Have you ever asked your adult children, “What do you want me to leave you in my will?”
“Mom,” many kids typically answer (at least ours did), “Nothing really. You’ve given me a good life and a good education. Anyway, you’re going to be around for a long time.”
That could be true…or not. Regardless, once we’re no longer here, each of us leaves behind a little part of ourselves whether tangibles such as money, property, a business, art and other objects or the intangibles such as our values, ideas and good (and bad) deeds.
How did you treat your family and friends, raise your kids, teach your grandchildren, talk to strangers or help them in need, donate your money, where and how did you make that money, and also how did you volunteer your time? A legacy is your forever gift to the world; it’s about how you lived and passed that on to the next generations.
And sometimes it gets tarnished over time. The Sackler family was touted for its generous gifts to many museums, and then it all came crashing down. The family, which founded and owns the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, faced severe criticism and lawsuits regarding overprescribing addictive pharmaceutical drugs, including Oxycontin, which led to the opioid crisis. Many institutions that had been gifted funds by the family announced they would not accept future donations from Sackler members involved.
What do you want your legacy to be? Many people think immediately about passing down money and possessions. For those with big bucks, they might choose to etch their names onto a building façade or the interior walls of wings from hospitals to universities, museums, artistic venues and concert halls for a large sum that will ostensibly carry their name into perpetuity.
This is one way never to be forgotten and is often facetiously referred to as an edifice complex, a term coined in the 1970s to describe Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos' practice of using publicly funded construction projects as propaganda.
Others give anonymously and with no stipulations of how the money is to be used. “Use it in a way that will help the most people,” these people might say.
We were both lucky to have parents who bestowed upon us a legacy that had more to do with ideas and beliefs and less to do with things. In a blog we wrote, “Hand-Me Downs: The greatest gifts from our parents” (Dec. 25, 2020) we say, “Their legacy to us has been the values, the milieu in which they raised us and what they talked about.”
It could be “gifts” that came up in conversations such as the benefit of a good job, which taught us to appreciate what we didn’t yet have but might someday if we worked hard. Or, it could be the regular Sunday night dinners and holiday get-togethers with relatives. It could also be the heated disagreements and shouting matches or the tender moments as well when we learned to apologize, forgive and forget. Or a wonderful sense of humor and poking fun at both happy and sad events.
Our parents also bequeathed to us love, respect, social skills, a passion for the arts, philanthropy and caring about those less fortunate, good manners, a sense of perseverance, good work ethic and the importance of a good education and ties with family and friends. Barbara also says that her parents each gave her a sense of resilience—to know how to bounce back when things didn’t quite go her way and also never to get cocky with good luck when things did go her way that might tempt the fates.
It’s all of these or some of these values that we hope we have already passed down to our children. We have tried to teach them to take responsibility for their actions, speak out about injustice, try something outside themselves, continue to learn and grow as independent adults and become involved in something that has a positive effect on their neighborhood and world.
There is a surfeit of famous people who left behind legacies we point to as role models, some of whom offered good, but also terrible lessons by changing the world in one way or another. To name a few, Jackie Kennedy left behind an idealistic view of history, branded her life as Camelot and gave the world a certain image of her husband. Some of it has held up over time and some hasn’t.
Steve Jobs created the iPhone, a tiny computer that fits into our pocket or purse and allows us to be in touch instantly with anyone anywhere in the world. He also was rumored to leave behind a legacy as a very tough, demanding boss.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, through his observations and stories gleaned from patients, made breakthroughs in his field in treating neurological disorders. Earnest Hemmingway told stories in a style that changed writing for generations to come.
John Lewis left behind a wonderful history. He became one of the original freedom riders in 1961. He was also one of the Big Six leaders of groups that organized the 1963 March on Washington. He accomplished many key roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in this country.
And then there’s Bernie Madoff who was sent away to prison for life for a Ponzi scheme swindling millions of dollars from his clients and for which he’ll never be forgotten. What a way to go! He died recently without his family intact. His wife had been shunned by many and both sons were dead, one from cancer and the other from suicide.
Most recently, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was handcuffed and taken into custody after a jury found him guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. Floyd’s legacy to society is that the guilty verdict might mean the end of police immunity. Said President Biden, “George’s legacy will not be just about his death but what we must do in his memory."
