My grandfather came over on the boat from Sicily at the age of 20, landed at Ellis Island in New York Harbor on April 30, 1900, settled among his Italian relatives in Brooklyn and set up shop as a barber. Four years later, he married a Sicilian farm girl, newly arrived in America from his home village of Juliana in the mountains above Palermo. He was naturalized as an American citizen on May 6, 1905. My grandmother gave birth to four children — three boys and a girl — and my grandfather made sure his family never wanted for food or shelter, in no small part because he had a great mind for numbers and regularly won at pinochle. He and the other Italian men in the neighborhood would play the game for hours after work. Several times a week, he’d use part of the winnings to buy ice cream or pastries at the corner German bakery for his kids. He’d help out his brothers and cousins with a loan when they asked. He’d take half a day off on Sundays to be with the family; otherwise he was in his shop.
At least, that’s the story that I was told by my uncle and my aunt. I repeat it because I like it. It is a pioneering, self-assured, make-your-own-way-in-the-world American story. Support a family by day by the labor of your hands, and by playing and winning at cards at night — it sounds tough. Treat the kids, and help out the relatives — it sounds tender. Work your tail off to provide, because that is our lot and we embrace it — it sounds noble.
But that is all I really know about my grandfather. He died before I was born, and my father never really talked much about him. So all I have to go on are these sound bites: provided for his family, always put food on the table, good at cards, a pioneer, gutsy and principled. That is the only memory of my grandfather to survive today. And since I am the only one of my generation to have heard these stories, I doubt that much, if anything at all, about my grandfather will survive beyond the tomorrow of my life.
I don’t know that my grandfather gave much thought to how he wanted to be remembered, or that he cared about being remembered at all. I suspect that he had his hands full just getting from one day to the next. As he lived and toiled and took care of his family, my grandfather was just being who he was. His memory would take care of itself. He died in 1953. History has all but forgotten him.
I doubt that much if anything about my life (or my interests or accomplishments, or failures for that matter) will survive beyond the brief memories of my contemporaries.
And what is remembered of me will take on a different form for the many people with whom I crossed paths along the way: parents, partners, lovers, friends, teachers, teammates, therapists, colleagues, coworkers, children, caregivers, casual acquaintances … the list can go on for pages. What is certain is that in the minds of most, the sound bites are all pretty much set. There is little that I can do to recast the image or impression that I have already left. And so while I might wonder, “How do I want to be remembered?” the reality is that in the fleeting moments that I might be recalled to mind at all, I will be remembered in ways that I can neither control nor change.
I used to get unduly wrapped up in the idea that I needed to leave a legacy. I used to feel pressured to be memorable or to do things that would be memorable. I don’t any longer. I don’t want the pressure. I don’t need the pressure on top of just getting from one day to the next. I know more clearly now that the memory of me and my life, like that of my grandfather, will prove to be little more than a handful of sound bites, remembered by few, spoken of seldom and forgotten too soon.
What a relief.
Now, I get on with the life I have in front of me, one day at a time. And I get on with my life with presence and with deliberate purpose. Sure, I still sometimes ponder, “How do I want to be remembered?” But much more often, I ask myself, “How do I want to be?” I focus less on when I am gone, and more on as I am, today. I try to pay attention to the right here, the right now — to the moments that, of their own accord, and without any help from me, coalesce into the hours, the days and the years of my life, today. I pay attention to my behaviors, my words and my choices that of their own accord show me who I am today. And I try to live the behaviors and words and choices that help me to be the person I strive to be, today.
I have grown to cherish the sacred nature of this work.
Excerpted from The Citizen Leader