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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

In ways big and small, children echo their parents

Uldine LeBlanc was a nursing school student in

Uldine LeBlanc was a nursing school student in Canada in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of Dobie Family

My mother-in-law died a few weeks ago.

She had a great run, one month short of 93 years. Her death left a predictable void. Not just because of her long life, but because during it she was always there no matter the occasion or the time of day. She was there, for anything, for everything, for everyone.

None of us have to look hard to see the influence she had. It’s there in the meticulousness with which her four daughters approach whatever they do.

It’s there in their love of babies. Whoever’s babies.

It’s there in their placement of family first. Way first. Eternally first. The kind of first where you drop whatever you’re doing whenever someone in the family is in need. We used to call her and my father-in-law, who died a few years ago, the rescue squad, with no hyperbole.

That’s the part that’s easy to see. The words that are spoken, the advice that’s given, the daily interactions that occur — taking our measure of that is relatively simple.

But there are other influences of which we’re not so conscious. Like the long arc of our lives and the continuum of actions over that arc whose impact might be more subtle but no less real.

My mother-in-law had that kind of effect, too.

Uldine LeBlanc grew up on a farm in a tiny spit of a community in Ontario, Canada, called Apple Hill. She collected eggs from the hens, helped tap the maple trees, did the usual farm chores.

She also went to school, and then went on to nursing school, not far from home. And when she finished, she and a few fellow grads went off to look for jobs — in New York City.

Think of that. World War II had just ended, and they chose to leave that wonderfully bucolic life for the largest city in the world as it was undergoing rapid and tumultuous transformation.

They surely found strength in numbers. But it still took courage and gumption to leave family and the familiar behind, as it did for so many other new New Yorkers.

Uldine and her friends did find nursing jobs, but the rest of them eventually returned to Canada. She met a guy and stayed.

And so a girl from Apple Hill ended up with a ring on her finger, an apartment on Pleasant Avenue and 116th Street in East Harlem, and eventually a family and a house in the Bronx.

I see her intrepid spirit now in her grandchildren, all nine of them, in the way they embrace adventures, and in their willingness to explore new occupations and travel around the world. Three are my own daughters, and watching them is a marvel.

Children are molded by all sorts of influences from all sorts of elders. You hear it in a laugh, see it in a smile, observe it in a decision made, feel it in a lifestyle chosen.

As I get older, I’m becoming more aware — and more curious — about the impact my wife and I are having, consciously or not, on those following us.

Another recent death sharpened that focus. This was the passing of my grandson’s other grandfather, one of those events that jolts because it involves a contemporary.

Kevin Brown was an Air Force veteran in the Vietnam era, a teacher and principal, sports car lover and, later in life, a volunteer firefighter. His wake was a few days ago. My grandson came. He’s 6 years old. We hugged and talked, and I watched him trying to act like everything was normal, like he was OK, even as he was trying to process it all. And I found myself wondering what he’d learned from Kevin, and what he’s learning from me.

I know what I’ve told him and my daughters, the advice I’ve given. But what are they taking from the sum of my life, lessons neither they nor I are aware they are drawing?

The arc of a life isn’t just the time spent living it. And it’s not just our own.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.