I have a relatively large family in Atlanta. We’re now working on our sixth generation of cousins since my great-grandfather moved here from Kentucky with his bride in 1882 to open a law practice. We get together often at parties, weddings and – lately it seems – a lot of funerals. A few weeks ago, we attended the funeral of my uncle, Hughes Spalding Schroder. It turned out to be a rather remarkable experience.
We go to funerals to honor the person who has left us and to show support to the immediate family in their time of grief. But it helps us mark the milestones in life with a bit of ceremony and tradition. And sometimes, such as at Uncle Hughes’ funeral, we come away with an unexpected source of inspiration.
Hughes was, above all, a gracious gentleman. He died a day or two short of his 76th birthday. We thought perhaps he was holding on for that. But that would have been too self-centered a goal for him. Instead, Hughes had been waiting to celebrate his 51st wedding anniversary with his wife, Frances. Their youngest daughter, Mary, marveled at how they continued to flirt with each other until the end. How Hughes would light up whenever Frances entered the room. When Hughes reached that celebrated anniversary, he honored his family and his bride by telling them how much he loved them and then he moved on.
It wasn’t until he died that his friends, co-workers and relatives gathered around each other to swap stories and realized a fantastic fact about the man: there went a rare soul who never said a bad word about anyone. Thinking back about conversations with Hughes, we realized he had always kept the focus on the person with whom he was talking, asking questions about our work, our family or our interests. He would only talk about himself if asked, and then only briefly. Soon he would steer the conversation back towards others. When asked by the funeral home if they wanted a story in the Atlanta newspapers, his family said no, that it wasn’t his style to draw attention to himself.
As one person after another tried to sum up Hughes’ life into a few words, they all came individually to the same observation. Frances confirmed it after thinking of all of their time together: “I never heard him say a bad word about anyone in 51 years!”. It takes a remarkable level of selflessness and self-confidence to remain true to such a graceful goal. And not to wonder if anyone would ever notice the effort you spent over a lifetime.
But that, really, is the most sincere gift of all. To give to others without expecting recognition for it. To find joy in the giving itself. For many of us who will scurry about this month, buying and wrapping presents for others in hopes they will appreciate the effort we went through to get it, it would be akin to delivering the presents without a card saying whom they were from. It would be as if we never told our kids there wasn’t a Santa. In fact, when I was a child and began to piece together a theory that there might not be a Santa, my father asked if I wanted to talk with Santa on the phone to allay my concerns. Years later, I found out who he had called: Hughes.
So, in the end, Hughes did not know if we ever noticed. May he rest assured we did. And took inspiration from not only the joy he gave each of us in hundreds of small conversations over the years, but in his remarkable challenge to us all to speak well of others – always. Why shouldn’t we do the same? And give to others what he gave to us: a gift of a lifetime.