The true meaning of “Legacy”

Photo: Lars Wanberg Alice Rustan, at her 101st birthday celebration with family and friends, recounts her early days as one of 11 children raised on a family homestead in rural North Dakota near Park River. Her daughter, Char Rustan Brekke, a partner in Brekke Tours to Scandinavia, hosted the party. Alice recalled how family life on the prairies one hundred years ago was closely knit in work and fun times, and maintained a strong connection to the ancestral culture in Norway.

Photo: Lars Wanberg
Alice Rustan, at her 101st birthday celebration with family and friends, recounts her early days as one of 11 children raised on a family homestead in rural North Dakota near Park River. Her daughter, Char Rustan Brekke, a partner in Brekke Tours to Scandinavia, hosted the party. Alice recalled how family life on the prairies one hundred years ago was closely knit in work and fun times, and maintained a strong connection to the ancestral culture in Norway.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

In this season of gift-giving and giving thanks, I unexpectedly learned a lesson in “Legacy 101” from an inspiring lady, who reflected the true meaning of the term. Her attachment to Norway defies any standard definition.

I was invited to a birthday party of a friend’s mother. She was celebrating her 101st birthday, spry as can be, alert and engaging and full of first-person stories of immigrant farm life from 1913 and on. In a few moments of conversation, a whole century came alive for me and I was drawn into her stories as if I was there in her time.

One of 11 children growing up on a family homestead during the hardships of early days on the Dakota prairie, she was a living legacy whose greatest thrill in life was to return to her heritage in Norway—twice—and sip coffee in the homes of her relatives on the same farm where her ancestors originated.

In my mind, this is the ultimate definition of personal legacy, discovery of one’s heritage, tracing roots, passing on name identity, being closely connected with family, and living a lifespan of positive reflections of the wealth of heritage that contributed to how America was intended to be.

I get a little distressed when the word “legacy” is what the Tech Help Desk labels my laptop when working on my eight-year old Mac—still functional (although upgrades don’t often work in keeping pace). Since 1990, the word legacy has been adopted in usage as an adjective to refer to things of little value in a technology world. I hope they didn’t associate my laptop with my whitening hair.

I wish that technicians would rather say that the hard drive within my faithful Mac is a treasured legacy of content, full of feature stories of pioneers that should be preserved, 5,000 emails that trace the trail of communications over years, and photos that over-tax the storage space but capture events from the front row when they happened.

When talking with young, bright, energetic youth who have a handle on the world of technology, I wonder how much of their own historic legacy they know, how much of what’s been “handed down to them”—about their heritage, the identity and origin of their name, what difficulties their ancestors had in migrating to America, what is was like to get through the depression of the 1930s, and living through the two world wars and the wars that followed.

One young man shed a bright light on my question about youth and awareness of a family’s genealogy. He pulled his smart phone from his shirt pocket, clicked a few buttons, and his screen lit up with a chart of his Norwegian American family history, even though his family name was not Norwegian in origin.

What a valuable family legacy can be created in this age of visual technology if the young collaborate with those who lived their family heritage to capture and preserve a living legacy for the next generation.

The National History Day for 2015 (www.nhd.org) has created the annual theme of “Leadership and Legacy in History.” Each year, a half million students choose a historical topic related to this theme and research a presentation for regional, state, or national contests in five categories: a paper, an exhibit, a performance, a documentary, or a website.

It seems like a great opportunity is on the horizon to develop digital documentaries of leadership found in the stories “handed down” from pioneers and patriots in one’s family history, and preserve them on a family website.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 21, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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