Some people, when they die, leave a huge fingerprint on the world.
I think of Mozart, or Einstein, or more recently, Mother Teresa.
Most of us get a notice in the local paper and a nice sendoff from family and friends.
My husband, who passed away recently, was lucky enough to have his former choir sing at his memorial service. His children and grandchildren participated in his goodbye and many friends shared good stories about him.
Then came the job of sorting his stuff—the legacy of a lifelong packrat.
In his top bureau drawer lay a pair of unworn dress gloves, buttons from many college reunions, a pile of ironed handkerchiefs and ten packages of shoe laces.
At the back of the drawer was a white box I didn’t recognize.
When I pulled it out, I saw printed on the top "John Wanamaker, Philadelphia." What was this?
We’d never shopped in Philadelphia, let alone Wanamakers.
Inside the box, I found some Indian head pennies, and a handful of pins documenting someone’s participation in various auto races. All of it, more than fifty years ago. Still puzzled, I spotted a silver belt buckle and a gold pen knife. Both of them were engraved with the initials RCL.
“Oh yes,” I breathed. “Uncle Rob.”
My mother-in-law used to talk about her brother, Rob. How he raced cars, told jokes and was the life of any party.
He was also a travel agent. That was before he married a rich wife, heiress to a chewing gum fortune, a woman who seemed to dislike the human race. She cut off most of Rob’s contacts, family or otherwise.
I met Uncle Rob only once when we delivered a table that had been left to him by his mother and sent to us by mistake. My husband and I drove from Connecticut to Pennsylvania to give it back.
Rob’s wife had found somewhere else to be on that day, probably to avoid meeting us.
Their three story house was as neat and lifeless as a model home. Rob offered us no lunch or snacks. I got a glass of water in the kitchen which lacked any odor of food ... and no wonder, because, as I learned later, the couple ate every meal, including breakfast, at the country club.
In the guest bathroom, the soap was cracked and dry from lack of use, the white curtains neatly pinned to hold them in place. Our very presence in this house seemed invasive. We hurried to our car and sped away.
Fast forward ten years and the family grapevine announced when Rob’s wife died, the only people at her funeral were her hairdresser and the headwaiter at the country club.
A few years later, Rob also died. I think a caretaker might have been his only mourner.
So a man’s whole life—a man who once laughed and raced and loved—is now reduced to a few keepsakes in a box from a store that no longer exists.
Maybe a grandchild will want his gold penknife, but nobody will recognize the initials. I am probably the only person who now remembers Rob’s name.
Most of us won’t appear on the evening news when we die.
Only a few will be celebrated through the centuries.
But like my husband, anyone can show interest in their neighbor and show kindness where it’s needed. When you love and are loved in return, that’s a footprint you leave that’s more important than fame.