What’s Your Legacy As a Solo?
By Mary Young
After my grandmother died, her choicest possessions quickly found new homes. Everything else wound up in my uncle’s basement in New Hampshire, waiting until someone decided what should go to the dump. Nana had been the youngest child in a family that liked to save things, so she had inherited the personal effects of three generations: old bank statements, scarves and costume jewelry, button boxes, and comic valentines. By the time I got there, young cousins had pawed through the boxes and unearthed treasures of their own. It looked like the scene of a home-invasion.
But one area looked relatively undisturbed. There, off in a far corner, were the earthly remains of my great uncle John and his wife Lou, who had moved from New England “out west” to Niagara Falls. They rarely visited. They never had children. Once they died, their collection of newspaper clippings, snapshots, and personal records had passed from one elderly sibling to the next, eventually reaching its final resting place here in the cellar.
I wondered why, for all these months, nobody had touched this pile, and then it dawned on me. No one was interested in the story of Uncle John and Aunt Lou’s life because none of us—adults or children—felt it was part of our story, too. We weren’t their children or grandchildren. They were only a vague memory to me. My cousins’ children had probably never heard of them.
That’s a risk that we without children may face: that our lives might not have meaning to future generations, that our days on this earth will soon be wiped from anyone’s memory. It’s a grim thought, but not an inevitability.
My own defense against forgotten-ness is to write stories about my life, hoping that my nieces and nephews and perhaps even their children will find them engaging enough to read. But there are many ways that solos can carve their initials onto the soft wood of the world to shout, “I was here!”
One of my favorite children’s books is Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius. In her own day, she might have been referred to as a spinster or old maid, although today we would call her an “aging solo.” Miss Rumphius lives with her two cats and a cockatiel in a gingerbread cottage on the coast of Maine, where she is visited by her great-niece and other local children. They come to see her treasures and listen to stories about her travels to tropical islands, jungles, and snow-capped mountains. They also come for her cookies.
No doubt these children will always remember the snowy-haired lady. Perhaps they will also remember the advice her grandfather had given her as a girl, which she passes on to them. No matter where you go or what you do in your life, she says, “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”
Miss Rumphius also left another legacy. When she wasn’t entertaining neighborhood kids, she walked the grassy pathways, scattering lupine seeds that eventually begat the generations of pink and purple lupines that dot Maine’s hillsides.
Every solo should read Miss Rumphius and take its message to heart. Like the book’s namesake, they can live wonderful lives filled with rich social connections. They can also leave a legacy. It could be a collection of family stories, a box of prized recipes, a financial gift to a young person, a contribution to the public library, a skill or knowledge that we pass along―anything that, one way or another, leaves the world more beautiful.
A wise rabbi once said that each of us dies two times: once when we take our final breath and once when there is no one left who remembers our name.
How will you be remembered? What is the legacy you wish to pass down? How can you leave the world a more beautiful place?
Mary Young, D.B.A. is Research Director for Davis Financial Group.