Memories And Mortality: What Does Legacy Really Mean?

It’s a curious thing to walk into an antique store and see an old family portrait for sale. I wonder what resale value those pictures have. Naturally, there’s the history of photography to be considered. Yet these portraits would have really only mattered to those connected to the subject in some way–a family member typically. 

The photo featured above (which I scanned from the negative) is meaningful to me because that is my grandmother, Jean Martin (later Rink). She died in December 2013 at the age of 107! This photo was taken clearly when she was in her prime. If my information is accurate, the photo was taken by my grandfather (her husband), Ralph Martin.

Personally, I like the photo beyond its family connection. As an environmental portrait, it has a compelling composition and her pose connotes confidence. Her rolled up sleeves likewise tell a story that she worked hard. I love the photo for its own sake, but naturally I frame it within the memories I had of her from when she was alive. Her legacy remains in me and in my family.

Now this is another photo I scanned, but I have no idea who these children were. My mother could not identify them. They were with our family photos, but whatever was known about them appears to be lost. 

Now this portrait is another from my mother’s side. I forget his name. My mother will no doubt remind me. But unless I take up an active interest in ancestry, it is a good bet that in a generation whatever was known about him will be forgotten. This is just how it is: memories we pass down via stories and photos are difficult to preserve and perpetuate. Young people seldom have a deep interest in the past, even about their own heritage. 

It’s important to say that is not an indictment. When I was young, I was equally uninterested. As I journey through my 50s, the idea of legacy and reflecting on the path I have taken frequently comes to mind. I hit me that since we do not have children, there is little chance of a legacy for me. Whatever I do in life, it is a virtual certainty no one will make mention of it in 50 or 100 years. 

Does a lack of a legacy make our lives meaningless?

The notion of a legacy that is decoupled from leaving behind “stuff” for the next generation (i.e. a willed estate etc.) is itself a recent innovation. The history of the word “legacy” originated in the common practice of passing down property to one’s children. Today, we tend to think of legacy as an enduring memory for one’s accomplishments. It is arguably why as a culture we are obsessed with celebrities, because widely popular people have a better chance of being remembered well past their lifetimes.

Many have written about this redefined concept of personal legacy. Just a quick search took to to a site with tips on how to leave a legacy. Of course, there have always been a handful of individuals who made the history books. Typically, we think of powerful people that changed the course of history. Yet the vast supermajority of people throughout time have passed into obscurity. What does that really mean?

As a Christian, I believe God knows every single person that ever lived. Moreover, the Bible posits eternity in the presence of Christ and those who, by faith, are in covenant with God. A biblical theology ultimately makes Christ the true legacy for humanity. I take great comfort to know God remembers me—and that beyond this life I have a great hope in Jesus.

 I really will never know if any memory of me will survive for long. Beyond my immediate family and closest friends, it is unlikely something I said or did will linger. My photography and other life activities will almost certainly not be remembered—in fact, our streaming culture barely stops to take notice now. We all keep scrolling. 

I will not be remembered 

No one will publish a book in 100 years showcasing my photos or writings. In fact, as I get older my “fame” is already fading (LOL). Does that really matter? Not at all. Legacy as an enduring memory should not my motivation for doing photography or anything else. But perhaps in the relationships and in the cumulative impact of my influence someone’s life might be enhanced. Maybe someone close to me will go on to greater things because of a tiny impact I might have had on them. I will never know.  I’m okay with that.

Using Format