I could think about af ter seeing Road to Perdition
with my sister and her husband was how much therapy that kid
was going to need.
There was a splendid beauty to the violence in that movie.
And not only that, there was something rewardingly thorough
about how Michael Sullivan annihilates the past in order to
leave his son a legacy different than the one he had inherited.
A friend of mine who often e-mails a group of friends and
colleagues thought-provoking questions recently queried us
about legacy. What did we hope to be remembered for? What
was it that we intended to leave behind?
Well, I’m nihilistic enough to know that within a really short
time span after our deaths, we aren’t remembered at all. Only
a handful of people ever are.
Only our loved ones remember us for any length of time. I
certainly remember my father, though I was only 9 when he
died. And I remember my mother, who died three years ago.
She was a fetching and flamboyant woman. In our last conversation
before she died, she was semi-lucid and completely blunt about
a myriad range of topics jitterbugging through her brain.
She groused about the ceiling tiles in the hospital room.
She queried me about what perfume I was wearing. “Knowing,
right?” she said, “K-n-o-w-i-n-g?” She advised me to end my
failing marriage. She hinted guiltily at having had a checkered
And then finally she stared me full in the face and, with
a certain amount of exasperation, said to me, “I want to go
What legacy did my mother leave behind for me?
Two fine sisters.
Her best piece of advice: “You catch more flies with honey,
darlin’.” And her deathbed words: “I want to go out dancing!”
But back to my sister and her husband.
We don’t usually go to movies together. But I was stuck at
home with no company, my kids at sleepovers, and they intervened.
We don’t usually go on vacations together, either. But that
is what we are doing this week, the whole extended clan of
us. We are a motley bunch, a multicultural and sociological
microcosm. Between and among us there are high school graduates
and graduate school graduates, white skin and black skin,
married folks and divorced, mental retardation, economic diversity,
vocational variety and two lovely grandchildren: tow-headed
Will and caramel-creamy Sophie.
We are spending a week in Wellfleet where we will shop for
jewelry, snooze on the beach, eat clam strips, play chess,
apply sunscreen, chase the babies and, at some point, scatter
my mother’s ashes into the Atlantic Ocean.
We have planned to do this for three years, but it is hard
to get everybody all together. And it is hard to tell how
it’s going to work out. We are, after all, very different
from one another, and a week can be very long.
But we are also, somehow, the living legacy left behind by
parents who never seemed to think in terms of legacy. They
were working class Trojans, bill-payers, my father a machinist,
and my mother—who did dance a lot, though not with
my father—a homemaker and Camp Fire Girl leader.
They lived through the Depression and World War II. Their
first child was mentally retarded. My father spent his nights
in the woodshop in the basement or watching The Naked City
and The Wild, Wild West, beer and peanuts at his side.
For a while my mother worked nights as a waitress, and she
sometimes sang at the restaurant—a spicy redhead in a tight,
white waitress dress.
I don’t know what they had in mind for us. My mother’s main
goal, it seemed, was to keep us from having sex. And my father,
because he died so young, remains a mystery to me.
I am certain that, as a devout Catholic, he would never have
dreamed his daughter would become a Lutheran minister. My
mother never would have permitted the exhilarating independence
her oldest daughter experiences living in her group home.
Neither one of them would have expected a biracial great granddaughter,
a child psychologist grandson, nor the painful emotional upheavals
and entanglements that each of us has, in some measure, suffered.
I’m pretty sure my mother and father would be more bemused
by than proud of their daughters.
But we are what they left behind.
I don’t like thinking about what I’ll leave behind since I
don’t like thinking about leaving my girls at all. It’s their
job to grow up and leave me, though I don’t like thinking
about that, either.
But what I know is that we are living out a common story that
the passing of generations really cannot break. We participate
in, and then we tell and retell, the stories of our lives.
When love calls us, we invite new people into those stories.
Sometimes more new people, like our two newest people, Sophie
and Will, issue forth. Sometimes friends become our family.
And sometimes there is the great blessing of family becoming
What is there to leave behind?
Unlike Michael Sullivan’s character in Road to Perdition,
we cannot machine-gun memories of pain. They come along into
our stories. And we cannot predict either the peculiarity
or the intensity of joy. In fact, we can’t predict anything,
except, perhaps, that what we’ll want on our deathbeds is
the same thing we’ve wanted all along.
My mother wanted to go out dancing.
This is an important part of the story.
I have touched dead bodies and living bodies, but I have never
touched the ashes left after someone has been cremated. None
of us in the family has—unless there is some anecdote as yet
I can’t imagine what it will be like to release these ashes
to the wind. I expect it will be slightly comical. I’ve heard
of ashes being blown back into the thrower’s face or washed
up, unromantically, on the shore. My mother, I am sure, would
appreciate any comic aspect that may occur.
Because, these are, after all, ashes and only ashes. They
are only a whisper of bone and skin; only a symbol, a shadowy
marking that we will cast from our hands and then, later,
wash off our hands.
The legacy Mom left is not in the ashes, but in the breath
she breathed, in the dancing she desired. The legacy is in
the stories she gave us, and the stories she taught us, simply
by living, how to tell.
can contact Jo Page at