If the meaning of life was revealed to me in a Bank of America branch office, so be it.
I came back to Boca Raton to deal with my father's estate again. The details are unimportant, involving as they did lawyers and nasty and incomprehensible battles and, ultimately, resolution. And then I found myself at a teller's window, waiting to cash a check from the trust account to reimburse me after I'd cleared my wallet paying to handle another annoyance, and the teller asked for my ID and inspected it closely.
"You live in California?" she said, and she looked at the check.
"Yeah," I said, noting that she was peering at the address on the check, also California. "But the account's here, this branch. Florida," I added helpfully. I really wanted to just be done with it, done with the whole thing, done and back home. But then I noticed her expression changed.
"Harold Simon?" She looked at me, pale. "Harold Simon's dead?"
Yes, I told her, he died exactly a month ago.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, and in an instant everything about her softened, no longer the brusquely efficient bank employee but suddenly a real human. "I know he had that cancer, that asbestos thing..."
And then she began to tell me about my father, how he came in frequently over the years, starting back when it was still Barnett Bank, how he talked about playing tennis and how nice a man he was, and then she said "you must be... you're in radio, right?" and called another teller over to tell her that my Dad had died and what a very nice, decent man he was. We chatted for a little bit, and I left a little prouder of Dad than when I'd walked into the place.
It was in the bank that I realized what legacies are all about. We spend our lives trying to make a mark, trying to do something for which we'll really be remembered, honored, when the dirty secret is that with the possible exception of a handful of people in each generation (and that' being generous), none of us will be specifically remembered beyond just a few generations. We die, our family and friends mourn, then they die, and soon enough, there's nobody who remembers your existence. That's the way life works, and it can get depressing if that's all there is.
But there's another way to look at it. You touch lives you never know you're touching, day in and day out. My father didn't go to the bank to make friends or to affect people's lives, he went there to deposit and cash checks, and he didn't go there to put on an act, he went there playing himself. And in that mundane interaction, a few times a week, maybe less, he made an impression, an impression he never knew he made. A month after his passing, his son walked into that bank and discovered that his father had left some people happier to have known him.
And that, I suppose, is what we're doing here. Most of us will not change the world. Most of us are not capable of that- that's not meant pejoratively, it's just a fact. We'll never be in a position to change the world. And we can't really expect our names to live forever, either- beyond Presidents and Popes and, well, that's about it, really, the rest of us, even the Bob Hopes and Michael Jordans and Muhammad Alis will be relegated to footnotes in a few generations and completely forgotten some time after that. But we do affect the people around us, not by anything we TRY to do, but just by the way we are, the way we deal with others and the things we say and do on a regular, mundane basis. It's not about frantically building a legacy like Bill Clinton, not for most of us. It's about whether you're a good person or a nasty sort, and by being himself- a nice man, a good man- my father affected more people than he ever knew, whether it was merely a smile as he paid for the groceries at the Publix or by his idle let-me-tell-you-about-my-children chatter at the bank, by the kindnesses he extended to the children who attended the schools he ran or by being there to play friendly games of tennis with guys he barely knew. He made marks he didn't know he was making, and when I talked to the teller this morning, I found one of them.
I often think I've suffered by having a reputation as being a "nice guy," as in "finish last." But I've always had to remind myself that this is what I am, this is how I come. I can't change this. And, in that, I'm a lot like my Dad. That's why, walking away from the Bank of America, I felt a little relieved and a lot proud. I know now that there's a legacy, even if your name slips away into the ether and people eventually forget your existence. You make someone a little better off for having known you, they do the same for someone else, they pass it on. So they forget your name. You're dead, anyway. But you leave an important part of you behind, and that's a better monument than anything in concrete. Dad left me something way more valuable than the stuff I had to hire attorneys to fight about. I didn't know it, but I guess I'm passing it on.