Even when I was a young man, I always wondered what I might be remembered for when I’m gone. In the five years before I turned fifty, I spent many hours with my creative palette, sharing the ideas and inspirations I’d dreamed up, writing and performing at every opportunity. Is it possible that one role I took on inspired a youngster to take up acting? I pondered. Could some set of words I’d written become a mantra for a lost generation? Could it change a single life? Could one of my punchlines become a private joke that never gets tired between two people?
Ultimately, of course, it’s not for me to decide. It appears that you don’t get to choose your legacy, your legacy chooses you. Hilariously, I’m recognized four times more often for playing Mark Twain on a web series called Soggy Jim than I am for playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. The play that has paid the most bills for me, Night of the Livid Dad, was written when I was nineteen. It was about being a husband and father, two things I had not done at that point in my life. So much for “Write what you know.”
I had a chance to see a person’s legacy reveal itself this past week when my mother had a stroke. It was, thankfully, a mild one (an easy thing to say when it wasn’t me with difficulty walking and a crushing headache). When she had stabilized and was ready to share with the world her excellent prognosis, I dictated a statement and took it home to place on social media.
I should explain at this point that my mother’s life was not always an easy one. A third child, adored by her father and resented by her mother, she could rarely do anything to please the one who had given birth to her, as a youngster or as an adult. Discouraged from reaching for the stars, browbeaten for having dreams, she coped, doing what she could to become her own person and still seeking the approval of one who was so stingy with it. I won’t go into my late grandmother’s psychiatric problems…all of her life, she attempted to make every story center around her and today I will deny her that victory.
Mom had to fly by the seat of her pants, trying to be a wife and a mother when she’d been given a piss-poor example of same. Giving birth to two sons, she had to learn, being the only woman in the house, how to be one of the boys. To this day, she can still feign interest in wrestling, boxing and baseball when she would rather be watching a Fred Astaire musical.
She told my brother and me we could do anything we put our mind to. While that wasn’t exactly true, it didn’t stop us from trying. She was always there to cheer us on, exalting in our triumphs occasionally and certain that the fates would be different if we tried again at something we had failed. When we were grown, we left the nest without backward glances, eager to try our new wings, positive that we would always have a place to land if the weather turned nasty.
If you’re as lucky as I am, there are those people you’ve known since high school (or before) that you check in with on occasion. Social media has become a place where I see the disappearing hairlines and just-appearing grandchildren of people I’ve known for over thirty years. Most all of them have been to the house I grew up in, many finding a safe haven from the chaos in their own adolescent homes. Mom didn’t approve of many of the activities we were up to and was hardly shy about expressing it. She also knew that we were better off in her basement, under her watchful eye, than out on the street. She seemed to know when to pat us on the head or kick us in the ass and seemed to be aware of which ones needed it the most.
When I shared the news of my mother’s stroke, comments poured in, some from people I hadn’t heard from in years. One guy, who rarely used the ‘L’ word with his first wife (and only occasionally afforded it to the Green Bay Packers) wrote, “I love that woman.” When I looked at the posts and allowed my mind to go back to the old, smoke-filled basement, I saw it. Carolyn’s legacy.
There were people who found the courage to walk away from abusive relationships. A few that decided that they didn’t have to be wired on drugs to be funny. There were those that decided to speak their mind, although it was going to make people angry. Some applied themselves to school because of her counsel, while others decided they loved themselves, even though they were heavier than society thought they should be. At least one decided to find their satisfaction in the Bible instead of the bottle.
And so, we see a life’s work unfold before us, a grain of sand at a time instead of a shovelful of dirt all at once. It’s possible my legacy is sharing this story with you. Perhaps yours, Dear Reader, is in sharing your story as well. She didn’t set out to change the world, but she changed lives. One heart at a time, she’s made the world a better place. I aspire to her greatness.