Thoughts on legacy, inspired by my grandma... and the musical Hamilton

I've been thinking a lot about legacy these days.

It first came up last weekend as I was making the two and a half hour drive north from Boston to Meredith, New Hampshire, to celebrate my Grandma Jean Stephens' 89th birthday. I was alone on that Sunday morning, the weather was beautiful, the trees in perfect gold and red harmony.

And Hamilton, the new critically-acclaimed-you-can't-get-a-ticket-no-matter-who-you-know musical was blaring on the sound system in my little Mini Cooper as I buzzed along the interstate, and coincidentally, passed the final resting place of my Grandpa Ted.

The theme bubbled up again over the course of last week as we had the opportunity to share some incredible stories of legacy left by Quad City-area philanthropists--stories that live today thanks to the work of the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend. Last night, as I flew home from a quick getaway to renew myself in Iceland, that groundbreaking Hamilton musical playing on my ridiculously big headphones again, legacy emerged once more.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's lyrics were ringing in my ears... and in my mind:

Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
— Lyrics from "The World Was Wide Enough" from Hamilton the Musical

As I listen to the musical's cast album, and come to learn more about Alexander Hamilton's story (I'm about to start the book that inspired the musical), it occurs to me that Hamilton was obsessed with his legacy. Or, perhaps even more so, was obsessed with how others would tell his story (I'd dare say he'd never imagine a hip-hop musical would be part of that legacy).

His wife Eliza sings about it in Act II:

You and your words, obsessed with your legacy...
Your sentences border on senseless, and you are paranoid in every paragraph how they perceive you...
— Lyrics from "Burn" from Hamilton the Musical

I'm not sure that legacy is just planting seeds that you never get to see (here's where my grandmother comes in). See, I'm not certain she's ever been concerned about legacy--that she has ever given two thoughts about it. But I am certain that she's lived her life in a way that has created a beautiful legacy that is already blossoming in front of her eyes. As she sat in an over-stuffed recliner at her birthday party, watching nine great grandchildren (there are many more sprinkled across the country that couldn't be in attendance) roll around on the floor playing with blocks and screaming and laughing with one another, I noticed a big smile on her face. Because those kids, and her grandchildren and children, are legacy in every sense of the word.

On the surface, we would define legacy as a bequest--as an inheritance that is left to someone else. But what if we, rather, described legacy as love? As a vehicle for good? And, what if we started now--so that we weren't just planting seeds for the future, but were rather gardening and cultivating today so that changes could be made? So that lessons good be learned? So that, like my grandma, we get to unexpectedly see the fruits of our legacy while we are still alive.

Imagine the good that would spread all across our world.

I believe each one of us is leaving a legacy in this very moment that goes beyond dollars. And, like Hamilton, we have no idea who will tell that story--who will keep it alive. Eliza told his story, and simultaneously created a legacy of her own after Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr (she founded the first orphanage in New York City, raised funds for the Washington Monument, and as the lyrics so absolutely perfectly sing, "I put myself back in the narrative").

And when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?
— Lyrics from "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?" from Hamilton the Musical

I love the overlap with our work at The Numad Group. Over the past few weeks, we've gotten to play a small role in telling stories about good people like W.D. Petersen and the Potter Family and Kenneth and Sharon Glassman. The nonprofits and community foundations we work with across the country understand that legacy is more than the funds they oversee. It is about honoring the human--and the love--behind the money.

Wouldn't it be cool if, through our actions today, we could play a role in telling our own legacy story simply through our actions--through the way we live our life today?