Lately I’ve had a few vivid dreams: in one I was a young girl again, reveling in the freedom of exploring the hills behind our oyster farm with only my black dog Velvet as a companion. In another, I was a 13 year old hostess in our family restaurant, dressed in a new turquoise turtleneck with a matching rayon skirt, nervously waiting to seat customers with a certain pride of position related to being the “boss’s daughter.”
Likely these dreams were triggered by my mother’s recent question as to whether I wanted a memento from the family restaurant walls—my cousin, who is now the owner, is clearing a couple of the walls in order to try some new things. But these are not ordinary restaurant walls; rather, they are adorned with antique ship relics, pictures of family history, articles, plates, and German steins, all of which were acquired by my great-grandfather over many decades and from many countries.
When my father sent the photos of the bare wall, I had a curious feeling of weightlessness, as if there had been a final snip to a family legacy that had kept me anchored to a point in history and to a certain narrative. I don’t think I was alone in my strange feeling. My father, in a recent essay he penned about the experience, wrote somewhat tongue and cheek of the “emotional trauma of having the ghost of [his grandfather] standing behind us, condemning us” when he was removing said collectables that had hung there for at least 70 years.
This “severing” process has been slowly happening over the last 20 years or so, as the family oyster empire that my great-grandfather began has been sold off, piecemeal, in my generation as a result of the changing times and environmental factors affecting seafood. Although my cousin still continues to run the last piece of it—the restaurant—my immediate family no longer has any official ties to it.
For me the process is both sad and nostalgic. I am the generation with one foot in the past and one in the future: my growing up memories are replete with adventures on our oyster farm—the tangy salt air filling our lungs as we motored across Yaquina Bay in our little boat— and gaining a work ethic early on in our seafood restaurant.
And yet, sentimentality aside, I realize that my brothers and I have actually been writing new narratives for quite some time. Does this mean I am beginning a new legacy? I do think legacy can take many different forms or expressions, but when we talk about building a legacy that lasts and matters, what are we talking about? And is this even the right question? When vast numbers of the world’s population are concerned with eating and drinking for the day, is this only a question reserved for the rich?
Being in the last gasp of a family legacy, I don’t have idealistic notions about the “lasting impact” of legacy. We can say, quite matter-of-factly, that “All legacies and kingdoms end,” without taking seriously the hours of sweat and toil, hopes and dreams, sacrifice and bloodshed that go into making legacies. On the other hand, I have witnessed all too often that the insatiable thirst of “leaving legacy” can overcome someone to the point that they trample anyone and anything on their way to accomplish it.
Balancing precariously on the narrow plank bridging the past and future is perhaps not a bad place to carefully drop my anchor. The dissonance keeps me aware of how quickly life passes and the need to constantly reevaluate meaning and purpose in life. But although my link to the family legacy has been cast out to sea, I take comfort in the intangibles I carry with me. My great-great-great grandfather was possessed with a certain curiosity and adventure when he stowed away on a shipping vessel off the coast of Denmark at the age of 14, working on ships for 10 years before shipwrecking off the coast of Oregon. Is it too romantic or nostalgic to say that some of those genes have influenced my own journey through Europe?