When I passed sixty years old, I began to see life in a very different way. I had already outlived my father by nine years and my mother passed at eighty years old. When you become parent-less, perspective takes on new meaning and mortality becomes far more finite.
A simple check of a Facebook page of my high school class reveals a shocking number of those who never made it this far, and one can’t help but think what they have left behind. Maybe more importantly, what is their legacy?
Maya Angelou said that legacy is how we have affected every life we touch. So often, the things we do, good or bad, are things we never know the final outcome.
Lately, we’ve taken to watching a television program imported from the U.K. called “Grand Designs,” where the host follows the trials and inevitable catastrophes of those who tackle the venture of building their own home. The results are often miraculous and the stress and sacrifice to see the project through to its end is amazing.
One particular episode saw a middle-age couple with two children sell everything they had to move into a mobile home on a plot of land that belonged to her grandfather. The rocks and fields were the places she played as a small child and the impact of her grandfather on her life was so compelling, it sustained her through the two and half harrowing years it took to complete the project.
At one point, all seemed lost until her childhood friend, who also played alongside her in the same fields had grown to become an architect. She stepped in and rescued the project with a design that fit their dwindling budget and turned tragedy into the realization of a lifelong dream.
The program left me in tears. Not just for the wonderful story, but thinking about how special this grandfather must have been to impact this young woman so profoundly. What was it about their relationship that cemented a bond that she was willing to go to such lengths? Her mother still lived not far away in the home where she grew up, but here on this rocky field was everything fond in her life.
I think about the bedroom I shared with my brother and how we were so often at odds, how our interests were so divergent and our lives that walked different directions. I think about the concrete driveway that led up to my father’s garage, where everything from house painting, to lawnmower work, to makeshift basketball took place. But most of all, it was the location both day and night, where maintenance and repair of the family car took place. Here was the bane of my existence, torn from my favorite television shows or play time with friends to crawl under the hood, fetch wrenches and tools I knew nothing about, and holding a drop light so he could see.
In my sleep I heard him curse, “Hold the light on the goddamn work, not in my eyes!”
I laugh about it now as the most ironic of things transpired in my teens. Driving and car mechanics transformed from forced labor to a growing passion that has never faded. Somewhere I took what was shoved down my throat and built on it, honed it, polished it to the point that I exceeded his own skills. It was truly a prophetic moment when one day, in his time of fading health and waning months, he spoke to one of my aunts as I labored under the hood. I overheard him trying to keep his voice down, “You know, the little shit has gotten really good. He knows shit now I never taught him.” That by the way, was high praise from my Dad, about as high as it could get and I’ve never forgotten that moment.
I look back now and see the link of legacy that I have carried on. The skills and knowledge passed to me that I have nurtured and grown with and I hope I have made him proud.
My mother handed down something very different, while her skill in the kitchen is something I like to think I’ve put to good use, I think her crave to travel and her general zest for life are the best parts of her. She was often brash and outspoken, as I am prone to be maybe too much, but she could forever find the light-hearted side of the moment.
I truly cherish those later years in her life as I became a vehicle to carry her places. While I don’t know how much interest in cars she really had (although I know she passionately loved the last car she owned) our time spent going to cruise nights and car shows were golden times to be sure.
Sometimes I think she marveled at my knowledge, as my beloved wife does to this day (Where do you keep all this incredible cache of information in that head of yours?) But sometimes it feels as though it has all been a game of folly.
I look at our children today and it feels like I haven’t passed any skills down to them in similar ways. Yes, they often tell me I’ve been a good Dad, and that has great value in its own right, but none of them share my passions in the same way. Their lives and careers have taken them down very different paths from mine. That’s not a bad thing in any way and I’m very proud of their success and the tremendous effort they have poured into those skills. I suppose there is very little more you can ask. I guess my father may have wondered the same for many years. Maybe that day he spoke to my aunt was a realization, an enthralling, rewarding moment that all his effort had not passed away on the breeze.
Legacy is a fleeting thing. At one time or another, I think we all wonder what we will be remembered for after we are gone. Part of why I wept at the television show is that I never knew either of my grandfathers, and my own father passed away when I was barely twenty years old. That lack of continuity leaves big question marks, but you never know what you do or say that will leave an impression. To quote Maya Angelou once more…
“People will forget the things you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Movies have factored so much in my life with more than just pop culture, but the one passage that has stayed with me for years, I say again with a full heart…
“…Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life, but love, romance, beauty, poetry, these are what we stay alive for!….That the powerful play of life goes on and you may contribute a verse! What will your verse be?”
I can think of no more powerful legacy or contribution to the life of this world to leave behind than our children. Any skill I have that matters is surely in them, and if I have handed down anything in their eyes, hopefully it will be something they wish to teach to children of their own.
I can leave behind a garage full of tools and probably a car or two, but those are finite things that grow old and fade away. The skills that rise with me in the next life will be the ones that matter most. Hopefully that is the verse that will be contributed in my name, and one quoted with power for others to hear and read.
With that in mind, I quote my Dad, “People will tell you experience is the best teacher. That’s bullshit because any man can learn from his own mistakes. A truly smart man will learn from someone else’s mistakes.”
Which sounds remarkably similar to yet another line from “Dead Poet’s Society”…
“There is a time for daring and a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”
Reflect on that which matters and give your heart to those who matter most in your life. They are the only ones who will remember the person you truly are, especially the one you don’t see yourself.
That is legacy.
- T. August Green