Legacy of a life well-lived

My father died on April 8 at age 84.  His obituary gives facts about his life, but the truth of a person’s legacy lies in his character.  The following post is the text of the eulogy I gave at his memorial service on April 16.

Our father was the fourth of six children, the last of his siblings to depart this earth.  He attributed his “thrifty” (some might say “cheapskate”) behavior to being, as he called it, “a child of the Depression.”  His father owned a small meatpacking company — so while the Hamners had to scrimp on things like clothes, they always ate well.

Because tuberculosis had weakened my grandfather’s lungs, they moved to the edge of town, where he could breathe fresh country air.  Bob’s father liked horses, and he bought a pony the kids named Polecat (on account of his ornery personality), plus three more horses they called Peter Pan, Ping Pong and Popeye.  Dad’s older brother, Jack, was a champion rider, and Dad went along to horse shows as Jack’s “groom.”  But not everyone in the family enjoyed the horses.  The eldest sister, Elizabeth, saw them as examples of her father’s chauvinistic preference for spending money on silly things like livestock rather than on higher education for his female offspring.  She nicknamed them Vassar, Wellesley and Smith. Their mother would grow angry when the horses got out of their pasture and munched on her rosebushes.  Our father used to laugh about how she went out in frustration after the horses ruined several of her rose plants one day, and she pulled up the rest of them as though they were weeds, just so the horses couldn’t eat them, too.  I think having a strong-willed mother probably prepared Bob for fifty-three years of marriage to Donna!

 

Our father’s career as a Southern Baptist minister began in a tiny church on the Mexican border, in the town of Eagle Pass, Texas.  He spent nine years there and made close friends, both Americans and Mexicans.  These years undoubtedly shaped his attitude of tolerance for different types of people and viewpoints, as well as his theology.But what about Donna, the love of Bob’s life?  Well, the two of them were set up in 1958 by a mutual friend.  Actually, Bob (who was 31 years old) initially refused to go out with Donna because, when he asked how old this potential date was, his friend confessed she was not quite 20.  After he said “no thanks,” their friend had to get crafty: she waited a couple of weeks, then simply told Bob she had someone she thought he’d like to meet.  He asked how old this girl was, and the friend replied, “She’s old enough.”  Bob, who was still living on the Mexican border, took Donna out the next time he came to San Antonio.  For him, it was love at first sight.  By their second date, when they celebrated Donna’s birthday and Bob learned she was only 20, he realized his friend had tricked him.  But it was too late — he was already smitten!  Donna, however, needed a bit more time.  Thanks to Dad’s persistence and Mom’s eventually realizing he was the right man for her, they were married in June 1959 and moved soon thereafter to San Antonio.

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Fifty: it’s MY birthday

I’m 50 years old today.  Some of my friends assumed I was 50 a while ago, others have teased me by asking, “Are you ever going to turn 50 and catch up to the rest of us?” and of course my daughter is happy to name other moms who are older than me but look younger.  Now that I’ve arrived, however, this big birthday seems to be worth all the fuss.

Fifty feels more like MY birthday than 40 did.  I turned 40 amidst the hubbub of school-aged kids, pausing between math tests and basketball games to blow out my candles.  But now, two of my children are in college and the third one will be leaving in a year and a half.  So I’ve stopped organizing my days around kid doctor visits and afternoon carpools.  I’m back to counting years by my own age, not by the ages of my children.  Now that my child-rearing job is winding down, I get to look for my next gigue, explore options for something I can throw myself into with passion and energy.

That describes the good days, of course.  On the bad days my knee hurts, I can’t remember the name of someone I’ve known for years, and the print on labels shrinks and goes fuzzy.   I miss having children in the house, miss feeling needed, miss having a role like “mom” that imparts purpose to my life.

As my Austrian friend Andrea might say, I survey age 50 with “one laughing eye and one crying eye.”  There’s a lot to celebrate, but ignoring the sad parts devalues the happier times.  Having lived through hard days helps me appreciate the easy ones.  Designers are right about more than aesthetics when they offer the advice that vivid colors “pop” if put you put them against a black background.

At 50, I’ve lived more than half my statistical allotment of years here on Earth.  On the other hand, I may just be reaching the halfway point of adulthood.  It’s time to stop looking inward — mourning my youthful independence, my child-raising years, the career I put aside for other priorities.  And to start looking outward — to see where I can contribute to something bigger than myself.

My tennis coach reminds me to “turn the camera around” and watch what my opponent is doing so I can anticipate what kind of ball will be coming for me to hit.  The point is to notice what’s happening outside my control, and to prepare for my next move, my next shot.  I want to look forward to another thirty, forty or more years of life — but more than that, I want to keep looking outward, to keep looking towards the future.

So I remember the past fifty years, grateful for my family, friends and the experiences that have shaped my journey thus far.  At the same time, my intention for the next phase is to continue watching and learning.  Most of all, I plan to keep moving forward.

I’m counting on you, my friends, to hold me accountable.  Ready, set, go!

With my sister on our way to church. Not hard to tell us apart!

Quantifying a legacy

While in New York recently, I had the chance to see “The Mountaintop,” a new Broadway play set during the last hours of of Martin Luther King’s life. It’s an excellent two-actor production with Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett. The show goes for ninety minutes with both actors on stage the whole time, no intermission. Not only was it fascinating to attend a Broadway show where probably half the audience was African-American; the play also offered a humorous, at times irreverent and also moving portrait of MLK’s life within the context of the civil rights movement as a whole.

 

The experience caused me to reflect on the value of a human life, and the contribution a person can make during his or her lifetime. Oddly enough, Angela Bassett, my husband, and my husband’s roommate David all were classmates together in the same residential college at Yale. Now 53 years old, Angela might be said to be at the top of her game. For others such as David, however, the game is nearly over. David has been fighting cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts, for nearly five years now. Although he has outlived all predictions, his time on earth is growing short. Yet who is to say that his life has any less meaning overall than Angela’s, or my husband’s, or King’s, or mine. To David’s family, his contribution is enormous and long-lasting. It may not touch as many people as someone else’s life does, but the impact is substantial all the same.

So here’s the lesson I take away from juxtaposing these classmates’ lives, thirty-odd years after their graduation. In my ongoing question, “What do I want my own legacy to be?”  I need to worry less about what I’m passing on, and more about the here and the now. I don’t need to collect a precious set of china or leave other “stuff” for people to discover after my death. No, much better to get out into the world now. Better to let people know they matter to me, and to work to change the things that seem wrong.

I have to remind myself not to “major in the minors,” as a friend says, but to stay focused on the things that count. My kids may inherit nothing but chipped plates and teacups from their mom, but at least they will know she tried to find ways to get involved, to make a difference.

Addendum: David died on November 5, 2011.  His life was far too short, yet his legacy cannot be measured.  The Washington Post published this obituary — it enumerates accomplishments, but doesn’t describe the person his friends and family will miss.