How will we be remembered?
The other day, my brother sent a group text to me and my sisters. He and his girlfriend were watching the Mrs. America series on Netflix and he was wondering if our mom would support the Equal Rights Amendment. “She definitely would have,” my little sister texted back. My brother and older sister weren't so sure, adding that “she was pretty conservative and generally shy.” “Too bad we can’t ask her!” my brother responded.
It was a strange conversation on a number of levels. First, it felt like we were debating the views of a distant relative, not our mother. Granted, our mom was pretty private and not particularly political, the natural peacemaker that she was. Moreover, whether a young woman in the early 1970s, with a somewhat conservative (culturally at least) upbringing, would have supported the ERA is not a simple thought experiment. There’s a reason why the stop-ERA movement gained so much traction. Our mother also died when we were all pretty young. I'd like to think that as our relationships with her deepened and matured, some of these conversations would have taken place. But as it stood, my siblings and I simply did not have enough information about our mom to make more than an educated guess about how she must have felt.
But would our mother have supported the ERA now if she were alive? In thinking about how she might feel today about the ERA, I realized just how difficult it’s becoming to answer the question, “what would mom do?” Nearly 20 years after her death, the world has changed significantly and my memories of her have faded. As I get further and further from the live version of my mother, it’s harder and harder to know how she might address my world and my problems.
So I am forced to step back from my specific memories of my mother, or any specific viewpoints she may have voiced during her life, and rely on a more general feeling I have of her. I think of my mom as a patient, out-of-the box thinker, who encouraged individual growth in her kids, and brought warmth and authenticity to every room she entered. I try to remember these qualities when I think through how she might answer my everyday questions (“is it OK if my kids eat sugar cereal every day?”) as well as my more existential ones (“how will coronavirus change our kids' futures?”).
However, it's not clear that she would have described herself with the exact same words. Some say our “legacy” is the way we are remembered after we die, but shouldn’t it be the way we want to be remembered? Would my mother have edited or added anything to my description of her? Would she have included different values, ones that would give a clearer answer to my brother’s question about the ERA? Maybe she would have surprised us by including bolder, more political adjectives than the ones I’ve listed. Or maybe she would have told us the ERA debate just wasn’t that important to her worldview.
As I think more about “legacy planning,” I see how critical it is to incorporate narrative and communication into the process. We should be more active participants in how we are remembered. Many variables will muddy the legacies we leave behind - the changing world, people’s morphing memories. All the more reason we should figure out what's important to us and make sure the people we love know what that is.