What is the value of just one life?
I ponder this question a lot these days. Maybe it's because I just turned 50 and the reality has just come crashing down on me, that the years ahead of me are now not as many as the years behind me.
I think about things like, "What will my legacy be?"
"Who will miss me?"
"What will I leave behind?"
I have been spending a lot of time these last few years with my 88-year-old father. He used to be a G.I. Joe dad, a World War II vet, who loved driving his pick-up truck and working on projects in his wood shop. He was a tough man, who never shed a tear and didn't cotton to sentimental fluff, which included hugs. These days, about six inches shorter and in a wheelchair, he delights in the smallest of pleasures. I brought him a hot dog loaded with sauerkraut, and his face lit up like the 4th of July. I looked at him, mustard dripping down his chin and wondered what his legacy will be.
Am I his legacy?
It's so easy in our society to think of only the rich, famous and powerful as having a legacy, but people we pass in the street every day may have lives more fascinating than any reality show and leave behind impressions in the fabric of this world just as important as those familiar faces we see on television.
Yes, surely the footprint of Nelson Mandela is bigger and more wondrous then most, but wasn't it all those millions of other lives, ready for a change, willing to stand up and fight for a change that led to Mandela taking the helm toward a new and better future?
That person who is washing our dishes, the cab driver taking you to the airport, the bartender at your local watering hole, all those faceless people we pass on the street every day, what are their stories?
I think of the cab driver an acquaintance of mine named Jon met years back who turned out to be the owner of the defunct Plato's Retreat, probably the most famous sex club that ever existed. I would have loved to have been a fly on that cab's wall. Years later, Jon wound up making a documentary about the swing king turned cabby; his name was Larry Levenson.
I think of the line cook I met who explained to me that every extra penny he made was being sent back to Africa to feed his very large and expanding family. There were entire generations of his family who were being fed and clothed by his selfless kindness.
I think of the Indian man whose magazine kiosk was destroyed in 911 who didn't go home but chose to stay at Ground Zero folding clean socks, serving food and giving hugs, lots and lots of hugs to all the first responders. He slept on the floor of St. Paul's church for a month. I saw him every day while I was down there cooking for the rescuers, but now I can't remember his name.
I think of Juanita, a 96-year-old woman who shares a dinner table with my father at his assisted living. She is hard to understand and therefore easy to ignore. Old people seem spectacularly easy to ignore. Seeing a bounty of trophies in her room, I decided to find out her story. Turns out Juanita was one of the first African American women to bowl professionally in Southern California. In an era far ahead of civil rights in this country, she was a bowling instructor, a tennis instructor and seemed to have a real knack for softball, too. "I was really something!" she told me, proudly adjusting her hairnet.
I think of Manuel, whom I met when he served breakfast at our hotel. He was beaming ear to ear about a Father's Day card he got from his three sisters. He stepped in to raise them when their father stepped out. The card they sent him was simple: "Thank you for teaching us to respect ourselves."
I think of all the shoppers in the grocery stores of my childhood who passed my mother and probably summed her up as a low-rent, overweight housewife. They sped past her, as most did, owing to some sub-conscious fear I think that fat was contagious.
But despite the fact that my mother often couldn't be bothered to change out of the house dress she'd slept in or make sure her socks matched before charging off for that triple-value coupon sale at the Pathmark, she had lived many lives in her short one.
She'd been a lab assistant for Albert Einstein, held a master's degree in the 1940s when very few women did, played violin for a state orchestra, helped raise money to build hospitals in Israel, won local poetry contests, been the most published letter-to-the-editor writer I have ever met, spoke four languages fluently, and instilled in me a need to be good that I can't shake no matter how hard I try.
Everything I write has my mother's laughter in the background or her voice in my head, my wacky way of cooking what I call Love Food is infused with her odd blend of Jewish, Hungarian and trailer park cuisine.
All those weddings I catered, all the adventures I have had, all the things I have written including this one, never would have happened without that eccentric lady in pig tails and the blue house dress in Aisle 6.
Who is standing in front of you at the line in the post office? Who is serving your eggs at the diner? Who is directing traffic at the corner? Who is sitting on the sidewalk with a sign that reads, "Hungry and homeless, please help"?
It's so easy to dismiss people as a blur, especially where I live in Manhattan. We whiz past slews of faceless people, thinking all the while that surely our task at hand is more important than theirs.
But what if we stop?
What if we listen?
Who knows the fascinating story that might ensue?
What is the value of just one life?