Monday, August 23, 2010

Make A Mark, But Do It Quietly

Here is my column as it appears in today's edition of Small Town Newspaper:

August is What Will Be Your Legacy month, a time when we’re supposed to put some thought into the mark we’ll leave on the world after we’re gone. Will we leave the place better than we found it, or will we leave it in tatters? Will we leave something to remember us by, or will we be completely forgotten as if we had never cast a shadow?

When I think of the legacy I might bestow, I see it in terms of something left by an anonymous donor. It seems to me that a truly meaningful legacy is about the thing left more so than the person leaving it, so our contributions are the focus instead of our identities. Having a memorable name isn’t as significant as our contribution, I say, so when someone goes out of his way to make a name for himself, particularly an odd one, I don’t see the point beyond vanity. I don’t see the legacy.

Gary Guy Mathews from Pennsylvania has a perfectly fine name, I think. It’s solid, the kind of name that could carry a person through life without too many issues. But Mathews is so enamored with the main character of “Here’s Boomer,” a short-lived television show from the 1980s about a helpful dog, he tried to have his name legally changed to Boomer the Dog.

Mathews’ friends have been calling him “Boomer” for years, and he already barks and wears a dog collar and dresses in a homemade dog suit. Legally changing his name was just his way of realizing his identity, he said, making it officially recognized by the state of Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania law leaves this sort of decision to the judge’s discretion, and Judge Folino denied the request, saying that a name like Boomer the Dog would confuse the marketplace. Mathews would have trouble being taken seriously if he were to call for help in an emergency, for example, and his name would cause complications for people managing public records.

My concern isn’t so much about how a ludicrous name might confuse the public. I wonder more about the legacy a person with that sort of name would leave behind. If Mathews had been allowed to change his name, his legacy would not be based on any valuable contributions he might make in his lifetime. For about 15 minutes before he would be forgotten, he would simply be known as the man named for a fictional dog.

I’ve been told my grandmother took her time naming her children. In the early 1900s, not all babies born in rural Alabama were given birth certificates, so my grandmother could try out different names on her babies until she found one that suited her. It might be weeks before the newborn had a name that could be written in the family Bible.

When my father was born, my grandmother tested a few names on him until she finally settled on the keeper, Elmer McRee…named after his great aunt. He wore the name proudly despite its family history, although he often referred to himself as E. M. If my father had been given one of the other possible names, he would have been the same man. He would have lived the same life, and his legacy would be the same as it is today.

But if my grandmother had named her son, say, Rin Tin Tin after the canine celebrity of the day, my father’s legacy would have been tainted. After he helped pour the foundation for his Baptist church and carved his initials in the cement, it wouldn’t be “E. M.” that people would still see in the basement floor today. Instead of being grateful for forebears who built their church, parishioners would focus on the man named for a dog. His name would have overshadowed his legacy, and the same would be true for Mathews.

So, when we take stock of our potential legacies, let’s not focus on creating a memorable name for ourselves as much as we work to leave behind something valuable when our names are forgotten. Leave a mark. Cast a shadow. Do something positive that may benefit future generations, but try doing it for the greater good and not for vanity.


dive said...

I love the idea of living with your kids for a while until their real name becomes apparent, Robyn; much better than simply foisting a name on them before you get to know them.

MmeBenaut said...

Some good food for thought in this article Robyn. Somehow I don't think anyone will remember me at all. Not having children makes a difference. For the babies that I had that did not survive though, I had already chosen their names: for the twin boys: Timothy and Oliver. For my first: Cassandra. For the two after the twins, Erica and Sarah.
Gosh, who would have thought that your interesting piece of writing would lead me down this path of thought!