Recent events in my own family have me pondering the concept of legacy.
Legacy not in terms of the material goods that we leave behind or even the traditions or other hand-me-downs. Legacy in terms of perceptions, how we are perceived by others and how we in turn perceive them.
I was speaking recently with my aunt from my mother’s side. During the conversation, we began discussing my mother’s passing a few years earlier. At my mother’s request, a cousin had been tasked with receiving and distributing her ashes. My mother had told me one version of what had been conveyed to this cousin, but my aunt had been told a different version. We began to wonder what had actually happened to the ashes and what my mother had provided to the cousin in terms of last wishes and arrangements.
When I reached out to my cousin, I was surprised to learn not just what had been done with the ashes, not just where they were, but also the reasons she had given him when she made the request. Her instructions to him did not align with the woman I knew.
This whole experience got me wondering about this concept of “legacy” as well as perception by others of us.
I have come to think of people as a multi-sided, prism-like, ever shifting facade of constantly evolving mass and energy. Yet our perceptions must have a line in the sand in order to be able to function with each other. That is how the human brain works. We must have a tangible and quantifiable way to describe things. A description that requires us to bucket and group and label. Our brains want to be efficient and this is the way by which they accomplish that efficiency, these groupings. It’s biological. We couldn’t stop doing it if we tried.
So then, if this is true, how does anyone ever get to know us? Humans innately have a deep longing for connection, to be known. And yet, can we ever? Can we ever truly be known, even by ourselves?
I think of one friend in particular who has been with me through trials and tribulations over the last 15 to 20 years. How does she see me? What is her perspective of me?
I remember listening to my ex-husband describe the woman to whom he was married and wondering, who was she, because she was certainly not me.
What about the newer friend whom I’ve known for four or five years but with whom I explore the world? If asked to, how would she describe me?
My family is a whole other quandary. Those who have known me for years. Has their perception changed with my evolutions? Or do they still see me as some variation of the child I once was? That person to whom they attached expectations, hopes, dreams, disappointments.
And then there is my son. That person for whom I have to be so many different roles, not all of which he particularly likes. I think of how my own perceptions of my parents have changed over the years and have to wonder how he sees me.
Of course, this conversation requires that we also ask the question of what we show people. Share with people. Hide from people. What parts of our own prism do we obscure from others? And why.
We can never be all things to all people and we can never see all sides of the prism that is the person we’re looking at, talking to, sharing our life with. And yet, we place such a weight on our perception of that person. We put a stake in the ground, a line in the sand, and declare this interpretation of them to be absolutely true, 100%,without a doubt. We further have a tendency to reject it if someone else has a conceptual idea of that person that differs from ours. We cannot possibly believe what they see if it conflicts with what we see. Or think we see. Ever try to change a faulty first impression?
I can recall experiencing this rejection of perception of my mother for myself. At her funeral, as people filed in and shook my hand, they expressed their words of grief and memory. They described a woman so far different, so far removed from the woman that I experienced. I wondered who they could possibly be talking about. Yes, I had seen snippets of the woman they described. Mostly I had seen other sides, and the sides that I had seen contradicted some of what her friends were telling me.
I think of that experience often as my son becomes a teenager seeking his individualization while also needing guidance and instruction. I think often about how friends of mine describe me to me and I know that he would not share all of those same opinions. I am finding that I have to resolve to be okay with this, after all this is the role of parent. It is a part of the dance of life that children will grow up with a misperception of their parents because they were not allowed to see whole facets of the people their parents were. We share these as our stories as we age and our children begin to have their experiences, as they come to us for counsel.
These perceptions, shifting and stagnant, form our true legacy. Regardless of what else we build into the world.
For me, this will continue to be one of those unsolvable wonderments of the world. The perception of me as I move through my evolution.