Your old men shall dream dreams; your young men shall see visions. — Joel 2: 28b
There is a dividing line in the lives of the young. On one side is an insular existence, where the elders live and govern, taking us into the folds of their ancient skirts, where they will knit us a history. There, we are fed and told who we are. They distill from their founts of wisdom a pablum we are capable of consuming. We do not understand what we have. We cannot quite fathom how fortunate we are, to hold them, to hear them, to trace their veins with our tiny fingers. But we are no so foolish that we entirely take them for granted. We understand their arms as the haven into which we can run when our parents’ discipline feels more alienating than effectual. We understand their stores as confections to relish, their thunderous or rasping voices a theatre around which we sit riveted.
On this side, they are hearty and hale. Even if their spines curve like parentheses or their fingers are gnarled as twine, we do not note these conditions as anything more than accents embellishing their character. We do not recognize them as lashes left by the cruelest of all overseers: Time.
Cross the line, and your elders are no more. Depending on what you believe, they hover above your life, acting as guardians, or they sit at the sidelines, watching with disappointment or wonderment. Perhaps they are praying. Perhaps their prayers are preventive, and you will never know what calamities you’ve sidestepped as the result of their intercession.
What is more certain is the impact of their absence. Gone are the raised and winding veins, gone the comforting feel of the blood coursing through them. Absent also are the courageous creases, deepened through decades spent awaiting abolition, petitioning for voters’ rights, sharecropping too-small parcels of land; losing homes and children and lovers; then yielding to the technological advances that stole their jobs and divided the attentions of their once-rapt grandchildren.
You miss their certainty, their Gilbraltar-like presence. Without them, your borders feel unprotected. They carried the world so artfully, you were never aware of its weight.
Now, there are days when you can barely square your shoulders. And you are finally beginning to understand.
There are a few years yet, before we return to the other side and become for our children’s children what our parents’ parents were for us. Our work must be thorough and quick. We are left to decipher the glyphs and mosaics stitched into the story quilts they left us. We must apply their epiphanies to the balance of our days, embellishing and righting and multiplying as we see fit.
We may merely be the mint-givers, the switch-wielders, the pipe-smokers rocking under the moonlight on our back porches. It is possible that our most significant impartation will be the secret to baking a perfect pound cake.
We are just as significant. They will need us all.
This is the meaning of legacy.