Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Legacy

I've been besieged of late, for lack of a better word, by multiple thoughts on the nature of legacy. Musing on the nature of how a story is told or interpreted is nothing new for me, it's been part of my work in both the museum and publishing worlds, but for the past week and a half everything I've encountered--from election results to horse races--seems to boil down to that double-edged sword of a word, legacy.

This entire thought process began about 10 days or so ago when the Snow Monkey and I visited Springwood, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's estate in Hyde Park. I've been there many times, most often to wander around the grounds and soak up some inspiration, but himself, well, he'd never been there so we opted to take the house tour in addition to having a good walk around the grounds. As we meandered through the home it was interesting to eavesdrop on the quiet comments murmured between our fellow tourists and the inquiries made to our guide...there was an air of unspoken respect for the man and for, I hope, his place in history. I'm always amused by his well curated and somewhat cheeky collection of 18th and 19th century British political cartoons; just as I'm always moved by the dumbwaiter (originally used for cumbersome steamer trunks) that was re-purposed as an elevator to allow a wheelchair-bound FDR to get himself to the other levels of the the home. He pulled himself upstairs, essentially, in a small dumbwaiter car, using a rope that must have tested and tired the strength of his entire upper-body. Once outside, amidst the rolling hills and ridiculously beautiful views of the Hudson River, it's nearly impossible to leave Springwood without a sense of the Roosevelt legacy of Franklin and Eleanor. Stop to consider that in addition to repealing Prohibition (my personal favorite of FDR's myriad accomplishments) he also is responsible for creating Social Security, Unemployment Insurance,  the CCC, the WPA, the SEC, and the March of Dimes for starters. And for as much as I fully understand the flaws and foibles of FDR's alphabet soup of recovery programs, this time I left with a sinking feeling that some of the things he'd fought for and left in trust for future generations were actually in a kind of danger.

Yes, I said in danger. Prior to that Sunday afternoon, pre-2010 election, I had read of and watched politicians from a handful of states stumping and advocating for the dissolution (or serious dismembering) of programs like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. These upstart sorts, to my mind, were tampering not only with FDR's legacy of compassion and social responsibility, but they were also, in their own way, demolishing important and necessary safety net programs that people count on. Beyond that, we (yes, WE) have also contributed to these programs all of our working lives. This isn't charity, it's something that working people have earned. The Roosevelt administrations of the 1930s and 40s fought hard for us to have these's one of the most important parts of his legacy as far as I'm concerned. Seeing these necessary and enduring pieces of legislation challenged and almost made light of by cavalier and common politicians was worrisome, to say the least. It seems we all need reminders that vigilance is the price we must pay to ensure the future of important legacies handed down to us for protection.

And then, nearly a week after our little Roosevelt excursion, there was the big upset of this past Saturday, Zenyatta being nosed out of her 20th victory and a Breeder's Cup Classic win, by a horse called Blame. For those of you who don't follow horse racing and are now wondering who these horses are, I'm a little sad on your behalf. Go ahead...Google Zenyatta, watch ANY of her races, and then come back, we'll wait for you to get up to speed.

Impressive, right? Kind of makes you want to go back and watch all of her 19 brilliant victories, doesn't it? It's'll find yourself a little teary and most likely cheering wildly for this amazing mare in spite of the fact that you know she's going to win all 19 in style--patented Zenyatta style--coming from behind, her long, rolling strides seeming to eat up the ground.

So this brings us to her 20th start in the Breeder's Cup Classic against the boys. There was talk that she might retire to the breeding shed after this race, and surely with a win, her legacy of greatness would be cemented. However, as most racing fans learn early on, the racing gods and goddesses can be terribly cruel. Heartbreak is built into both baseball and horse racing, it's part of the bargain we accept for the pleasure of sweet swings or an amazing turn of foot. Just as there was no joy in Mudville when the Mighty Casey struck out, there was no joy at Churchill Downs (or anywhere that racing fans congregate) when Zenyatta lost. The elegant, smart, stylish, and cunning mare who had so nobly borne all of our wishes, dreams, and hopes for perfection on her well-bred shoulders came up a nostril short.

Her legacy? Absolutely untarnished for this fan. She's a wonder and a marvel and she has more than earned her place in history with her incredible record of 19 consecutive wins. Race fans will debate and debunk the sometime rivalry of the mighty Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, but at the end of the day, Zenyatta's record speaks for itself. I have such love and respect for both these mares and their connections that I mostly just consider myself lucky to have been able to watch them race so many times. I often bemoan not being around to watch in person Secretariat's Belmont blow-out or Seabiscuit's match race against War Admiral, but instead I've been able to watch Zenyatta and Rachel. Not such a bad trade off, all things considered.

My hope is that when Zenyatta does eventually make her way to the breeding shed that she'll throw beautiful and talented foals for us to marvel at and cheer on for generations to come. Now that's a and stunning little mini-Zenyattas making their way to a racetrack near you in 2014 or 2015!

On a closing note, a much smaller, but more personal legacy that I consider myself the keeper of--along with my family, of course. The photo of the clothespins above was taken on the porch of my maternal grandparent's home in Fountain City, Wisconsin. The porch looks out over the Mississippi River, rather lazy at that spot, and bears witness to seasonal voyages of numerous barges and the occasional long ago visits from the Delta Queen, a historic sternwheel steamboat, complete with calliope. The twine clothesline and clothespins pictured are a tactile representation of my grandmother's philosophy and work ethic. Hand embroidered dish towels, plastic baggies turned inside out for reuse, and colorful--if threadbare--aprons were fixtures on that length of twine. After big dinners with lots of cousins and family present the day would end with the lines covered with wet dish towels, or pieces of butcher's paper--all hung to dry with a view of the river rolling calmly by.

The sight of an old wooden clothespin never fails to remind me of my "Grandma K" and her own little legacy of daughters who sew, embroider, and quilt (to this day) and grandchildren who cherish and recall fondly her handiworks, fresh bread, popcorn parties, and chaotic fishing expeditions.

Legacies can be national, political, ordinary, and even equine in nature. More important is that we recognize the pieces of history, large and small, that are entrusted to us to care for and nurture for coming generations.


Mark Devereux said...

Lovely stuff, as usual! Am reading this from a funky hotel in Calcutta (you should just hear the din outside the sealed windows) the contrast to your experience is quite spectacular!

sid fernando said...

ditto mark