I recently attended an art opening at which I ran into an old acquaintance. It had been at least 15 years since I’d last seen him and, while he was surprised I even remembered his name, he confessed that he remembered me well. In fact, something I’d said years earlier had made such an impression he’d told many friends about it. He’d also told his girlfriend, who was standing beside him at the opening, and to whom he turned and said, “This is her.”
“Oh my God,” she said. “THIS is HER?”
I don’t think a lot about my legacy. True, at 51 I am well into middle age, but not so far along that I’ve given much thought to what I’ll leave behind in the way of wisdom or influence. In that moment, however, I was changed. For without my even realizing it, something I’d said had made a lasting impression on someone, so much so that he had shared it with his friends and loved ones. My wisdom, passed on.
I swelled with gratitude and pride. The fact that I didn’t know what it was I’d said didn’t even matter. Did I know the weight of my words when I spoke them? Did I imagine then that they would survive the years? Does anyone know a legacy is a legacy in the moment the legacy is being formed, or do words and deeds require seasoning and sequestering to ripen and become legacy the way ham and wine require curing and aging to come into their own?
I thought back on the wisdoms imparted to me over the years that have had impact. There was the Christmas tree salesman I met when I was 15 who told me mothers were just people and that I should forgive mine. There was the college friend’s warning not to marry the first man I fell in love with. There was the professor who suggested I not present myself as a Green Beret on my job application, and there was the therapist who informed me that, despite what I thought, I actually could not predict the future.
Each of these pieces of wisdom was handed down either flippantly or with great tact but, in the end, all that mattered was the message. As the imparter of a legacy myself, I stood in awe of wisdom’s many vehicles. I smiled at my acquaintance at the art opening.
“Wow,” I said. “I have to know what it was I told you that stayed with you all these years.”
“You were telling me about a conversation you had with your friends,” he said. “You were discussing what you would and wouldn’t do for a million dollars.”
I would like to say that, at this point, the conversation with my friends came back to me, and that I recalled I’d said I would earn the money legally and then, like the Green Beret I was, would build a state-of-the-art animal sanctuary in New Mexico and high-tech children’s hospital in Nairobi, then donate whatever was left to PETA, after which I would thank the children and animals for the honor of helping them.
But this was not what I said.
“You said you’d bite off a baby’s toe,” my acquaintance told me. “You said it would be OK because the baby wouldn’t feel it.”
I was horrified. While it’s true that I do not go out of my way to coo or otherwise interact with babies, I harbor no ill will toward them or their minuscule appendages. I have no idea why I said what I said.
Probably someone in my group said they would chop off a grown man’s leg, making it necessary to go the step further. Who knows? We were young then, and anything seemed possible.
So what will be your legacy? A bit of advice: Choose your words carefully. You might have to live them down later.
Contact Dana Shavin at firstname.lastname@example.org.