Thursday, January 28, 2016

On Legacies and Memories -- One and the Same?

Recently I was asked if I thought the recent FCC spectrum issues and all that came from it would tarnish the legacy of WKAR or MSU's president. It was easy to answer about WKAR. No. They've lived by quality and it will continue, no matter how the focus will shift.

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.


Tim Zeko said...

Work sister. Don't forget that! You helped keep me sane and not choke people for over 30 years...

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

Beautifully written and oh so thought provoking at the same time. I think for me, a legacy is a summation of the theme of the memories and characteristics that person had. I might have to do a separate post of my own eventually on this topic as it is interesting to see how we characterize a person's legacy. I think of my aunt who passed away from breast cancer in her early 60s. Her legacy was an unfailing positive attitude. She's known for the quote, "Life isn't about waiting for the storms to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain." I have that quote hanging on wall of photos as it's a good physical reminder to try to embody's my aunt Betty's approach to life. Within our family, when something difficult happens, we just have to utter the word "dance" and we all think of Betty and how she weathered the storms of life so courageously.

I haven't given all that much thought to the kind of legacy I want to leave... I think I am in a stage of life where so much of my focus is on things that won't be part of my legacy - namely, my focus has been on my career development. But that's definitely not what I want to be remembered by. I hope I'm known for my love of reading and passion for sharing that love with others and I hope my nephews and nieces remember me as a kind and loving aunt that loves all the time spent with them.

bassgirl said...

Have no doubt, Jeanie, that your legacy will be one that brings a smile to people's faces whenever your name is mentioned. Meanwhile, I, and many others, treasure you! Another thought-provoking blog, very beautifully and emotionally expressed. The tarnished statue was an interesting insert! ;)

Marilyn Miller said...

Oh Jeanie, this is such a thoughtful, good post. To me, since we haven't personally met, it is your smile I see when I come here. You have the most amazing smile. I think of what legacy I will leave my grandson. What will he remember. So I sneak him the occasional cookie or piece of chocolate just to sweeten the memories. Ha!

Joanne Huffman said...

Well written. I tend to personalize it; to me, memories are what I remember by thought and emotion and legacy is what is known or left outside the personal interactions. It's always interesting to see how individualized vocabulary is, yet we still manage to communicate.

Tamara said...

Inspiring post Jeanie. As you saw, Ive just posted on honoring the wisdom of my elders. For me, weather they terrified us or we adored them, we learnt things. Parents, grandparents, teachers, school bus drivers. . . What they taught us in their life choices impact on us. I love your collage of photos, a great souvenir to those legacies.

Janet said...

Another beautiful, thought provoking post, Jeanie. I hope I'm a good person and that when I'm gone people will remember me that way...but who knows. Maybe some have a different perspective of me. I guess it all comes down to who you're talking to and what they think of me. Everyone looks at things with different eyes and even though we may agree on things, we still have different opinions on how it all comes together. I'm not making myself clear so I'll stop here...but you sure have me thinking!!

Lynne said...

Thought filled . . . excellent post . . .
And to think you wrote on legacy at a time when personally you were feeling less than "best self."
You have me thinking . . . on those in my life and their legacy . . .
And also thinking . . . what am I . . .

shoreacres said...

Honestly, legacy is something I never think about. Considering it now, I think I'd say that legacy is public: influence is deeper, more personal, and often hidden.

If I'm feeling serious and philosophical when I consider people who strive to leave a particular legacy, I always think of "Ozymandias." But honestly, I think the Cheshire Cat's a perfectly good representation of the process. Some endure longer than others, but eventually, even the grin disappears. How we deal with that is an even bigger question, I think. No one likes to think of just disappearing.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

How I love this beautiful, insightful post! And you're so right: our legacies are who we are and how we made others feel and those little moments that live on in the memories of those who knew us.

Victoria Zigler said...

As others have said before me... This is another beautiful and thought-provoking post.

A person's perception will always colour their memories of a person or event, and there will always be different opinions on whether a legacy - or memory - is good or bad. All we can do is try to be the best person we can be, and hope that, when our time comes, there are more people who look at a legacy or memory we've left with fondness or pleasure, than people who have negative feelings towards what we've left behind.

Roses, Lace and Brocante said...

