Presidents think about it. Parents think about it. Old people think about it. Leaving a legacy is the closest any of us can get to immortality. It is a way of continuing after we're dead. It's a way of leaving behind something we valued when we were alive. It's a way of making a difference that somehow shows we were once here.
I thought of that recently when I attended a memorial service for Ruth Treeson, author of "The Long Walk." She left behind a mighty legacy to her children, grandchildren, friends, troubled teenagers who related to her quickly and deeply, and people of many faiths. Diminutive in stature, she was powerful in her conviction that hate was wrong, forgiveness worked, and imagination can save you.
She did not come by the wisdom in her legacy easily. Her loving, happy childhood ended rudely, crudely, and completely when Hitler came to power. Her parents gone, and her 6 year old sister torn from her grasp, she coped with her early teen years from 12 to 15 in Auschwitz. None of the horror made sense, so she relied on daydreaming to keep at least her mind stuck back in the happy days with love and family. She conjured up a unicorn to save her from the death selection, and the hatred and death all around her.
Totally alone after the war, she actually walked back from Germany to Poland to confirm that she no longer had a family or a home. She went to America as a refugee, struggled with language and cultural strangeness, and succeeded in putting together another family — husband, three sons, three grandchildren. They spoke at her memorial service about what they had learned from her in so many subtle ways about how to live a good life. I, like other friends, spoke of how her wit and humor, her toughness and yet her gentleness and sensitivity, had influenced them. Young students read poems they had written after Ruth had come to talk to them at their schools. Her living example of how love defeats hate, how a strong sense of self-worth is the most effective defense against being bullied or humiliated, how your imagination can be your best friend was her legacy.
I left the memorial service with a livelier step, a sense of optimism, gratitude that I had found such a friend in the last few years of her life, the proof that legacies can be passed on, and the knowledge that I had also become a part of Ruth's legacy.
There are relatively few of us who can leave legacies of such magnitude. But passing on a legacy that makes us proud we were alive fulfills the soul.
What legacy will you leave?