Friday, November 16, 2012

Do you think about legacy?

When clearing out my parents' condo I was thrilled to find a copy of a short novel my Uncle Bob had written. It was typed on onion skin, and written as he started out a long career of teaching English—my guess is it's at least 50 years old. My aunt (his sister) told me that after submitting it to publishers he "papered the back of his bedroom door" with rejections before giving up.

Given that I could paper a house with the rejections I've received in the past decade of novel submissions, I was eager to read it. My uncle never knew me as a novelist—when he died, he knew me as a dance critic. I remember complaining to him once about how little money I made in this role. With a look of bewilderment he said, "Criticism isn't about money, it's the ability to influence. You have that."

Does a novelist have the ability to influence? I think my lit-loving uncle would say yes, but I'll never get a chance to talk to him about it. So this manuscript he'd never mentioned, read by the niece novelist he'd never known, felt like a secret conversation.

When sharing work at the writing retreats I host for women in northern New York State, at the lake where my uncle and other extended family members spent summers throughout our lives, we explore the ways writing always reveals things about its author. This novel was no different in the ways it revealed my uncle.

Teaching was more than employment for my uncle; it was a way of being. He befriended his students, and often hosted groups of teenaged male students on his island during the summer. The practice inspired lifelong friendships; one former student and frequent lake visitor delivered the eulogy at his funeral, recalling the wonder of coming to the lake for the first time and seeing so many stars. My uncle's novel evokes such a mentorship between a college creative writing teacher and a student whose reclusive demeanor, coupled with his writing assignments centered on boat repair, suggests a troubled soul. The teacher, like my uncle, goes above and beyond the dictates of his role as teacher to see if he can reach this student.

One of the troubling attributes the student shares is too keen an interest in making a quick buck, the teacher discovers when visiting him at his summer job on a large lake whose shoreline is riddled with commercial interests. While the teacher wants the student to stay in college so he might find rewarding work that will support him, he fears for his student's soul with regard to money. This is where our family's lake roots make a cameo appearance. My uncle wrote:

Bob's island

With summer coming on, Cam thought of the lake in the mountains where he had spent every summer of his life. It was a small lake, filled with islands, and lost in a great forest far from the noises and confusions of civilization. Life there was simple and earthy, full of sunlight and the smell of pine needles by day, and the sound of whip-poor-wills and bullfrogs at night to sing and squawk one to sleep. There was absolutely nothing to do of itself—no amusement parks, no power boats, no Hilltops—but the summers were always full of fabricated joys, made from the love of being with other people and laughing and enjoying their company, and keeping busy together dreaming up things to do. Cam couldn't picture Jim in such a society, where he would be completely dependent upon friendship with others for sustenance. Yet he felt that if Jim were introduced to such a way of life, and was nurtured, he might find in it what he didn't have—he might find that a sense of humor was priceless, that a good laugh could wipe away the memory of many tears, that knowing many people and being accepted by them was the only real victory in life, and brought out all one's unknown, unguessed possibilities. Cam wished he could show Jim a new standard of values. It was so difficult to sell such things sight unseen.

The way my uncle wrote of our family's legacy at the lake moved me. Since his death, my husband and I extended that legacy considerably by tearing down the rotting, hundred-year-old camp and rebuilding it in a way that should ensure it will outlive its predecessor. I have broadened the legacy by inviting women writers to join me there, and many of them have chosen to come back year after year. My uncle left his island, pictured above, to my cousin named Bob—as if to perpetuate the sense of timelessness he valued there, he ensured that it would still be "Bob's island" long after his death.

Maybe it's this background that impels me to think about legacy, spurred on perhaps by my first husband's suicide. But I wonder: how will the world be a different place due to my presence here, and due to my choice to be a writer? The answers will never be mine to know, but the question itself is enough to inspire me to strive to make a difference.

How about you?