Our Lives, Our Legacies

One hundred years ago, Memorial Day was a non-holiday in Atlanta. As one local newspaper columnist tells us, there were no grand parades down Peachtree, no political speeches, and certainly no waving of the stars and stripes. For white Southerners in l910, this was a “Yankee Only” event. Any laying of flowers on the graves of loved ones lost in war happened a few weeks earlier on April 26, Confederate Memorial Day, commemorating the surrender of the South’s last major army to General William T. Sherman, credited with destroying Atlanta and much of Georgia in 1864.

This North-South rift, even in grieving those who died, has changed slowly, and not until more than a half century after the Civil War did our state militia units and the Daughters of the Confederacy join in mourning war dead from both sides.

So this weekend there will be this, observances at our national cemeteries in Marietta and in Andersonville and other tearful tributes to those military men and women lost in battle, for this is what Memorial Day or what was once called Decoration Day calls us to do, regardless of our support or condoning of war in general or wars in particular.

That’s the official why we celebrate the holiday, and then what actually happens this first un-official weekend of summer can be mostly quite different. We haul out the barbeque, hope for a respite from thunder storms, often gathering together as extended families, across generations.

For some of us, visiting the graves or other resting places of our own relations is something we faithfully do at this time as well.

There are other ways to spend parts of these three ( or four, or five) days off: the sales, always the sales, mall sales, art festival sales, and even online sales. A look at the “spring value guide” in the classifieds led me to the possibility of dropping by any number of garage and yard sales, and more poignantly, estate sales—on this weekend of remembering and honoring those who are no longer with us—I could browse through, or more likely pick through the entire contents of one household, one person’s possessions or another: a Victorian rocker, Lionel trains, a collection of slot machines, basements full of craftsman’s tools. As one ad enticed me: 60 years of accumulation, full, full, full.

Stripped of any memory or meaning for me and the others who might pull up, walk through, and eye what is for us enticing (or not enticing) second-hand goods, bargains for our own homes.

Another possibility, which at first seemed just frivolous, even gruesome, is the Hoarders marathon tomorrow on cable television, each hour- long show a look at two people who are in danger, almost literally, of being buried alive in all of the stuff they have accumulated, and how they are helped by counselors and junk hauling crews to begin to dig out and stand a chance of surviving their own need to binge on things without ever purging them.

As one blogger observed, in perhaps the most bizarre example ever of counter-programming, A&E ( arts and entertainment network, low on arts, questionable on entertainment) has scheduled nonstop episodes of this real life series about compulsive collectors, yes, 15 hours of peering into homes, as he writes, piled high with decades-old newspapers, used diapers, expired food, and dead cats. What better way to spend the holiday?

I am by no means  recommending that any of us watch this exercise in voyeurism, this  typical reality TV invasion of dignity, but at this annual time of memorializing and remembering our dead, there might indeed be some  link, indeed a powerful  link between  this extreme form of collecting and keeping, and our human need to possess and leave behind a tangible legacy.

A psychologist and a social worker, two academics who have also worked with hoarders for more than 20 years, have just published a book: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Called the first comprehensive book about this disorder, the authors not only document the lives of just a few of the estimated six million people who suffer from the inability to stop gathering or parting from their things, they also illuminate the pull that possessions exert on all of us, whether we are savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, none of us, they maintain, are free of the impulses that driver hoarders to extremes.

In almost inescapable ways, they tell us, we are what we own, even onto future generations: as one hoarder Irene said to her interviewers: if I throw too much away, there will be nothing left of me.

As  Lita Furby, a pioneer researcher in the field of ownership and possessions, has discovered, our possessions are not only useful, allowing us to do things or accomplish something, providing us a sense of security while we are alive, helping us to create either cocoons or bunkers,  possessions also become a part of  our core sense of self.

We maintain identity by preserving personal history—these mementos become, she learned through her studies— repositories for the sensations, thoughts and emotions present during earlier experiences: that record played during a senior prom, the old perfume bottle evoking a first love, the dried flowers preserved from a wedding ceremony; the first baseball glove from little league. Tying us to the us we were in our own past, hoping that this is understood and cherished after we die.

We collect things, most of us, in virtually all cultures, from 1,100 ancient clay seals excavated from Persian tombs to happy meals plastic figures stored in spare bedrooms and attics.  We collect, we are told, for the thrill of the hunt, the story we can tell about how we came to own one thing or another. We collect because we find these objects artful and pleasing, or for prestige—we own something that is highly valued by others, even envied; or for mastery. But ,accepted  theories of acquisition teach us that we primarily gather things around us to define, protect, or enhance (extend) the self, even including cultures in which people connect themselves to objects by licking or touching them, and cultures where the objects belonging to those who died are also grieved.

