What Will Be Your Legacy? Live as You Want to Be Remembered.

When we hear about someone leaving a legacy, we picture grand, important gestures. Huge endowments, scores of scholarships, life-changing inventions, or charity work benefitting millions. But, for most of us, that will never be the case.

I first thought about the concept of what-you-leave-behind, when we moved to the US, and my mum invited me to go through the portfolio of her paintings and choose some to bring with me. You see, at the age of 50—and having never picked up a paintbrush before—she decided to take art lessons. Watercolors were her favorite medium, and flowers, and scenery her inspiration. She was rather good, won a few awards, sold a few pictures, and although I loved some of her works, I never really thought of it as much more than her hobby. I selected several paintings, and they went in our shipping container with others I’d received from her over the years.

Once in the States, we settled down and hung several of the paintings in our first house. From never really paying that much attention to them when they were in our Cape Town home, I suddenly found they brought me great comfort. It felt like my mother was there with me in this strange and oh so foreign land. Had she also felt as disconnected when she emigrated to South Africa from Scotland? I would touch the edge of each painting where she’d signed her name: Alice M Mitchell. I gave my daughter the name Alice, and my son, the middle name Mitchell—my maiden name. I tapped her signature, and it felt like I was completing a circle. 

The watercolor framed by a view across the East River toward Long Island City.

Then, this past weekend, my daughter asked if she could have one of the watercolors for her New York City apartment. How I wished that when my mum swirled those colors onto that paper, she had known one day her work would be in the Manhattan apartment of her namesake granddaughter. Nothing grand, no National Medal of Arts recipient, but a legacy, a tangible piece of her passion, a peek inside her thoughts.

What will be your legacy? What will you leave behind for generations to come?  Not everyone has fortunes, scholarships, or even humble art to leave behind, but I know for sure, we all have something.

Values: this most powerful of legacies makes me think of my Dad. A highly successful businessman, I have nothing of his I can hold or touch, but I have his values. He was one of the most decent people I have ever known. A brilliant mind with a gentle heart, he taught me everything about kindness and fairness. He showed me it was better to throw light than heat. And just as important, he left me a legacy in my sense of humor. A dry wit that I hear reflected in my son’s comments. So often I think, wow, that’s exactly like something dad would have said. Although it isn’t tangible, I remind myself that values outlive objects—a wonderful legacy.

Think of the positive values you received from a parent, a grand-parent, an aunt. Practice those values, and their legacy lives on in you. Pass on those values, and their legacy lives on in your offspring.

Teaching: any person who has ever taught, coached, tutored, or mentored has left a legacy. Think about something you can do well or something you love to do: you are a strong swimmer, you have a green thumb. Maybe you love knitting or traveling. Whoever shared their time and talent with you, they left a legacy. If you have a skill or body of knowledge, share it with others. Help them grow in that area, and encourage them to excel. Every time they do so, you will live on in their actions.

Recipes and traditions: go through your recipe book and find those that were handed down to you, or have become your family favorites. Make copies and then add a brief note to each one. Explain who first made it for you and who passed it down to them. Jot down a few sentences remembering a time you made the dish. What was happening at the time, who was there, was it tied to a special holiday?  Although I cook very different meals to those my mother made, I have many of her baking recipes. I’ve made them over the years, but I wish I knew the backstory of each one. By sharing those recipes with your loved ones, a little part of you will live on each time it is enjoyed.

Material possessions: do you have a ring, a vase, or a favorite book that you treasure? If you plan to hand it on to a loved one, prepare for it now. Take a photo of each item, save it in a folder, then add an explanation. I am fortunate to have a husband who has given me lovely items of jewelry. I have photos of each piece with a brief story about it. Not all details about some of the earlier pieces are crystal clear, but I’ve noted down as much as I can remember: when I received it, what was the occasion, where we were, and special times I’ve worn it. None of us can leave a Royal-like treasure trove of priceless jewels, or a library of first editions, but we can provide the story behind items. I love to imagine that 100 years from now, my descendants, will wear those pieces with as much joy as I do. And, I hope as they walk through a world, I’ll never know, they think of me and the journey of that jewelry. Grab your favorite book, and write a letter about why you love it or what it meant to you. Slip it deep in the pages for a loved one to discover.

Writing: years ago, when my children were already in their late teens, I read about a woman who, when her first grandchild was born, wrote him a letter. She continued to do this on every one of his birthdays. She never handed them over, but kept them and on his 21st presented him with the box. How I wished I had done that with my own children! Writing is one of the oldest ways to pass on a legacy, to leave something for future generations. The simple act of keeping a journal can provide your offspring with a glimpse into your world, your thoughts, and your feelings. For me, this blog is my “box of letters.” In the future, I plan to have them gathered in a book, like the photo-album books, to hand to each of my children……or grandchildren.

Think about how you would like to be remembered. What do you hope future generations will know about you? 

And, if none of the above appeals to you, then remember: it is all about your presence, not your presents. Spend time with those you love, and they will surely share those happy memories with the loved ones who follow after you. Your legacy will be love.

9 Comments on “What Will Be Your Legacy? Live as You Want to Be Remembered.

  1. As always beautifully written and brings tears to my eyes. You are such a special lady Jane and I thank the universe for sharing you with me.

  2. Love this Jane – have some letters from my grandmothers and lots of artwork from my Dad – I truly cherish them all. Great article once again – I am going to make sure to do this when I pull out a recipe or a piece of China

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