For the last few summers, my daughter, son-in-law and four grandkids have traveled to my Indiana farmhouse from Raleigh, North Carolina, to escape the worst of the southern heat for a few weeks.
Normally, my household consists of an aging boxer, a half-dozen barn cats, and me. I have cows for neighbors. I can tell the time each morning by tracking the progress of the black-and-white tomcat stalking across the east pasture.
It’s quiet here, in other words. Until they come.
If you took all the stuff of childhood and crammed it into a clown car, spun it around like a top and then yanked the door open — that’s what their arrival puts me in mind of. They spring out of the minivan with the pent-up mania of a 13-hour car ride, intent on schemes and activities they’d been planning since they left the previous year.
Out of the closets come boxes of old Barbies and blocks. They claim beds and hug the dog and chase the cats. They check on the pond and wheel out the scooters. It’s like they are plugging in all of the connections broken by their last leave-taking.
And then, always too soon, they leave again.
Now a different ritual takes place.
For days, I will come across a hair bow hidden by the bedskirt, a tiny Lego laser sword (which we spent hours fruitlessly searching for) in the bathroom. A legless, armless, featureless Mr. Potato Head tumbled in the flowerbed.
All of these tiny signs of everyday life, totally insignificant in and of themselves, now precious because of what they represent: a wake. Material things left behind that tell their own stories quite apart from the thing itself. Reminders of my grandkids’ presence somehow made all the more evocative because of their physical absence.
I think it’s no accident that “wake” refers to the act of becoming conscious as well as to the signs of something that has passed. We are so often pressed by busy schedules to continually think forward — what we will get done that day, in the new year, or in our career. But how often do we consider what we’ve left in our wake?
What work from our hands, what items or accomplishments or even failures do we strew behind us for others to find and interpret? What waves of change did we put in motion, and who did they jostle — for the good or ill? What does this all mean for the way we go forward?
The privilege of putting together this magazine is the opportunity to meet many thoughtful individuals who are mindful of their wakes. Gita Pullapilly, who became a filmmaker after deciding that a perfectly respectable career as a newspaper “death reporter” wasn’t to be the sum of her life. Jim Spencer, a Mendoza staff member, who as part of the Maker Movement essentially views the world as a giant ball of Play-Doh available for molding according to our best aspirations.
And perhaps most notably, the DuSable Museum of African American History. We decided to write about the museum initially because one of our MBA marketing courses partnered with DuSable on a classroom project. But writer Brooke O’Neill came back with an intriguing story that helps us understand that a museum isn’t simply a storehouse of stuff. On an institutional level, DuSable carefully curates items left in the wake of individuals who made paths — some big, some small — through history.
This isn’t a new thought, that the past and the future echo back and forth across the chasm of time. Or on the barest level, that our actions have consequences that follow us. But I wonder if someone was following behind me and collecting all the stuff falling out of my little clown car of life, what kind of story would it tell?
What would my aging boxer, my friends, my kids, my five lovely grandchildren and God, say?
I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t say, “Nice stuff.” At least, I hope they won’t.