And we collect, some scholars suggest, as a way of managing our fears about death by creating a form of immortality. This theory, called terror management, is based on the human capacity to be aware of our own mortality, the fact that we will all die—despite momentarily cheating death by means of a medical miracle, despite our ability to extend life long past what was thought possible even a decade ago or despite whatever life or lives might be ahead, for those who believe in afterlife or reincarnation.

To deal with this potential terror, we develop coping strategies, including the belief that some part of ourselves lives on after we die, including what we have amassed and left behind.

And while it is often our things, our personal objects, we hold on to, perhaps to stave off the non-being we so fear in death, we are known to cling to pieces of the lives of those who have already left us. A recent story in the New York Times revealed that the widow of a well-known Yiddish author had kept complete control over his papers, including much of his poetry that had been un-translated, saying that no translator could possibly do her husband justice. After her own death, in the midst of a mass of clutter in their apartment, these treasures were found.

It’s all about possession, writer Cynthia Ozick, one of those translators, responded.  It’s about believing that I alone possess this man. It’s a kind of hoarding greed.

A kind of surrogate immortality.

While there is a common saying that we spend the first 50 years of life  accumulating stuff and the next 50 years getting rid of it, building up and then downsizing, there is evidence that for seniors letting go of possessions can be more difficult than not.

Vickie Dellaquila, a certified professional organizer and author of Don’t Toss My Memories in The Trash, has found 10 reasons why older people can’t or won’t give up their stuff, because of sentimental attachment, for one, the need to conserve—seniors, she says, are the original green people, fatigue, health limitations—they simply can’t do the work of letting go—fear of losing something necessary ( or so they believe) like 30 years of bank statements, love of shopping like many of the rest of us, and then the history and the memories—the sense that these things they keep are the only legacy they will leave behind. Not realizing that in many instances, the “treasures” they insist on keeping might well become meaningless burdens to their heirs, stripped of the personal reasons why they were kept in the first place.

It is not always so, as I can testify, with a mother in law who passed away a few years back at 90, who had held her own estate sale well ahead of any timeline for dying, tossing out photos and mementos, including a chess board her son had made in shop, the only decent piece, he recalls, that he ever crafted.

His biggest regret about her hyper purging tendencies, her need not to keep things, was that she read one book at a time over the years, and then discarded them, gave them away, so he did not have the opportunity either during her lifetime or after she died to get any sense of what interested her in literature or non-fiction. Her son, a book lover, would have loved that piece of her legacy.

My father, on the other hand, did not have any chance to weigh in on what stayed and what went after he died a couple of years back following years of physical and mental decline. He had gone into the hospital for a major illness and never allowed to return to the two- bedroom apartment in a high rise in Buckhead that had been his home for a quarter of a century.

At the end, he had engaged in a limited kind of hoarding ( or  was it forgetfulness) that led him to double and triple order stocks of gourmet clam chowder and exotic bean combinations, stacked to the overflowing in his kitchen cupboard. But for the rest of his possessions, his collections—they were what I might expect from a man in his eighties—his assortment of ceramic owls, his walking sticks and canes from all over the world, his many books, records, and CDS.

When we had to move him out and into an assisted living facility where valuables were discouraged and quarters much tighter, we rented a large storage locker, crammed to the ceiling with those items he could no longer have with him.  There was an initial process of tossing perishables and expired cans and obvious trash, but little else.

And when it was decided to move him to California to be near the ocean he loved and a different set of children and grandchildren, my brothers came to (help) determine once more what stayed and what went, the family spats began.

Not about financial assets, because these had been carefully specified in his will, but the other material things. I will admit that I made an offline pass through the locker, taking a few things: his copper bottomed pots and pans, his good knives, some cookbooks, and then my children went through: my youngest selecting a few of the owls, a cane with a bird on the tip, an onyx chess set from Mexico, the one his grandpa used to consistently win with, with no interest in giving the kid a break. He selected some records- comedy albums: Woody Allen, Lily Tomlin, big band jazz, Miles Davis, as part of his richer understanding of our family culture, style, traditions, and moral base.

It was not what we siblings wanted to keep and “fight” over, but what was so unceremoniously dumped and given away to strangers that broke my heart during the process: almost all my dad’s books, his vinyl albums, almost anything considered worthless in monetary terms.

At the end of a two year process, in a bad market for fine art and collectibles, very little of what had been thought of as valuable and kept: Japanese prints, ivory (illegal ivory) figurines from China, furniture brought much cash. Most eventually were sold by a professional estate broker, for pennies on the dollar.

