What’s your legacy?

IMG_3916

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.

 

Who came?

How many?

Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?

 

I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.

She was always friendly, but deeply private.

I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.

The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.

This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.

Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.

When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.

 

Did you give back?

Were you generous and kind?

Did you laugh often?

Did you mentor?

 

If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.

 

Am I leaving a good life behind?

Am I doing enough for others?

 

Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.

Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.

Every day we create our legacy.

Yes, including weekends!

Do you ever think about this as well?

 

What will they remember you for?

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20140508_093747431

A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

— He baked bread in clay flowerpots

— His amazing home-made pizza

— He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

— His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

— His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

— The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

— His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?

Sunday Afternoon, West 44th. St., NYC: Michelle Obama And A Sardi's Goodbye

Sardi's
Image by angela n. via Flickr

It was a classic Manhattan Sunday afternoon.

As we filed into a fourth-floor room at Sardi’s, the legendary midtown restaurant whose walls are lined with framed caricatures of the famous, some dating back decades to people we couldn’t recognize, (Brooke Shields’ was above the fourth-floor podium), an NYPD helicopter buzzed overhead and six gleaming Suburbans — the surefire sign of a political heavyweight — sat parked on the north side of the street.

One, silver, had thick, green-tinted glass — bulletproof — and distinctively smaller rear side windows and the giveaway, the DC plates that are put on wherever that Presidential vehicle is flown to.

Inside the Shubert theatre, FLOTUS (First Lady of the U.S.), aka Michelle Obama, was watching a Sunday matinee of “Memphis”, a new musical. Outside, cops in dark blue and Secret Service agents in suits wearing earpieces, made sure no one came anywhere close. One eyed me unhappily as we counted the number of Suburbans.

We were at Sardi’s to mark the passing of Mort Stone, a man who for 40 years served as a picture editor at The New York Times, where he worked with my partner and with many of the colleagues, past and current, who came to pay their respects. Speakers ranged from Times writers and editors to Mort’s 11-year-old grand-niece, who was funny, sweet and a terrific speaker.

Mort was an amazing guy and we were honored to be invited to his service. He started his career as a war correspondent for the International News Service in the South Pacific and was a deskman for Life magazine.

I met Mort a few years ago for lunch at a Village institution, Cafe Loup.  He was near 80, lean as a teenager, wearing a pale gray wool crewneck sweater, blue Oxford cloth shirt and thick black Ray-Bans — his unerring style for decades. After knowing me about 10 minutes, he turned to my sweetie and announced firmly: “If you don’t marry her, I will!”

He skiied every winter for a month in Austria — for 55 years in a row — at the same hotel, who now have a room with his name on the door and whose manager sent a long, lovely letter to be read aloud at the service. His companion of 40+ years was a Baroness, Boszi (pronounced Boozhee), whose apartment sat beside his in the Village and who cooked his breakfast every morning. He was 21 years her junior and, when she died at 90, as she requested, buried her ashes in the patio at Tavern on the Green, which recently went into bankruptcy and closed.

In his elegance, style, class, eccentricity, mystery and passions, Mort — as my sweetie said in his remarks today — was a New Yorker cartoon, in the best way possible.

We will, and do, miss him.