What is legacy?

At some point in my pursuit of an English degree at the University of Minnesota (I was accepted into Harvard but they wanted more money than I had and I never made it to medical school,) I read the book The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England.* It changed my perception of history and ultimately led me to a quest for the meaning of legacy.

I am still on that quest.

I used to think — like many people do — that history was made up of famous people who did great things and left legacies for historians to write about in textbooks from which students would learn. When I was young and foolish, I wanted to be one of those people. During my youth, I strove to do big things and nothing I did was ever big enough to make it into the history books.

What I realized after reading Ties is that history is not made up of big men and women doing big things but regular-sized folk doing everyday things that when strung together over a lifetime equaled big things: the legacy was written afterwards by those who were left behind after realizing the effects of those lives. Sometimes these were good things and sometimes bad. Sometimes they were intended consequences and other times unintended.

In the hands of a good storyteller, a person’s life could appear to be a thoughtful, well-planned vocation or an utter waste of time and life. In the end, though, no matter how famous a person was or how many great things he did, he did them one day at a time, one small task at a time. He was just lucky to have lived long and well enough to make a difference, good or bad.

So, what is legacy? I don’t really know yet other than what others say about you when you’re dead. Most of it won’t be true anyway but if enough people like or hate you, it will be a good story. Otherwise, it will simply be nothing but a short narrative on a coroner’s report.

I’m just hoping for the coroner who studied English and went to medical school because Harvard Law School rejected her. At least her report will have some flair and use big words.

Read the book. It is a fascinating look into how peasant families in the Middle Ages lived by how they died. Funny thing, humans haven’t changed all that much since.