Besides the few things I initially extracted from storage and later dutifully reported for accounting purposes, I ended up with a stained quilt from North Carolina, a Kachina doll I had originally given my father for a birthday gift, some letters from me (because of course we have those he may have sent), some old photos of his family, and  a framed copy of a poem I had written to and about him many years before:

Bird Census-

Webs bundle the reeds
Odd bulbs bob on the canal,
Only bullheads on the line;
January stretches out like an oil slick on the New Year.
In the rush thicket,
Shorebirds, drably marked, but marked nonetheless,
A brown patch on the head, a striped wing.
I need to identify them,
To name their magic.
Oh daddy, you could have taught me,
Made me crouch in the duck blind,
Splinter-legged and shivering,
Shown me how to aim binoculars,
Catch the rustle before flight,
And the calls, the squawks and titters,
The hum of bird love, the shrill fights.
That would have been the all you could have given me,
Who assumed that rough private dawns and the names of birds
Would not have been enough.

The names of birds, his love of birding, his passion, his legacy.

This comes up for me so often now, like a few weeks ago when a bird built a nest in a front yard tree and I wanted to know her species and how long she would be sitting on her eggs, or the time just a week or so after he died when an owl was sitting on a tree in the middle of the day on a walk we always take, or when another bird, a cedar waxwing perhaps, smashed into our glass door.

Fortunately for us, my father and I had time in his dying years to talk, to hear his childhood stories and his war stories, and a nephew of mine even did a short video for a high school project where his grandfather described his experiences in the Battle of Tarawa in the South Pacific during WW II.

I never did learn the names of birds though, because his memory stripped him of that ability, this man who had received a plaque (which I do have as a legacy) from the Lt. Governor of Georgia commending him for teaching some 5,000 people in this state how to bird through Evenings at Emory.  In the poem I read back from those many years ago, I hear anger and pain, but also a woman who wanted to know and who did know who her father was and what was significant in his living.

In 1987, I had the opportunity to do a story for a weekly news magazine about coming to terms with our parents’—and other loved ones—frailness, their mortality, and a growing interest, dramatically aroused by the TV series Roots, in preserving oral and written family histories.

I interviewed a professional videographer who was making a reasonable living acting on behalf of families to capturing the legacy found, not in inherited possessions but in stories and values. As my son Ben so aptly put it, the “stuff” (and he did not say stuff) you pass down.

Some of the basic questions the documentarian suggested asking were: Where did you grow up? What did your family home look like? How did you meet and fall in love? What did you feel about having children?

And then specific questions were designed to draw out reminiscences of another era.

These tapes were meant not only to capture the past for posterity, but also as a way of communicating about our notions of meaning and purpose with those still living.

There is a wealth of resources now about how to do this process, capture our own histories and those of others for safekeeping, how to own them.  As one book on the gift of this kind of legacy reminds us, it is the everyday joys and sorrows as well as the” big events” that provide fertile connecting ground between generation. This gift we give others could become, we are told, the gateway to a wider vision of our own lives. The reflections we engage in, the questions we answer, can uncover a purpose we may not have known or realized, a resolution and awareness of life’s fullness for each one of us.

Out there also are books and websites encouraging us to write what is called an ethical will, a tradition going back to biblical times, wherein we bequeath, not only our material inheritance but our spiritual legacy as well. In general, we are instructed to address personal values and life principles, hopes for future generations, and the critical life task of forgiving others.

These ethical wills have been passed on, not just after death, but during one’s lifetime in the form of letters or missives, often exquisitely written.

The timing of when these are created and to whom now include soon to be married couples, used as an agreed upon basis for how they will raise their family. The birth of a child also provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on values important to them.

Even in divorce, an ethical will can provide a kind of mutual statement of legacy, providing some level of security for children by giving them some measure of knowing the values both their parents aspire to.

In the writing of them, we get information for ourselves about our own priorities, identifying values important to us in planning our own charitable giving, either during our lifetimes or when we die. Because mindful giving also is legacy:  to feel like our life made a difference that will go on, to perpetuate our philosophy or perspective, to memorialize our family or ethnic group, to do our part—in perpetuity – to heal the world.

To honor my father and his legacy to me, I give to Trees Atlanta for their partnership with the Audubon Society in preserving and recreating bird habitat along the proposed green beltway.  His death made me realize that it is time, past time, to begin to talk with my own children about what it is I most cherish in this world and to begin to formalize how I express it as well.

As Steven Covey writes, the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence and contribution.

And in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the only gift is as portion of thyself.

May it be so this day.