The Traces We Leave Behind

I’ve been thinking lately of the framed photos of soccer and football teams in the gymnasium at the Webb Institute where my brother graduated last year. Black and white photos from the 1910s and 1920s, rows of gray faces, young and smiling under their wool caps. A special kind of optimism, solid as the muddy ground under their cleats, seems to have existed then.

On every visit to the Long Island campus, I liked to climb the creaking stairs up to the second floor and pause on the landing where the frames hung in daylight shafting through mullioned windows. It was very still, very quiet up there, and I could watch the progression of the four years across those faces, as I walked the length of the wall, and then the wall ended, and the faces were gone. Nameless. Replaced by other boys there now. But the wall never made me sad. I stood gazing at those photos and felt peaceful. Calm.

And I think, too, of Junot Diaz’s epigraph before the first page of his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives?”

I sit on the bus and stare out the window at the yellow leaves and wonder. But does it really matter if our lives have larger import? Is it enough that we have lived and loved and been loved?

I look at my grandfather’s typewriter on my desk, given to me the year he died. When I announced I wanted to be a writer. I look at the photographs of friends and co-workers that surround that typewriter, the books that are gifts from friends, the card from a fellow writer, reminding me that happiness is “not in another place, but this place” (Virginia Woolf).

Does importance even matter? I’m not sure that it does. Those boys were happy one hundred years ago on the soccer field. That was what mattered to them. My grandfather believed in me, and that was what mattered. My friends and I love each other, cheer each other on–that is what matters. We take turns at happiness and time and experience, and then we pass on. And others get their turn.

And if we are very lucky, if we have been generous with that brief life, we leave something behind for those who come after. Something that tells them it is all right; this is the way it is. Go on and have your happiness; I had it, too.

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