Well said Jeanie.
I agree Jimmy Carter was misunderstood and in hindsight he was a great U.S. President and his work since has been noticed throughout the world.
To be granted a monetary legacy is exciting and much appreciated and my husband and I have been lucky.
But when I think of family legacies I am grateful for the time my parents gave us , the little things like sitting on the step in the evening and talking about things.
My father took us and our cousins on day hikes in Summer, he was a botanist and taught us all about plants and mosses and birds!
My grandfather played cards with us and listened to our constant chatter - he also played the piano and we sang songs.
Time is precious and we try to use it wisely.
There are many good people in this world of ours who won't necessarily be remembered for anything except "he/she was a great family person".
World leaders are in a position of power and their legacies can be good or bad depending one one's political leaning.
Watching your current political goings on, is entertaining to a point but frightening to think of what could happen with the wrong person with their finger on the button of the most powerful nation.
Interesting perspectives from many.

Sally Wessely said...

I loved this beautifully written reflective post. Legacy and memories are powerful words. I wonder when we first begin to think of legacy. Do you think everyone thinks of what his or legacy will be? Legacy is a word tossed about a lot in the educational world about leaders in education. "He is only interested in building his legacy. He doesn't care about the day to day needs of the students and teachers." I heard that much about a former principal. In the end, the energy and time he put into his pet projects for his "legacy" was all for naught. He was cast out under embarrassing circumstances.

You have a powerful legacy of friendship, caring, encouragement and love. I know that from knowing you. Then there is the legacy of your creative endeavors of art and writing and photography. I think the passion with which you approached the FCC threat to public and commercial television is indicative of the way you put time, energy, and your ability to "marshal the troops" into those issues near and dear to your heart.

I love the way you honored those in your life whom were mentors. Great post!

Barb said...

I think your smile and your big heart and your hard work will be your legacy, Jeanie. I think we might make an impression on people as being honest and kind and responsible, so that becomes our legacy or we might convey less virtuous intents and those become our legacy. Good works and good deeds can't really be undone by time - I believe that. It's what I teach my grandchildren.

Anonymous said...

Kindness is the best legacy there is. We remember kind people with love, and we remember mean people with a shudder.

Beth Leintz said...

Wow Jeanie! What a though provoking post! It took me quite a while to read it because almost every paragraph made me stop and reflect. I'm not even sure exactly how to comment right now except to say thanks for giving me a lot to think about.

Houseelf said...

Your post reminded me of a poem read at a friend's funeral last year.


Not how did she die, but how did she live,

Not what she gained, but what did she give,

These are the units to measure the worth Of a woman as a woman, regardless of her birth.

Not what was her station, but had she a heart,

And how did she play her God-given part.

Was she ever ready with a word of good cheer

To bring back a smile, to banish a tear.

Not what was her church, not what was her creed,

But had she befriended those really in need?

Not what did the sketch in the newspaper say,

But how many were sorry when she passed away.

Jenny Woolf said...

The Guardian newspaper here has a series called "Ordinary Lives" and I always find these tremendously interesting. More interesting, really, as a rule, than the celebrities and famous folk who get the big obituaries. I usually feel very humbled to read of these non famous people who have spent so much time in really productive work and voluntary activities.

As to my own legacy, I never even think about it, I don't know why really!

Jennifer Richardson said...

What a wonderful post, friend.
Legacy. I love that word.
It makes me excited to think about building legacy.
I wonder if we live as true to our hearts
as we can, always learning and growing and stretching that way,
if we'll leave the legacy we desire even if we don't exactly
know how to bullet-point it in a crisp vision
while we're doing our living and building.
Hmmm. I wonder.
Anyway, I've loved this conversation
and all your yummy art.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Hello there dear Jeanie! I'm late....snow blizzards, school, falling on the ice, too much happening, BUT! All is well. I wish I could devote more time to that which I am truly passionate about, but oh well, gotta work! HAPPY CREATIVITY! Anita

Jemma@athomewithjemma said...


Such a well written, thought provoking, sentimental sort of post.

In the short year that I have known you, several things pop to mind.
For me, you will have a legacy that will include that genuine and glorious smile of yours, writing, truly a diversified artist and kind.

I hope to leave behind a legacy of genuine care for humanity, a passion for nature, baking and just hopefully my family will think that I was a really good Mom:)

Happy Thursday!

Bella Rum said...

What a thoughtful post. The memories are what matter because they influence those you leave behind. If you can inspire someone to live life well - even in a small way - then you've left a worthwhile legacy.

I've been missing from the blog world recently, but I'm glad I didn't miss this post. Thanks, Jeanie.

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