A Legacy of Love



by Dawna Markova

What do you truly love? To explore this question, itās helpful to go back to the seeds of your loving and ahead to the fruit youād like it to bear in the world. Who taught you to see beauty in the world? Who believed in you, no matter what? Who was a great soul for you, an inspiring companion, who passed on to you a wonder and a love of some aspect of being alive.

When I think of my grandmother, even today, I smell bread. Thatís not exactly right. My head fills with the smell of yeast. All of my memories of her are coated with a mixture of sunlight and flour dust. I can mold her face in my mind, deep caves where her eyes peer out, high cheek bones defining a dignity nothing can ever trespass, a webbing of life lines etching intricate designs in her skin. She was a tiny woman, shrunken, but her hands were large, timeless, the veins risen to the surface the way they do on maple leaves. Her long white fingers reminded me of tree roots plucked right out of the earth.

On Friday afternoons, I knelt on the floor next to the red oilcloth covered table in her kitchen watching those luxurious hands make bread for the Sabbath. Elbow deep in flour, she wove her wisdom into me while braiding the egg-yellow dough. I canít recall the sound of her voice. Iím not even sure if she spoke to me in English or Yiddish. What comes back is her warm palm resting on my forehead, as if transfusing a luminous stream of stories directly into my brain.

"People have energy which works in their lives the way this yeast does in the bread. At the very center, it pushes, stretches, demands to expand. If we donít give it the sweetness it needs to rise---," her fingers tangled in the dough, " their souls get sick." As she struggled to free her hands, the beautiful braid she had shaped was destroyed. She punched the dough flat again, flipped it, and lavishly sprinkled it, and me with flour.

"Then we have to go back to the beginning and start all over with the kneading and rising."

Once I told her about a friend, Anthony Esposito, whose father owned a restaurant near my house. Tonyís yeast, what he loved most of all, was giant stones. Grandma said it was a legacy from his grandfather, who used to be a mason in Italy. On weekends, he and the old man would go someplace in New Jersey and move big rocks around, crafting walls and stairways, steps and small bridges. She said his grandfatherís legacy would enrich Tonyís soul so he would be able to walk his own path. She told me that in some way my future would involve helping people learn and live from their hearts. I knew that the lineage of stories saturated with her love would be paving stones for my own path.

One Sunday while she was brushing her silky white hair into a dense cloud, I ran my fingers over the carvings on top of a small camphor wood box that sat on her dresser and had always fascinated me. Placing the brush down, she took the box from me and put it in her own palm, opening and closing her hand several times, and said, "Hands, hearts, boxes-they all can be opened or closed. Theyíre capable of both, yes?" I nodded and she stretched the box out to me. I very carefully pried the lid open with my thumbnail. Inside was a musty smell and a handful of dirt.

" Where did it come from, Grandma?"

" Home."

I looked around the apartment, but she shook her head and I knew then she meant Russia.

"Whatís it for?"

She took a pinch of the dirt between her fingers and sifted it back into the box. Her voice got cobwebby as she said, "When I left the old country, I had to leave so much behind, so I took this handful of home with me. When we got off the boat on Ellis Island, I put a pinch under my feet to make a friend of the strange ground."

I donít know where she learned all she knew. She never went to school in her small Russian village. One day, when I asked, her cheeks got ironed flat, and her long fingers traced the pale pink cameo pin she always wore on the collar of her black dress. "It is the Sisterhood that passes their wisdom through me as if it were a ribbon carried by an invisible needle. They come to me in my dreams. Theyíll leave ribbons for you too." I squeezed her hand, kissed her cheek, sweet with tiny golden hairs, and then proceeded to plague her with a mosquito swarm of questions. She said no more and never mentioned the Sisterhood again.

When I was twelve, my grandmother told me that I would have a son, and that there was a very important tradition I must remember to follow with him when he first began to read. Having a son seemed a ridiculous thing to think about back then, but traditions I liked. Traditions were candles, and feathers, and mysterious words and moving hands like flowers in the wind.

"When your son learns to read, the very first time, you must give him some honeycake, something sweet to eat. His mind will tie the two things together from that moment on-learning and sweetness."

I asked her if someone had given her something sweet to eat when she was a young reader. She pressed her lips tight. "I never learned to read. We had no books in my village, and besides I was a girl. Girls were for cooking and cleaning, not for books and learning. That's the way it was in the old country. That's why I wanted to leave. That, and the Cossacks and pogroms."

