With the president it was harder. I could certainly offer an opinion of her legacy as it will last to me, but that wasn't really the focus of the question. Everyone has their fans and foes and everything in-between. I was sort of stumped and I realized the question that was unasked was "What does she want her legacy to be? A capital campaign? A good football team? Research?" I didn't know and I still don't and for me that doesn't matter.
But the topic did make me think about personal and professional legacies. Or, that favorite question that I might hear in an Oprah or Barbara Walters interview: "How would you like to be remembered?"
That's a good one, because really, who remembers? If you're the president of the United States or another world leader, you will have a legacy (though it may take a decade or two to shake down, removed from the current political chatter of the day). There's a lot of talk now about Obama's legacy as there was decades ago with Carter. It takes a long time to see the impact of accomplishments and errors along the way.
|from Peter Max exhibit, Beachwood, OH|
If you listen to one political discussion, the legacy is oh, so bad. If you listen to the others, it glows with achievement. Might legacy be defined by perspective?
For world leaders, I think legacy does matter because it is part of a broad historical picture. Events may directly affect life and death situations. Wars occur, the right ones or the wrong ones -- and no one will ever probably agree as to which is which. Economies go in the tank or they rise to the challenge. It takes time to assess it accurately but certainly, as Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here."
For most of us, the legacy doesn't matter so much to the general public. Sure, an institution will look at its leaders' records and acknowledge financial gifts. A community will perhaps remember the contributions of a civic leader. But what is my legacy? (It sure won't be a fortune!) How do I want to be remembered?
|Photo by Judy Winter|
I could attach a lot of adjectives that I would like to describe me. Artist. Life partner. Mom figure. Cook. Cat-mom. Volunteer. Helper. Bookworm. Traveler.
But am I a nice person? I hope so. But I know myself well enough to admit I have a snarky side. Creative? Sure -- but I believe we all are in one way or another. Derivative? Probably. We are a mass of contradictions. If we admit it honestly, we recognize those contradictions and maybe even work on improving them. Or, we brush them under the rug and see only the good. But they lurk and while we may think they are hidden, someone will see. They always do.
And how do I remember others? What are their legacies? That led me to thinking of my parents and others who have passed on -- other relatives, dear friends, strangers whose lives may have touched my own in odd, serendipitous ways. And I realized that for each and every one, there is only my perspective when it comes to legacy. And someone else's may be completely different.
Each and every one of the people in that photo above left their own personal legacy to me. David's grand hospitality and great cooking. Eulah's 100-year-plus approach to life. Mike's gentle spirit, grand humor and belief in me. Mary Jane's humor and big heart. Patricia's friendship, letters and understanding. Aunt Gracie's big humor and warm heart. Aunt Iris' caretaking and surrogate mom-ship. Lucinda's example of fighting hard for a cause. Uncle Marty's incredible wit and love. Diana's passion for family and Paris. Gail's gift of opening the world of different religions and cultures to me. Annette's boundless spirit and love of the hosta. Gretel's grace in dealing with death as it was when she dealt with life. The legacies of my parents and grandparents go without saying.
You can call them memories. I call them legacies.
My grandfather on my mom's side was an active civic leader during the time she and her sisters were growing up, a prosperous business man and by all accounts he loved his family very much. But every summer he would drop my grandmother and the kids off at the lake and rather than spend his weekends with them, spend them on the trout stream.
I don't remember when the photo above was taken -- it clearly shows affection or curiosity. But I was always a little afraid of him and my younger cousin terrified. But my older cousin, John, was his great buddy. Johnny worshiped the ground Grandpa walked on and still does. To me his legacy wasn't financial and it wasn't affection. It was a sense of history and a cottage that brought our families together for generations. But for John, I'm sure the legacy is more personal, one of experiences and deep affection, probably love.
There is the professional legacy and the personal one and a great example of how time clarifies things. Jimmy Carter is a fine example of that. His presidency didn't receive the respect it may have deserved for decades, even though he was probably the first political figure to grab onto the fact that driving too fast burned energy and it would be good to turn down the heat and put on a sweater, too. People laughed. They thought about the Iran hostage crisis and in a post-Watergate era he was deeply mistrusted. But over time he brought leaders together in peace and he has worked continuously to help the poor with Habitat for Humanity and in a variety of health-related efforts as well. Now scholars are reviewing his presidency with a different eye.
When one works at a university or is attached to a non-profit organization you see pretty quickly the focus on the financial definition of legacy and leaving that institution a gift -- perhaps in the form of an endowment or property or a significant financial contribution from which monuments are built to the donor. A museum. A college named after that person. Perhaps a dormitory. We think of it as money.
But I think there's more to it than that. My grandfather's legacy wasn't the inheritance he left my mom and her sisters. That bought they some pretty things and for us, our own cottage down the road from the family place. But the money itself wasn't the legacy. That's long gone.
What remains are the memories, the connections, the things we learned from spending summers together. The joy of stepping outside on a summer evening and looking into the dark sky. Playing cards a warm night. Enjoying the fireplace and popcorn with Rick on an autumn evening when the air is crisp and the trees exploding with color. Water skiing for hours, only to stop when we were running out of gas. Long walks and good talks. And so much more.
To me, legacy is personal. It's not what you have but who you are -- and what you do with who you are.
Anyone with funds can write a check. We all do it -- and it's a good thing we do. Those checks may help build an arts facility or a program or help those in need.
But it's what we do beyond that which defines my definition of legacy. Helping someone who needs it. Being a friend. Volunteering. Helping bring someone's dream to realization. Raising children with good values. Being there.
And really, if we do all -- or at least some -- of those things, I have a feeling there will be a lot of wonderful legacies running around for many moons to come.