What is legacy? I use the word all the time in my work, referencing “legacy” systems or “legacy” data, info from previous database iterations, crystallized before an arbitrary “migration” or “go live” date. Legacy: leftover data from an outdated system. There’s the legacy version, and then there’s the present and future.
This past week and weekend, my family ritually marked my grandfather’s death with a funeral, burial service, and shiva. His “legacy” was the topic of much conversation, storytelling and nostalgia. Legacy, in the context of people, is about how you “made your mark”… how you will be remembered. It’s more than innovation and technical detritus. In the case of my grandfather, he had 9 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren – now that’s really something! Not to mention that he will be remembered for his gentleness and kindness, juxtaposed against 95 years punctuated by unimaginable loss. He was also a man who loved his hobbies, from golf to airplanes to photography to world travel to plucking a banjo to hearing live music.
One of my favorite family pictures depicts my grandfather holding my yellow, remote control punch-buggy Beetle, presumably fixing the battery pack or calibrating the axles. This toy was a source of seemingly endless problems. I earned it as a reward for quitting the bad habit of thumbsucking, however the cold-turkey method sent me into almost a year of intractable insomnia. I pined for the car and waited impatiently for it to arrive, only to learn that we needed to buy a separate and expensive battery pack to make the darn thing work. To make matters worse, the car was not really built for kids. The plastic was thin and fragile and did not stand up well to frequent run-ins with baseboards. I was jealous of my toy and didn’t want to share it with other kids, though it was significantly less fun to play by myself. There were many times when my grandfather, the toy mechanic and building engineer, was called in to fix the car – which I cherished so much, that I eventually stopped playing with it entirely and treated it as a museum relic, commemorating my good taste in vehicles, my new-found independence from an embarrassing, childhood habit, and last but not least, my grandfather’s toy-fixing acumen.
I have always found a great deal of comfort by locating my interests and affinities in relatives from previous generations. From the Shains, I’ve inherited biting humor, a love of research, and a commitment to intellectual rigor and the written word. I look like the spitting image of a “Handler girl” – wide hips, round face, ebullient laughter to boot. The Handlers loved hospitality and put on legendary dinner parties, complete with a staggering repertoire of homemade desserts. They were (and are) artists in the broadest sense of the word, sculptresses, quilters, knitters, painters, and more. I am proud to be a Handler girl; I’ve embraced cooking, crafting, hosting, and laughing with insatiable desire and not a hint of obligation. When I encountered a fork in the road of my career, and pursued the database/spreadsheet path, I always thought “well, this is where I branch out from my family’s norms!” I chalked it up to the “Accidental Admin” story that Salesforce has broadcasted so thoroughly. I didn’t know anyone who did what I was attempting to do, and it was convenient to fit in with this narrative.
However, during the weekend of storytelling and celebrating Poppy’s life, that story began to erode and it was replaced with following in my grandfather’s footsteps. Perhaps my love of systems and technology comes from the Schwartz lineage. One of the most emblematic stories of Poppy’s young adulthood was his “invention” of the alarm-clock-radio. Rumor has it that during his college years, he built a contraption that not only set off a wake up alarm, but also closed the window, turned on the radiator, opened the blinds, and turned on the radio. It was a system of pulleys, ropes, hinges, and more. This is automation if I’ve ever heard it! My grandfather went on to become a noted builder and building engineer who always loved math and calculus. He was giddy with joy when I recounted learning derivatives in high school. I think he was at least 5x more excited that I was!
My grandfather loved technology. He recorded home movies on film reels that we still play with a projector. He literally built ships in bottles. He learned how to fly a plane, earned his pilot’s license, and for a few years, flew relatives to college and tourist destinations. In his 80’s, he learned digital photography and took classes on Photoshop. He persuaded my grandmother to learn how to use an iPad so that she could have maximum fun with Words with Friends. He even brought his iPhone to rehab after his recent medical setbacks, so that he could keep in touch with family and check stocks and sports scores. Too quick to dismiss this heritage, I thought I was a trailblazer, but really, I was bringing to life one of my grandfather’s deepest passions and accomplishments. It turns out, being a technologist runs in the family.
For many members of my family, we’ll see the past as “legacy” years – before the abrupt transition to the next decades without Poppy. We had many good years with my grandfather and he was lucky to enjoy relatively good health and a quick decline, surrounded by friends and family every day. Poppy and I weren’t close in the stereotypical, All-American way. I rarely treated him as a confidante (though he did give good advice!); he rarely offered me dessert before dinner. Our relationship was animated by happy family occasions, and we always spent time together around birthdays, Father’s Day, b’nai mitzvah receptions, etc. He was quick to celebrate his grandchildren’s achievements and I would call him to recount good news. I am glad that I’ll still be able to “share” my love of problemsolving with him, though now in a different way.
So what is legacy? One thing I’ve learned from him is a path where you can infuse building/technological innovation with patience and gentleness. One step further, he did what I hope to do, too: infuse his affection for family and friends with offering his skills to fix their stuff. That’s a legacy I want to hold on to.
In memory of my grandfather, Julian Kenneth Schwartz (Ken, aka Poppy) z”l
February 7, 1924 – July 2, 2019
See formal obituary here.