My mother was and is what we now respectfully call a stay-at-home-mom. Back then though she was “just” a housewife, or to dress it up: a domestic engineer. She was determined that I would go to college and have a career; in short, she wanted to make sure I would be nothing like her. In retrospect, it’s a little weird growing up wanting to be nothing like your mother, but once I had my own daughters I knew it wasn’t weird at all.
I was most influenced by my father. He was a CPA, which meant that during tax season we didn’t see him from January through April. I felt so bad for him, as he worked six days a week and would come home exhausted and hungry. Yet, instead of going to sleep he would go down into his home office and work on “his book.” Systematically he was reading through books and articles and taking notes on a series of index cards. He was vague about the specifics of the book itself but it was clear from the times I snuck downstairs to poke through his stuff that his work was connected to Jewish history. Aside from his aspirations to be an author, my father was a voracious reader whose tastes ran the gamut from popular fiction to history to Jewish philosophy.
As a studious man with an excellent vocabulary, my father helped me when I was chosen to speak at my Beis Yaakov graduation. As we went back and forth trying to determine my own voice for this speech, we quibbled over words that might be too “high falutin’” for the audience. I was particularly concerned about using the word “inculcate.” He looked at me sternly and gave me a lecture about never dumbing myself down for anyone. His point was taken.
After my father died, I was desperate to feel close to him. We sat shiva in the house I had grown up in, but by then I had been married for upwards of twenty-five years and the remodeled house no longer evoked sentiment nor memory. I found comfort eating his favorite foods but my new diet of chocolate, coffee, and cold cuts ultimately did nothing for me except to increase my cholesterol and expand my waistline. His death was unexpected, his life stolen overnight six months after he retired. The book he had wanted to write was trapped in the hundreds of index cards that filled the file cabinets in his office. The book was going to be his legacy, a culmination of fifty years of research.
I wanted to write his book, but books are a labor of love, and I loved my father but not his subject matter. We wrote a sefer torah in his honor, and although this was a once in a lifetime mitzvah, I couldn’t help thinking that it was somewhat impersonal. I wanted him to be remembered for something special, specific just to him and him alone. When we were sitting shiva one of my brothers went downstairs into my father’s office and came back up with a three-ring binder. In it, broken up with colored dividers with little tabs, were a series of divrei Torah from Parshas Bereishis onwards, completely sourced and handwritten in his meticulous block print. I wanted it. Badly. My siblings and I squabbled over it and it stayed in the house until under the pretense of helping to clean up his office I swiped it. Nothing in it was earth-shattering, no amazing new insights. Nothing that would make him posthumously famous. But it was his, a piece of his unique mind and perspective, and I was happy to have it.
About eighteen months after my father’s death, when life had returned to its usual rhythm, I received a text from my youngest brother: “Does a day ever go by that you don’t think of Daddy?” My brother (who is young enough to be my son) still lived at home and I knew that the situation was very hard for him. I texted back some platitude and went on with my day. His text, however, reignited my desire to make my father proud, to make his life count, and I realized that I had misinterpreted the definition of legacy. I had thought his legacy should be a physical manifestation of his life’s work but this wasn’t true. His legacy was his powerful belief system, which was a harmonious synthesis between the tenets of Jewish ideology and secular wisdom. The values that he instilled in us, his children – that was his legacy, the way that he inspired us to reach higher and actualize our full potential.
I knew then what I had to do. I went down to his office and sorted through his seforim and his books. I took the ones I thought would interest me and I bade farewell to the index cards. I made plans to give a shiur based on the divrei Torah in his three-ring binder. But really, most of all, I lived my life with new meaning, although I was doing the exact same things I had been doing before he died. I was bereft of his presence, but I was a wife, a mother, an eye doctor, a businesswoman; I became acutely aware that I had become all of those things because of him, because of the years I spent watching him juggle his career, his family, and his rich religious life. He didn’t make it look easy and yet all I wanted was to follow in his footsteps.
In a non-morbid way, I think a lot about what I want my own legacy to be. Like my mother before me, I want my daughters to have all of the opportunities that were unavailable to me, as well as the luxury of choice as to whether to embrace those opportunities or not. I want my daughters to examine their lives, which are based on the life I built for them, which is based on the life that was built for me. I want them to choose wisely and well. I want them to live an authentic life steeped in family tradition, but with room for the freedom of self-expression and the knowledge that they are loved, always and unconditionally.
Legacy does not have to mean becoming a carbon copy of my parents, but rather, taking the best and most meaningful parts of them and living in a way that would make them proud. Although I miss my father terribly, I feel that my deep desire to live a life dedicated to his ideals has empowered me to accomplish things I would never have done otherwise. As his third yahrzeit approaches, I am finally at peace with who he was, who I am, and who I am yet to be.