Two weeks ago, I took A. to the playground. It was a beautiful fall day, warm but breezy, and we were surrounded by blazing red- and yellow-leafed trees and that golden, slanting autumn sunshine.
An older man arrived, with an Alaskan husky on a leash and a young boy (maybe 5 years old) with him. Both man and boy were dressed in maroon football shirts, and the little boy carried a small plastic football. Eventually, A. and a few other children started playing catch with the football. The man gave instruction and encouragement to the boy, who grinned at the two preschool girls and the toddler boy just waiting for him to throw the ball to them. A. chased down the ball and threw it back. “She’s got a good arm!” the man said gruffly. He was just old enough that I couldn’t tell if he was the boy’s father or grandfather. A somewhat weathered, tanned face, salt and pepper hair. “You got to throw it up, a little higher,” he told the boy after one toss went straight into the ground. “That’s it, like that!”
After years spent in soccer-mad Europe, this felt oddly familiar. It felt like home. It felt like Pennsylvania.
No one who grew up 30 minutes from State College, like I did, can be indifferent to what’s going on there. I did not attend Penn State. But my grandfather did. He came from coal country and worked his way through college; and then on the strength of his smarts and hard work and education, he succeeded as a chemical engineer, recruited for his company at Penn State, amassed a small fortune through prudent saving and investing, moved to State College in retirement, and (I’m sure) gave a small fortune to Penn State. I know that because I remember sitting in his season-ticket seats on the 40 yard line.
He would be heart-broken. And angry. Pop-pop was something to see when he was angry.
One of my uncles worked at Penn State, and my step-brother and cousins on both sides of my family attended there. Many of my high school friends and acquaintances. Everyone in Tyrone watches Penn State football, whether they went there or not.
In the Bible study I’m attending this fall, we talk about leaving a legacy. It Starts at Home, the book is called. It calls adult Christians to think about what their lives say to their children, their children’s children. How to structure family life so that kids have a chance of seeing faith at work at home.
The leader started out by telling us about finding an old newspaper clipping among her mother’s things after her death. It was an obituary of her great-grandmother. It listed all the usual information, and then said something like, “She was devoted to the spiritual welfare of her children.” That was a wake-up call in her own life, the leader told us. Would anyone be able to say that about her, when she passed on? What did her priorities look like? Did she want her obituary to say “She loved gardening” or “Her house was pretty”? What would her children remember about her?
She noted that it doesn’t take very long for the world to forget us. Just a generation or two before there is no one left on earth who knew us. Like her great-grandmother, now known only through a yellowed obituary. Like Pop-pop, like my other grandparents, who passed away before or just after K. was born. When my children are grown, will they look through old family photos and wonder who those people are?
One chapter examines the legacy of Abraham and Sarah. Not that legacy, the one where they start a nation of chosen people, and are considered the parents of not one but three major religions. No, the other one, where Abraham is afraid for his own skin, so he lies and says Sarah is his sister. The king who took him at his word is pretty pissed off when he gets a little midnight visitation from the Lord Almighty. Make that kings. Abraham uses the same lie twice, with two different kings. Abraham is rightly commended for his faith, but it’s clear he has some pretty significant faults, too. A generation later, Abraham’s son Isaac does the same thing. Lies to the king that his wife is his sister, to protect himself. Ah, but Isaac reaps what he sows. His own son, Jacob, pretends to be his twin brother, and on Isaac’s deathbed, deceives his blind, sick father into giving Jacob the blessing and inheritance that Isaac intended to give to Esau. Wily Jacob eventually makes up with his brother and has a bunch of kids—12 sons, to be exact. Ten of them sell the eleventh into slavery, then lie to their father about it for years. It’s only when they encounter Joseph, now in a position of power in Egypt, that they are forced to tell old Jacob the truth. The book argues that Joseph breaks the chain by remaining honest and forgiving his brothers. But I seem to remember Joseph not being totally up front when he sees his brothers and realizes they do not recognize him. Of course, when your own brothers throw you in a pit and sell you into slavery, I suppose it would be hard to trust them when they show up 20 years later, begging for food.
Abraham’s legacy, then, despite his faith, is a cord of light and dark intertwined. “The ties that bind” within any family—even legendary ones—have greater or lesser amounts of virtue, faith, pain, deception, love, addiction, respect, anger…
“Write at the top of the page your name and the word ‘legacy',” the leader says. Dutifully I write down “Jennifer’s Legacy.” It looks weird. It looks wrong. The thought comes to me, “What makes you think you deserve a legacy?” I feel...almost shame, definitely discomfort. Acknowledging that I could have an impact on the world, or even specifically my children, seemed like hubris. Aren’t legacies what presidents leave? It takes a few minutes before I realize. That thought, and those feelings, do not come from God. They do not fit with what I have learned about how God loves us. For days, I think about that moment and try to figure out why I reacted that way. It has something to do with the culture I grew up in, I think, and something to do with my own flawed view of myself and the world.
But here’s the conclusion I’ve finally reached, in this unlikely juxtaposition of my little world and the world of “updates in the Penn State scandal.” Everyone leaves a legacy, whether they mean to or not. Most of us leave accidental legacies. We just do what we think is right, we get through the day, we do what comes naturally to us. Life is hard, and it’s easy to get caught up in the latest crisis and miss the people who are looking to us. Little ones who study us to find out what life is all about. Who see the best and worst of their parents. Who hear what we are saying, and then look at what we are doing. No wonder we see our own faults in our children. And, hopefully, our own strengths.
I saw a TV show once where an investigator was interviewing a suspect in a child molestation. And she drew a word picture that I’ve remembered since. She talked about the times when the pedophile himself had been abused as a child, and then further back, to the person who abused that guy, and so on. It was a chain of abuse going back generations. Not necessarily within one family, but within a long line of the abused who became abusers.
A horrible, twisted legacy, but a legacy nonetheless.
The word legacy and Joe Paterno go naturally together. But the heft and color and shape of JoePa’s legacy has been warped by that other, twisted legacy of abuse. One may argue about who knew when and who did what and on and on. I know, because I have. No one in my family or among my Pennsylvania friends could be accused of not having strong opinions.
Penn State has never had a recruiting scandal. Joe’s legacy is an academically focused, clean, honest football program. Until now.
I’m not entirely sure what I think about it, other than the pedophile did what pedophiles do and that someone—many someones—should have stopped him sooner. For those little boys, now men, Penn State’s legacy means something sordid and frightening and uncaring.
It’s all so very sad.
And so I come back around to myself, my family. It’s finally clear to me that legacy is not just a word for great men and women. All of us leave some kind of legacy. All of us have an imprint on those around us, whether we recognize it or not.
Will my legacy, the cords that connect me to my children, and my children’s children, be bright and encouraging, something hopeful to hang on to? Or will they be dark and slippery, binding and chafing? I am not foolish enough to think it has ever been an either/or choice. But I can make choices today, and tomorrow, and for the rest of my life, that give my children more light than dark. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” For too long, I have chosen not to choose. It is time. I fail every day, but I can also strive every day to shelter the light in my daughters’ eyes, to give them something to hang on to when life gets hard, to show them that life has joy and meaning. That each of them has joy and meaning.
What will your legacy be?