for you to discover and recover. I will be looking at the footprints left by the most meaningful people in my long life. Beginning with the ones who gave me life. I will be remembering and giving thanks.

On the day that this is published, I will be remembering my father, who would have been 106 on this day. That is why my mind has turned to footprints and to what kind of legacy I will have left by the time my 106th birth day will roll around. (Heavens! That’s 28 years from now! Who will remember me then?!) He left big footprints (beginning with a size 13 shoe…) and I discover that they still – after all these years – guide my elder years, too.

I cannot remember him without remembering my mother, too, and the small feet (literally…size 6) that nonetheless left her own magnificent footprints before she died young at 72.

So this Thanksgiving, I think of them and give thanks for who they were and who they taught me to be.

My father gave me my proud Norwegian heritage and my spiritual foundation in our Lutheran Norwegian roots. We were in church every Sunday – in the Ohio city where we lived and in the Wisconsin countryside where we spent our summers. He sat patiently with me day after day as I impatiently practiced piano, beginning at age 6, and he and my mother were at every recital and performance I was in.

My mother added the quarter of my heritage which is Swedish (which is radical, since the other quarter was also Norwegian) and was the master at making tons of Norwegian meatballs and the sweet baked goods which are iconic Norwegian fare at Christmas time.

My father was a college chemistry professor for whom education was at the forefront of his obligations as a parent. He and I sat for hours listening to classical music and reading Shakespeare, even when I was just in grade school. He also worried that his daughter had become “boy crazy.” He took up calligraphy when he was 70 and in so many other ways showed me how to be an elder until he died at age 94.

My mother taught me about racism and anti-Semitism in two very practical ways in the ’50’s. In high school, I rode the bus across town. There was only one person of color (politely known as “Negro” back then) who lived in our part of town and rode that bus. Mother asked me to sit with her. I was surprised. “Why?” I asked. “Because she may not have anyone who will sit with her because of the color of her skin.” I had never thought of the color of her skin. It changed my worldview.

In those same high school years, I’d been invited to a party given by one of my Jewish girlfriends. I was already a big introvert, and big parties were not my thing, so I was not going to go. “But you have to go,” my mother admonished. “Why?” I whined. “Because, there may be people who won’t go because she’s Jewish.” Susie is still a dear friend, and I had a wonderful time at her party.

My father had no sons, and I was his eldest. But we painted our cottage together and got the wooden boats caulked and painted in the early summer. He taught me how to fish and let me row (as long as it was VERY quietly so as not to disturb the fish), and we watched the northern lights at night when we were out on the water.

My mother lived with frequent migraines, but she overcame them whenever she could and soldiered on and taught me the power of sacrifice. She worked tirelessly for the YWCA, helping young girls to find their way. She was the first one to bring a casserole to a family who was grieving. She sewed me the most beautiful prom dress that made this geeky girl feel beautiful for a night. She showed me the power of compassion and creativity and making do with what you have.

That barely touches the footprints that my beloved father and mother left behind. Their legacy lives in the three of their daughters and their families now. And though we’ve not been perfect, we are each trying to leave our own worthy footprints out there in the world.

My mother and father taught us what love looks like and sounds like. 

And that was the most important legacy of all.

So this Thanksgiving, I give thanks once again for all those whose footprints – past and present – have blessed my journey. Family, friends, strangers, acquaintances, authors, mentors – you are all in my grateful heart.

Today is the first day of the rest of our life.

So how shall we still leave footprints that make a difference?

The time is now to do just that.

It’s not too late.

And I’m very okay with that.