Standing on a carpet of freshly mowed grass, I watch my daddy and his sisters pause with reverence before ridding family headstones of faded flowers in our hilltop graveyard.
Etched in this marble or in that decades-old stone high above a little white church in Raccoon Creek, W.Va., are the names of my grandparents, my uncles, some cousins, among others.
As new floral arrangements slip into place, I’m struck by the colorless spots bare of any sign that someone remembers, that someone respects the name found there.
A good name, the book of Proverbs tells us, is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
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During this graduation season, how blessed we would be if our children could embrace that singular truth among the many admonitions they will hear.
Actions comprise a reputation, and that is the one thing each of us – no matter our wealth, education or upbringing – can control.
Tarnish a name and unleash pain not only on yourself but also on those who love you, on elderly parents and a daughter who must stand sadly by you through a lurid trial.
What guiding truth somehow escaped John Edwards?
Words of wisdom
Asked for that one principle that those embarking on adulthood need most, my friends supplied these:
• Be kind. Be curious. When (not if) you make a mistake, take responsibility for it, and learn something from it. Make the active mistake, not the passive mistake. Set a high bar for yourself, even if nobody else does. – From my high school valedictorian, now a robotics professor at Bard College
• No matter how good or bad life is, wake up every day thankful for life because somebody somewhere is fighting for theirs. – My school’s still very kind homecoming queen
• Question authority. – Former student body president of Marshall University
• Get your mistakes behind you as soon as possible. – My eighth-grade boyfriend (hmm)
• When an immediate crisis pops up, try to take a long view. Picture yourself 50 years from now, looking back and saying: “I wish I had done X when that crisis popped up.” Then go ahead and do X. – A former copy editor
• Don’t be afraid to leave home to search for yourself. It’s not going anywhere, and you take it with you wherever you are. – A former reporter
• Don’t worry about what you look like. Just do it, so later you won’t think “I wonder what that was like” or have “I wish I would have” moments. – Fellow high school band geek
• Remember who you are – and Whose you are – and act accordingly. – Church friend
• Try to keep your mind open and flexible even as you hold true to the values you learned as a child. – Former copy editor turned high school counselor
• Take the word “fair” out of your vocabulary. – Junior high friend
• Life comes in seasons. Some you enjoy and some you will only survive. There is beauty in all of it. Practice thankfulness and compassion until it’s truly part of who you are. – My newest friend
In the cemetery, I ponder the headstones of my living aunts. One’s husband has been gone 25 years; another’s, nearly 20. My grandmother, in fact, had a grave waiting next to my grandfather’s for more than 50 years. Part of their sense of a life well-lived was devotion to one man.
Inside the seasons following my uncles’ deaths, my aunts have sat with the sick, visited the lonely, cooked innumerable meals, nourished family bonds. They might not have crafted policies to alleviate human need on a presidential scale, but they have salved it with their own hands.
My daddy’s sisters can go to these graves knowing that their names are honorable ones even if, as for the vast majority of us, relatively few people will ever recognize them.
The infamous John Edwards has another season stretched out in front of him, a nearly limitless chance to quell the revulsion his name elicits and to regain some measure of respect.
How much easier life is, dear graduates, when you never lose it.