A legacy is traditionally defined as a gift, or an inheritance of money or property. The term dates from the 15th Century in England during the era when citizens began to accumulate property or wealth, which could be passed down to the next generation. The term has evolved to include other gifts as well. I received a different kind of legacy just the other day.
I had spent the morning of a very hot day, doing yard work. My soaked shirt proclaimed that the humidity was really high. I was covered with speckles of dirt and grass clippings, and my torn work shorts were smudged by work gloves. I suspect those who know me from my professional settings would not have recognized me that day.
I think it was around noon, when I took a break, to run an errand to a local convenience store. While there I remembered that I also wanted to fill the tires of my car, since they looked a bit too soft. This was my beach car, with age and mileage showing. (Just like me, I suppose).
Having left in a rush, I neglected to take any change with me, and of course, the tire pump outside the store only took quarters. This is one the the unforeseen consequences of living in the modern era where credit cards can be used most everywhere. So I looked in the glove compartment, where I was able to find a small collection of pennies, nickels and dimes.
I went back into the store and was counting pennies and placing them in stacks of five, when a 30-something came to the counter to pay for a coffee he had just gotten. He looked at me and asked “What’s all that?” pointing to the stacks of pennies in front of me. I said “Oh, I’m just counting pennies because I need quarters…” He finished my sentence, “…for the air compressor outside!” I said “Yes”.
When he finished paying for his coffee, he gave the lady behind the counter a dollar bill with the instructions, as he nodded toward me, “Give him the quarters.” And he turned and started to walk out of the store.
I was stunned. I managed to say something like “Oh you don’t have to do that.”
But he just waved and told me to have a good day. I managed to blurt out “Thanks.” And he was gone.
Several thoughts raced through my mind. He must think I need the money. Or maybe it was just a generous, kindly thing to do.
I couldn’t decide how to feel about this extraordinary simple event. It was only later that I began to entertain the idea that this could be thought of as a legacy, of the most important kind. It really didn’t matter what he thought about me, or my situation. What mattered was that he took the action that he did. I certainly remember this event, and will for a long time. I have enjoyed looking for opportunities to pass this lagacy along.
Now this is certainly not like the legacy one sees on a program such as the Antique Roadshow. Heirlooms, passed down through generations are appraised and given staggering estimates of worth if sold at auction.
I am not sure those gifts are really important anyway, in the grand scheme of things. There aren’t many who can pass down valuable objects to future generations. And I wonder, if you receive one of these gifts, what do you do with it? Store it in a vault? I suppose it can bring a sense of connectedness to those who have gove before. But how could you possibly ever sell it? It really doesn’t belong to you. You are only the caretaker for future generations. And how do you decide which child will inherit it?
I, on the other hand, had received the legacy of a simple act of kindness. And I knew immediately what to do. I would pass it along as soon, and as often, as I could. Not that is a real gift.
The most important legacy can never be a thing. It is found in the personhood of the one who bestows the gift. Recently the comedian, Stephen Colbert, have a moving on-air tribute to his mother following her recent passing. He pointed to the values which she held and expressed, not to any thing which she had left. He appreciated and remembered her faith, gratitude, focus on family, and fun.
I suspect this is always the case. I too remember the values, traits, and acts of kindness that my parents exhibited. I value the legacy of their wisdom, and the character that showed during adversity. Those are the most precious gifts. I can only hope that the legacy I leave as a husband, parent, friend, and citizen of the world, will continue the gifts which were given to me.