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Shake a Legacy

All 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 past.

And then finally she stared me full in the face and, with a certain amount of exasperation, said to me, “I want to go out dancing!”

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 friends.

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 untold.

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.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at

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