Five-and-a-half years ago, shortly after becoming president of Bottom Line Inc., I moved into my father’s office. For the company, the change marked the transition from the founder, Martin (Marty) Edelston, to second-generation leadership. For me, it was when I started to “deconstruct” my father’s life of collected treasures into a pile of stuff. Is this what becomes of lives spent carefully creating a tangible mosaic of our existence?
My father was fascinated by form and function and the messages they convey. If there was a blank spot on a wall or a ceiling, he hung or dangled some fascinating item. Bottom Line’s offices were a celebration of provocative art and images, and Marty’s private office was a menagerie of stimulation for him—a replica biplane dangled from the ceiling alongside a petrified blowfish and a piece of art featuring a slice of a real human brain hung on the wall. The glass walls of his office were covered by giant art panels of spiritual leaders and artist Mike Glier’s “Clubs of Virtue”. My father had carefully chosen and collected each item in his inner sanctum to send a message to himself and to everyone who entered it. But for me, it was overwhelming clutter that had to be cleared away so that I had room to breathe and could create a free flow of energy and ideas.
Different people. Different styles. Different inspiration. But underneath it, I have been haunted by the definition of legacy and the fear that I have erased part of his.
This question has been on my mind again as my husband and his siblings work their way through the many boxes of photos, letters, plaques, heirlooms and other memorabilia left by my father-in-law who passed away last year. What to keep? What to discard? And what gets placed back in storage so that the grandchildren can unbury the memories when our generation is gone?
This is not a new challenge. To state the insanely obvious, older generations have been dying and younger generations have been inheriting since the beginning of time. But something seems to be changing with this latest transition. The amount of accumulated “stuff” seems greater than in the past, and there are countless reports about the fact that the younger generation has no interest in things such as “old brown furniture,” fancy china, sterling dinnerware and antique silk tablecloths. I think that the explosion of consumerism in the 20th century, due to inexpensive manufacturing, made “luxuries” accessible to all, and the assorted economic booms encouraged a culture in which success was measured by the gratuitous display of wealth, be it fancy cars, antique vases, designer clothes or increasingly large houses that needed to be filled with furniture, picture frames and more.
There is a significant shift happening with the younger generations who have grown up in a virtual world. They are far more focused on experiencing life than accumulating it. They want to live in tiny homes or at least homes that don’t require intercoms to call from one wing to the other. Sure…they have their treasures, but they don’t have record collections or picture frames, because they all exist digitally on computers or three-by-five-inch phones.
I recently watched the movie Nostalgia, which tied together several vignettes about families dealing with this legacy of stuff. There was an older woman whose house and treasures were burned in a fire…an adult son who reconnected with his roots and family when cleaning out the family attic…and parents whose teen daughter had been killed in a car accident. This last one was uniquely provocative to me—as the parents prepared for their daughter’s funeral, they found that there were no artifacts to display at the service. The photographs that would have told the story of their daughter’s life were locked in her phone, which had been destroyed in the accident. Her favorite music was locked in personal playlists through streaming services. While the movie showed an extreme situation—one would think that the parents would have had their own photos of their daughter—it raises a new aspect of the question of legacy. Without pieces to touch, feel and smell, what legacy can be held on to by future generations? We are multisensory beings that link together touch and feel and sound and smell into complex emotional pictures.
My husband, Ron, is an incredible photographer. He has thousands and thousands of amazing images in his computer archives. I fear that when he is gone, so, too, will be much of that legacy, since my daughters and I will not have the knowledge or technical skills to sort through them. As we all convert our family movies and videos to digital and upload them to the cloud, keep in mind that virtual is virtual. As we all know, technology is fleeting, and it takes just one hard drive crash to erase years of memories. We have quite a few of Ron’s images hanging in our home and in our annual calendars, but there is so much of his imagination and vision that, sadly, we may never know or see.
As we sort through the cartons of memories, what is the right balance between keeping…donating…throwing away? It is just not realistic to keep it all. Our basements are just not big enough…but we don’t need all of it to keep the legacies alive.
Ron and I have shared stories with our daughters about our own pasts and those of our families. It’s the oral tradition that gets passed along, and in that oral tradition is the legacy of our families. Tangible mementos are important, but too many eventually accumulate into a giant pile of stuff.
Choose the special ones to treasure, and bid adieu to the rest.
I have a porcelain French poodle that I carried home from Florida when my grandmother needed to go into a nursing home. For me, it was the symbol of Grandma. I remembered it on the side table next to her couch when I was young, and when I see it today, I remember her smells and big furry winter coat that I would nuzzle up to when driving her home after her weekly visits.
On my desk, I have pictures of my father with his always-seeing eyes that keep me accountable to his level of integrity.
In the midst of my father-in-law’s items, we found a box of baby clothes that his own mother had carefully saved—a football jersey, a toddler’s romper he was wearing when bitten by a dog and several pairs of baby booties. What should we do with these treasures that contain the DNA of loved ones? It’s hard to throw them away, but is it realistic to simply continue to store them? Our solution: I found Christmas ornament hooks and placed one bootie on each hook. Then I distributed the booties to each of the siblings and to his widow. Going forward, as we decorate the Christmas tree and tell the stories of each ornament, my father-in-law will remain part of that celebration—no pile of boxes required.