What’s in a legacy?
We are not given the choice as to what our legacy will be or whether we will leave one, but rather our legacy is decided by those we leave behind—those whose lives we shared a moment in and with and whose lives are decidedly changed in the absence of our place in this world. Legacies are decided by the empty ring that follows an “and” in a pair of names that have always been a pair and suddenly aren’t. Legacies are decided by the random memories that drift to the surface years after settling in the first place, by the appearance of the dead in someone else’s clothing, face, voice, smell. Legacies are decided by our anxiety over things we did not say, anxiety over things we did, sadness at the time lost or the loss of the possibility of more time, joy for the time that was, for the memories we can spin about at nightfall in dreams—awake and otherwise. Legacies are the letters pressed into paper, the moments we want to share and suddenly cannot, the repetition of days and holidays and the spontaneous or serendipitous once knit together and now not.
More so, legacies are decided by the time that passes after a death—when we are “sweeping up the heart,” as Emily Dickinson might say. Why? Because death feels like a permanent, but shallow pane dividing us from then and now, separating the living and the dead. Because we feel the absence in a manner that’s as loud as it can be without saying a word, because the function and perhaps fault of memory is what prolongs someone’s life long after they’ve passed beyond. Legacies are decided by the collection of memories the world has about us, about them, about everything and no one memory about any one thing is exactly the same. What is collective memory but a kind of love, a kind of legacy of someone’s time stretched across the spines of so many other lives across too many moments to count?
My grandmother was not what most would call a kind person—she was, as my grandfather told the pastor, a bitch. But to understand what he meant without casting judgment is to understand my grandmother. She was kind in secret, kind in action even if she wasn’t kind in word, and kind in her devotion to her children when they most needed it. When I was twelve, my mother was hit by a car. Every day for weeks after that, my grandmother would drive to our home to help my mother bathe, to feed her, to stroke her forehead as her healing pelvis fractures creaked in pain. When my parents split up a few years later, my grandparents took her in and helped her buy the first new car she’d ever owned in her own name. My grandmother went with my mother to look at the home she later bought and still lives in. She was, in short, my mom’s best friend.
On the other hand, my grandmother’s mouth wasn’t one you usually wanted directed at you. Why? Her mouth didn’t come with a filter. She was a bigot and a racist and would spout off whatever most un-politically correct thing she could before following it up with, “But I’m not a racist/bigot.” She was rude, overly opinionated at the most inappropriate times, critical about anything and everything—just for the fun of it. Despite having birthed four kids herself, my grandmother hated children. She was exceptionally cruel to each of her grandkids. Every nasty, degrading put-down she could pluck from her head inevitably hurtled out of her mouth and hit you where it hurt the most: the heart. If it wasn’t an insult, it was an inappropriate question or suggestion about your personal life and usually launched in public or in front of a large group of people. If she made you cry, obviously it was your own fault.
But the person I knew as an adult was someone I was much more forgiving with. No matter what awful thing she said to me, it was just Grandma and Grandma’s way. No matter how cruel it might have seemed, it was only because my grandmother wanted to say what she wanted to say when she wanted to say it—it wasn’t out of manipulation or malice. My grandmother loved Stephen King books, Patsy Cline, QVC, and if a new gadget or cell phone came out she had to have it. If it was “cute,” she had to buy it and if it involved dishes or crystal or alcohol glasses of the champagne flute/brandy snifter/cocktail glass persuasion, she was certain we’d have a Hallmark family Sunday dinner at some point and home it came. In fact, she collected so much stuff that my grandfather would get rid of things when she wasn’t home to make room for more purchases.
We text messaged frequently, toured the Celestial Seasonings factory with my mum a few years ago, and shared visits on Saturdays every few weeks. I helped her order an iPod shuffle like my own from Amazon earlier this year and then attempted to put music on it for her when it finally arrived before discovering the viruses and other problems afflicting my grandmother’s laptop soon after. She asked me to help set up the new printer and keyboard she and my grandfather had acquired over the summer and sent my mother home with vegetables purchased from the local farmers market…and she was all of these things and still rude, to the point, and without a filter.
Eight years ago, my grandmother received a kidney transplant. A lifetime smoker, she quit smoking, started eating a little better, and enjoyed a solid five or six years of improved health. Without having to worry about PKD killing her, we in turn enjoyed the extra time with her. My grandmother died in September, five weeks after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Her brother passed away ten days after that of colon cancer and my brother nearly lost his life in a car accident the following day. We’re all still attempting to recoup from the last couple of months.
These are the legacies we leave: imprints our life left on someone else’s. We cannot control how someone else wants to see us or remembers us or loves us and in those things (and only those things,) our legacy is born and lives on.