If money is to be part of your legacy, there are many ways to leave it behind to your family and to society. This can include recurring donations to a favorite cause while the donor is alive and continue after they’re deceased. An endowment, a bequest, charitable remainder trust or any of the legacy gift tools fill in the cracks of society to help feed starving children, offer art and dance scholarships, fund research for a new vaccine, fuel more technology, help victims of genocide and teach about hate or offer underserved young people a good education and a chance for a better future.
Because music has played a huge part in the lives of Margaret’s family, she gave an endowment to the St. Louis Symphony in her late husband and parents’ names which funds music education. Barbara’s mother set up a scholarship at the time of her late husband’s—and Barbara’s father’s—death at the medical school he attended to help a student in need since he had enrolled at age 16 as a poor Jewish boy, the son of immigrants. It was one of the few New York City med schools that in 1931 accepted Jewish students.
What will your legacy be? Margaret was brought up to think that she could make a difference and tries to do so in her work with children—one child at a time as she has written. And when she asks what her children would like her to leave behind, her elder son says, “really nothing,” her daughter asked to have some of her grandmother’s sculptures and glass art including a Chihuly, and her younger son wanted some of his father’s extensive vinyl record collection and the baby grand piano on which he composed tunes growing up.
Barbara’s elder daughter wants her grandmother’s books and a few pieces of furniture and art. Her younger daughter wanted a certain artwork of her grandparents, and perhaps her grandmother’s piano, which was gifted to Barbara decades ago.
But most important, our kids feel we’ve left them with strong values of independence, ability to make their own decisions—sometimes with our input but not often, the importance of a good work ethic, nurturing relationships with friends and family and giving back of one’s time and, if possible, money to their favorite organizations. Barbara told her daughters after they each graduated from a wonderful private school that it was now their responsibility to give each year regardless of the amount.
When we asked some folks or read about others, some not alive, what they wanted their legacy to be, here is what a few said or wrote, some based on interviews we’ve conducted in the past:
Attorney/litigator in the areas of medical malpractice, product liability, and white-collar crimes: “He worked hard. Set goals and met them. At the same time, he was part of the community, lived in the community and helped the community.”
Scientist at large pharmaceutical company: “She helped make someone’s day healthier. You could always count on her to do what she said she was going to do.”
Interior Designer: “She did something magnificent, not only in my city but in this country to change lives.”
Historic Preservationist: “You’ll see my legacy through all those places that were not erased. Two, I hope people will say that he taught us to understand and read our neighborhoods and our spaces so we have control over their future.”
Non-profit CEO: “He invested in programs that prepared young people for the future as leaders.”
Former university president and head of a large non-profit, who had helped save one of the country’s finest libraries: “The New York Public Library is a New York and national treasure. The branch libraries have made lives and saved lives. The New York Public Library is not a luxury. It is an integral part of New York’s social fabric, its culture, its institutions, its media and its scholarly artistic and ethnic communities. It deserves the city’s respect, appreciation and support.”
Ironman triathlete and cancer survivor: “She did everything she could to help other cancer patients have hope – hope that they also can control their disease and accomplish all of their dreams.”
Child psychiatrist: “He listened carefully with the ear of his heart.”
Artist: “She made beautiful prints that will stand up over time, objects that made the viewer pause, reflect, stand up and feel.”
Financial planner: My current "already" legacy is people who have reached a secure (lifetime) retirement financially. My goal is to help many more people to do the same. The bonus is nearly all are emotionally more confident and significantly less fearful.
Management Consultant: “Through her work, she had the credibility, the vocabulary and clout to be heard to help get more young people and black professionals to move to the city and stay. These efforts led to more representation and some startups with diversity.”
Public Relations Expert: “The lesson I hope to leave is ...life is like the lake. Some days it’s calm, some days it’s wavy and some days if ferocious. Hang on. It’s Life.”
Caterer: “He thought outside the box…always being creative, always being one step ahead of trends. His creativity in presentation and execution of meals made him ahead of the game. He was not just a great chef. He was a great artist!”
High-school guidance counselor: “No expectations equal no disappointments.”
Writer/author: “A hope that some of the books, articles and blogs I’ve written and speeches I’ve given have helped those reading or listening, and I hope that through my body of work I might have inspired someone else to become a writer, author, speaker, blogger. I’ve loved my profession and would wish that my enthusiasm became contagious and sparked joy among others.”
We both know that our legacies will be the product of our own internal contradictions, struggles and accomplishments. These parts of us will trickle down like confetti and find their way into the minds, hearts and souls of our heirs for generations to come.