I knew she didn't want to talk about those things. I wasn't sure what a pogrom actually was. I just knew it had to do with drunken soldiers and Jewish people being shot for fun late at night. I decided not to ask her any more, but I did want to know if she had given my father honeycake when he had learned to read. Her eyes got all red, as if they were bleeding, and her words got singsongy, as if she were mourning someone who had died.

"We were too poor for honey. Your grandfather was working in the sweatshop, and eight children were a lot of mouths to feed. Your father had to drop out of school so he could work and help out. He never learned to read too well. It is the one thing I am ashamed of. That is why it is so important that you teach your son to love learning. Then it will be all right about your father. His seed will sprout through you and your son. You will both learn for me, for your father, for the children in the pogrom, for all of us. Remember about eating the honeycake so your minds will tie the two things together-learning and sweetness."

Fast forward twenty-five years. I dropped David off at college only eighty miles away, yet somehow Iíd been preparing myself for the abysmal separation forever. Driving away, I wanted to reach out one last time and grab him, as if I were a small child trying to grasp a butterfly, but ending up with a handful of air. I felt random, random as grass trampled by feet racing somewhere else.

As he walked toward his freshman dorm, I saw him as a man who could handle himself in the stiffest wind, a man rooted and relevant, a man who had come through me, and was now unfurling into a life entirely of his own making.

Driving home, I found myself stroking moments of those eighteen years as if they were a scarf of precious silk, a fabric we had woven together. I searched for how I felt in my deepest place, the airy innocent place that knows mountains, woods, the earth and sky where he grew. I was trying to catch the meaning of my journey as a woman, a mother, trying to stir the sediment of my thoughts. I felt as if I were a thin empty tube with wind rushing through.

There were words I could not speak with him that day. I wanted to share the voice that had hidden behind scolding, prodding, nagging, argument, complaint. How I wish I had had the courage that last hour to walk with him simple and open, arms entwined in the bronze explosion of the Vermont autumn! I wanted to find the words which would say it all, words which would make what I felt and what I wanted for him seem memorable and majestic, words which would melt us both into the moment. I didnít have the courage. I told myself I would feel awkward, he would be embarrassed. I spluttered trivialities in the vague spaces, gasping for words as if fighting for air.

I wanted to find words that would build a bridge between us in my mind. I wonder how he could possibly understand my journey-he, the erotic athlete of eighteen, me, the literate middle-aged woman. How could I cross that bridge and pass on what is so important to me? My body has taught me that a terminal is a place where journeys begin as well as end. I have learned how holy time really is, how whatís at issue is not how much we are given, but how well we use what we have. I have discovered that it is possible to use time to press our spirits into footprints, fingerprints, mindprints that make a difference. Iíve learned that it is indeed possible to risk the immeasurable reach of which a human soul is capable in order to pass on what one loves to others.

Have I taught him any of that? Have I taught him anything about how to make a life? Have I taught him to ask himself over and over, "What do I need to do now to respect myself?" Have I taught him that without a passionate heartbeat, life is a failed magic? Iíve dedicated myself to teaching other people the art of knowing themselves, of expanding their lives to risk their significance, but what have I taught my son? Whatever I did or didnít, it was time for him to hold his own in the unexpected. After so many years of shaping my living around his growing form, it was time for me to let go. Not disappear, just to release this thread Id been weaving into the web of his life and begin again.

I never wanted another child-what I had to give, he got. What I needed from a child, he gave. There was a looseness about everything for me as if a new mind was implanted in the cavity of the old. For so many years, I told myself, "I must hold on for Davidís sake..." Now the word "must" had been erased and every act became a choice; a simpler and slower choice.

As I watched him walking towards his dorm, I saw that specialness he radiates, that directness, the straight elegance of a tree well planted in the right place. I like who I am as well, full, ripe and reaching, the richness of earth well tended. I like who each of us is becoming, and who each of us already was.

I pray he will grow into a man who will dare to risk his significance, who will dare to learn to feel life-the sweetness, anguish, rapture, pain, all of it, all of him. I pray he will learn to laugh his moments clean, and to yield always to love. I pray I will learn to risk the passion of my own heartbeat, and live the mystery that is in my soul. May he know, that as I write these words, I am loving him in ways I never considered possible.

Living on purpose requires us to find what we love fiercely, give it all weíve got, and then pass it on, as if it were a torch, to those who follow. My friend, Nancy Margulies, told me once about her grandfather, who explained to her that when a person dies, he or she has the opportunity to bequeath a legacy of love. He loved her so completely that he passed it on to her uncle, who expressed his own love for her plus that willed to him by her grandfather. Thus death never interrupts the shelter of love.

