I recently traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, where music pours from every bar, restaurant and hotel, in a raucous and often heartfelt tribute to life, love and the human condition.
After listening to no fewer than 18 singer-songwriters over four days, I came away with an understanding of one of the things that motivates all that beautiful noise – leaving a legacy of one’s life for the world to see (in this case, hear).
In these later years of life, you may feel a pull to honor your or your loved one’s lives, especially if you’ve lost someone. I recently discovered that taking the time to do that – really think about ways to carry it through – creates a lot of meaning in the here and now, makes me feel good about the past and may even heal a few of those emotional wounds so often mined in honky-tonks and symphony halls alike.
For me, it’s the creative intention and the follow through – not the grandness of the gesture – that counts. If you’ve seen those little “in memoriam” name markers near trees at your local park, you understand what I mean. Someone took the time to make that happen for a fellow human he or she thought of and cared about.
After my children moved from our town, for example, instead of throwing away a funding offer in the mail, I bought a brick that is part of a walkway around a new fountain at a park in town. It says, “Kensington, Our Home” with all of our names, and it’s a site we seek out each time we’re all home together. We each have a metallic photo of the brick in our respective homes, reminding us of our geographical bond.
When thinking about my late father one day, I felt regret that he had no physical resting place since he requested cremation and no burial. I had scattered his ashes at a family plot in his mother’s hometown, but I had no headstone to visit and there was no physical presence to serve as a touchstone or tribute to his life.
I thought about how much he loved being present in one particular place in his hometown – the Elks Lodge pool in summer. For $70, I had a local trophy shop make a brass plaque to hang near the pool bar, a dad favorite. After a day of searching, I found what I thought was just the right quote to put on the plaque: “Drink to life and the passing show,” a bit of advice I could imagine my father giving as a toast to his friends. Now, I visit the plaque each time I travel home.
After retirement, I missed some of my academic pursuits and wished I could continue to contribute. My research days were over, but I noticed in a newsletter from an academic interest group that plans were in the works for creating an award in feminist media studies, my area of research. I wanted to make sure the award was as well-funded as the others in the field.
I contacted the award committee and offered a donation – one that got me invited to help shape and present the award and perhaps help build legacy in that part of my life. More importantly, it will help future generations of scholars.
Ceremonial ways of dealing with the deaths of family members often are related to honoring a legacy.
My husband and I recently carried out his parents’ wishes to have their ashes buried in remote West Texas where both their families started out. At a small family gathering on a plain dotted only with scrub brush and tumble weed we found tranquility in a place no one would think to find it. It was an example of self-determination and love I know my kids won’t forget.
Legacy in its simplest terms means something handed down. That could be the antique mirror my grandmother talked a repo man out of taking during hard times in the Depression (which is going to my sister) or the authentic 1970s rock band t-shirts I hope my grandkids will wear dozens of decades after I and their mother did (thank you, TikTok).
Some people leave buildings with their names on them to commemorate their lives, but most of us must find smaller tokens of remembrance. There are so many ways to further the spirit of those who have meant a lot to us, and like that music in Nashville, it just takes some intention and an ability to tap into our feelings amid the chaos of our days.
No matter how small the gesture – planting a tree, putting together a book of photos or placing a special keepsake out on a shelf, for example – putting an emotional connection out into the world honors those we love and ourselves. It lets our families, friends and communities know what they meant to us and what we want to leave behind.
Can you think of a way to honor your or your family’s legacy in some small way? How do you think you would feel about taking that step? Why is legacy important?