What Is Your Legacy?

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I recently attended a women’s philanthropy conference, where women across the globe inspire like-minded others to make a difference. From bringing electricity and clean water to villages across Africa to creating a funded clothing store at which women without means are able to “shop” with dignity, each of these presenters began with a dream and focused on the reality of bettering others’ lives. Some of the speakers survived personal loss, wars, wildfires and school shootings. Some of these change makers grew up with nothing; others with enough to get their nonprofits off the ground. Regardless of where they came from, their devotion to lifting up others put them on an equal playing field.

This year’s conference theme was legacy. Sprinkled throughout the program were speeches from mothers and daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters. Each of these volunteer speakers talked about her work in her own community and how her passion to do good was fueled by examples from her parents and grandparents. These women are a product of a lifelong commitment to charitable living. It is in their blood to do the right thing.

Each time I heard these mothers and daughters speak, I looked around the ballroom of 1,400 women. I searched the faces of my fellow Boston delegates. I kept waiting for someone in the audience to stand up and protest, “That’s not me.”  At the final plenary, a woman and her mother graced the stage, descendants from generations of givers. I leaned over to one of my dearest and oldest friends and said, “Where’s my story?” She nodded in agreement.

“We are pioneers,” she whispered back.

Legacy. It’s such a big word and it makes me feel old. Even though I am in my second act, I don’t want to think about what my legacy will be. However, I can’t ignore it anymore.

In the months since my mother passed away, I have been revisiting my family history. I’ve been putting things under a microscope to try and determine what kind of family we really were. I was a happy child with lots of friends and good grades. In my mind, my parents adored me. We didn’t have much, but they both worked hard and we always had food on the table.

When my father died twenty years ago, my mother was distraught and my brother had problems too big for her to solve. Our family fell apart. While my mother had friends, she didn’t have community. We were not particularly religious. She was not involved in any organizations. There were no board meetings, learning circles, fundraising luncheons or philanthropy conferences in my family’s life. My mom worked, kept house and spent what little free time she had on the couch holding hands with my father, reading and watching television. I would like to believe that given the opportunity or the role models, my mother would have loved being charitable and part of an organization of women like I am today. I would like to imagine that given the training and resources, my parents would have served meals on Thanksgiving to homeless individuals, volunteered on school committees and served on boards of nonprofit organizations

At the end of the conference, I gathered with my fellow Boston attendees to download. Many women spoke to the fact that they were the first to be charitable in their families. I relaxed and remembered what my friend had said. Suddenly, I saw a room full of pioneers forging their way for their children and grandchildren. I saw in my fellow delegation a bunch of badass women who have changed the trajectory of their family values and created their own legacies.

Being charitable doesn’t always mean traveling to Africa to install clean water and solar panels. I see it more as bringing time and talent to causes that tug at your heart. I have a friend who has dedicated his valuable time, along with the resources of an entire town, to fighting ALS because he lost a friend to the disease. I know a woman who volunteers one day a week serving meals and handing out toiletries to homeless women. I have a friend who created a volunteer-run community cookbook and a group of best friends who ran years of marathons to raise money for important charities. There are people who clean out their closets for coat and clothing drives and others who pick up trash at local parks every spring. The list of good one person can do, regardless of money or age, is endless.

I’m living my legacy and doing things in the here and now that not only help others but make me feel less lonely, less afraid of living on the other side of my life, in my second act.  I can’t worry about one day down the road or how I even got here on my own in the first place, I just want to make a difference before it is my turn to say farewell. Of course, it would fill me with pride to see my daughters do something wonderful for an organization or cause they feel connected to, but I cannot put words in their mouths or force action upon them. Would I love them to be on that stage one day in front of 1,400 women telling their story? Heck yes. If they mention me (and I hope they will), they can tell the room how their mother had no roadmap but rather forged her own way. Pioneer style.



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