Iím thinking now of reading Rachel Carsonís A Sense of Wonder when I became a first grade teacher. I felt the fire my grandmother had sparked in me reignite as if blown by a gentle wind by Carsonís words: "If children are to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, discovering with them the joy, the excitement and mystery of the world we live in." Even now, almost two decades later, I gasp a little typing those words Carson wrote, feel a little quiver run up my spine. Someone once told me every haiku has to have a gasp where God can enter. Every life, I think, has to have a gasp where God can enter. And every such gasp is a finger pointing at what youāve spent your whole life loving.

My mind is wallpapered with reminders of this from people Iíve never met. I need the reminding because itís so easy to think my life is about making money or being productive or checking off everything on the list. Then I reach for a magazine and thereís poet and activist bell hooks reminding me: "My students say ĎWeíre tired of loving.í And I say, if youíre tired of loving, then you havenít really been loving because when you are loving, you have more strength." And I remember. We grow stronger in the act of loving something. It sustains us. It generates energy. If I am depleted or feel as if Iíve failed, ultimately it is because I have not been living in service to what I love.

I listen to an audio tape while snowshoeing and anthropologist Angeles Arrien reminds me. "Think of all those who came before you whispering, ĎMaybe this one will be the one. Maybe this one will who breaks the old patterns of limitation. Maybe this one will be the one to live in service of what is true and beautiful.í" And I remember. I stand on my own two feet, but I do not stand alone. So many stand behind me. So many being have sacrificed that I may stand here.

So many will come after us whose lives may be fuller richer, wider, and deeper because we risk living what we love. What no one loves vanishes. I can not bear to think of the love of learning vanishing. Yet all around me I see that happening. Parents and teachers and politicians are talking about the fall of standardized test scores. Several million children in this country, including those in kindergarten, are being drugged because they learn differently or because they cannot pay attention to things that are irrelevant to them. Senior level executives of global corporations that I coach walk around secretly feeling stupid or inarticulate or incompetent. Why are we not talking about what we can do to strengthen the love of learning?

Innovation is the trademark of our species. In order to become a doer and a maker, it is necessary that the mindís attention become enthralled by something. In order to become a maker of books, one must first fall in love with a book. Then another. We all learn through curiosity and attention, by confrontation and imitation. As children, our first experience of falling in love with a book or stone or a river makes its way across the landscape of our still-forming mind and can be the most important, emotive, influential experience to shape our destiny and purpose.

Too many kids lose their love of learning shortly after they enter school. I cannot bear to see them sitting in doorways with hooded eyes, wondering if there really is a path ahead, wondering if there really are elders upon it. Yes, we are there, just ahead of you. The path is full of bends, potholes, distracting noises and insults of all kinds, but there we are just out of view, looking back, concerned for you.

What lights us up never truly abandons us. We abandon it. In a recent workshop, David and Angie interviewed people on video asking them how they would love to spend their lives if money were not the object. Person after person "lit up," and later watched themselves do it on the replay. They lit up when they talked about teaching kids to love nature through trout fishing or helping women feel a sense of dignity in their work or teaching poetry to inner city boys. Then the inevitable "but..." would come and the abandonment of the light would begin again.

When I think about the stories of my grandmother and David that emerged when I asked the question, "What is my lineage and legacy of love?" the message is clear. Fostering the love of learning liberates my heart. It has been so for a long, long time in classrooms from kindergarten to graduate school, in corporate boardrooms, and migrant labor camps.

Now what? I still have no idea what I should be when I grow up. These two stories help me remember what kind of a future I need to co-create so I can grow forward with passion. They help me remember what I need to dedicate my energy to so that my fire doesnít die a little each day. They help me liberate my heart and stay on the path of purpose.

What we love ennobles us. What no one loves vanishes. Kurt Wright, a consultant said that the purpose of life, "is to learn to love, to discover just how much of Godís love each of us can allow to flow through with no interference on our part.Ē I turn again to you dear reader. What do you love so much that in the doing of it, you find a kind of grace in the world? Who stands behind you in this lineage? Who stands in front of you, waiting for your legacy?

May we remember those who passed on to us the seeds of their dreams so we might grow. May we live our dreams with dignity so we may pass them on to those who turn to us for their future.


From I Will Not Die an Unlived Life, by Dawna Markova. Copyright © 2000 by Dawna Markova. Excerpted by arrangement Conari Press. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-685-9595 or click here.