Saturday, February 4, 2023

What is the Meaning of Legacy?

Some of you may have traced your family lineage or have had it done for you. Many would appear to consider this frivolous and yet others become oddly obsessed with the project. If you know a person in your circle who has an interesting ancestor or relative, you've probably felt as though been told too many stories about them at some point. I've often been guilty of too many retellings, but I hope you'll stick with me because I have a few thoughts this all leads to at the end.

George Washington and Christopher Gist crossing the Allegheny River (Museum exhibit, Mount Vernon)

In my family, many of us share the 'Gist' surname as a middle name. My grandmother, aunt, cousins, myself, even my son all have this same middle name. The big reason for this, is our family hero, Christopher Gist. Christopher Gist became friends with George Washington and may have saved his life when Washington was sent to demand the French leave Ohio by Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia. This friendship persisted until Gist's death. 

Author with portrait of Brigadier General Mordecai Gist
Office of Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, 2010

What isn't always as well known within the family, is the Gists were involved in plenty of other interesting activities. Whether it was commanding some impressive units in the revolution (Brigadier General Mordecai Gist), starting the civil war (Governor William Henry Gist, South Carolina) or keeping West Virginia in the Union (Joseph Christopher Gist, W.Va. State Senator 1861). There's even the idea that Sequoyah, the man who invented the Cherokee alphabet was also known as George Gist and may be a cousin. Invariably, there are plenty more people who have done interesting things, and a special mention is worth for our cousins the Blairs and the Lees. (Notably, Montgomery Blair was Lincoln's Postmaster General and Blair Lee III was both Lieutenant Governor and Acting Governor of Maryland as well as having served in other offices.) 

Bruce Lee, Justin Gist Preuninger, Robert Lee

I had the privilege of meeting some of the descendants of the Blair/Lee cousins, because when I was working in Silver Spring, it transpired they owned the building I worked in. I like to say the story is that I noticed the street names in the area matched my genealogy and I approached their receptionist to ask about it and instead of rejecting this sort of odd question, she introduced me to Blair Lee IV. 

My grandmother, aunt, and uncle returned to America after World War II on this ship.

All of this is a short history of some of the highlights, but frankly the stories go on and on. As I explore the journey that my ancestors and our relatives took, we've been on both sides of many great conflicts. There have been many thinkers and intellectuals such as my grandfather who had a doctorate in German language; even my father did his masters in German language, but ended up working in the aviation industry instead of academia, which actually was incredibly educational to my upbringing because I was able to travel internationally nearly every year growing up.

Champollion 200 Year Anniversary Exhibit
Louvre, Lens (France) 2022

When I consider all of this, I think it's something that has helped me to connect with history, but also appreciate my place in history. It's also sometimes a bit confusing how some people react to bits and pieces. I'm also a French citizen, through my mother, and speak fluent French. Recently I was in France, at the Louvre in Lens (an extension of the Paris museum) for the 200 year anniversary Champollion exhibit regarding decipherment of hieroglyphics and I was having a conversation with a woman in the children's media area whilst our children were doing activities. What was interesting, is as much pride as I have in the history I come from, I think we are all human and we all have our own choices and path to make. And when I suggested that anything is possible, she responded and said that I could only have that attitude because I came from a 'great family'. 

And this is the point I wanted to make here. Legacy can inform the future from the past, but it cannot take the place of our own initiative. It provides the inspiration and perhaps the encouragement for great things... but it cannot be everything. We cannot simply accept that because our family and our ancestors were interesting, or even on the contrary might have been boring, that our life must be limited to a particular path. We should not say, because of the actions of our ancestors, our choices are limited or that we no longer need to put effort into our own story.

It's also something I think about even more clearly with the recent deaths of several family members, both close relatives and cousins that makes me think about my everyday actions. In so much of life, my experience is that I am waiting for something to get better... a relationship, my bank account, a job situation, etc. And whilst I am waiting, my life is escaping me. As the scripture says, in Ephesians 5:15, we must be "redeeming the time, because the days are evil." (KJV) 

Somewhere I recently saw a meme that said tradition is, 'listening to peer pressure from dead people,' and I think this is also an angle to consider. Our ancestors likely did not become great by being simply average; if they distinguished themselves beyond their family, it is because they took risks. But as a parent, it's also a question of how I live out my story and how I impart the legacy to inspire the next generations. I want my children to look at my passions and interests and find what brings them joy and what helps their community--much how I've looked at my father's lessons on discovering how machines and technology work and how to identify the best value for my money. Or even how I've wanted to be a peacemaker because of his desire to find a path forward, but also a debater from my mother's energy. To me, the inspiration is clear and it's had a direct impact on my life. I hope that the love of learning that I gained as a child is something my children will also absorb and take to adulthood.

And this is where I want to set out my path for future generations. I want there to be descendants in the distant future who can come back and think on the fact that we paved a path for them to have the confidence to make their own way, to take their own risks, to show what love means to the people they are close to, and for them to be able to do the same going forward. To do great things in the context of the world they will live in, a world which may not resemble the one that I, my parents, or our ancestors grew up in. There will be new technologies and different politics, different fashions--but fundamentally humans with hopes, desires, frustrations, and dreams.

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