Notes on a Parent’s Legacy

Notes on a Parent’s Legacy by Anisa Threlkeld, Literary Intern

In my last post, I wrote about Andy Bragen’s mother and her love of books. This week I’ve been thinking about how a love of something, like books, can be left as a legacy.

Once the people we love pass, what happens to the passions they cultivated and perhaps shared with us?

For Andy’s mother, that passion was literature. Her love for it carried her all the way through her life, through her illness, and to her death. But a passion for things like books and words and learning carries on; it doesn’t just stop with the end of a life, it passes itself down through generations, as Andy’s own life shows. Who could love words more than a writer? It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the Notes on My Mother’s Decline playwright grew up surrounded by novels and plays and word games. And it wouldn’t surprise me if his daughter grows up surrounded by them, too.

My own mother has given me a love of classical music, my father a love of history. They took me to the symphony countless times before I was even old enough to appreciate it, and I started piano lessons at just about the same time I started learning to read. Many a family dinner was spent discussing some interesting historical fact or followed by a Ken Burns documentary. So, it’s not so surprising that I’ve studied both music and history in my adult life. It’s not the career path that I have ultimately chosen, but I still carry it with me. And I imagine that if I have children, my love of those things will be passed down to them as well. I’ve got just about a million books on history and far too much sheet music.

It’s sometimes hard to remember, though, that it’s not the physical things left behind that are the most important.

In Andy’s essay Rootless, he speaks of the experience of cleaning his mother’s apartment after her death. He says:
“I threw away stuff that never should have been thrown out. Like her books: marinated in decades of cigarette smoke, they stunk. I didn’t have the patience to air them out, and so I boxed them up and threw them away. Looking back on that decision, I feel ashamed.”

I think many of us who have experienced the loss of a family member have had similar moments of frustration and guilt. Nevertheless, the legacies of things loved that our families leave us–in Andy’s case, the pages and stories that filled his mother’s life–never go out with the trash. It is the love of books, not the books themselves, that is important. It’s passion, and the memory of those things, that carry on. People leave things to their family members: homes, possessions, money. But I tend to think that passion might be the greatest thing of all to inherit.

What are the passions that your family has passed down to you? And how have they manifested in your own life? I imagine that, whether they are obvious or not, if you look closely, you’ll find them in a couple different corners of your life.