What's in a Legacy?

I love my neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. Walking with Kallie down the quiet–sometimes hidden–streets has been one of my favorite things this summer. (She was too young last year for a walk of any distance.) And though we are at least a month out from long walks this year, as she recuperates from her knee surgery, I can’t wait to get back out to the late-dusk walks that are always my favorite. The city–the world–is lying down to be still for the night. And we get to distinct honor to bear witness to it.

In the weeks before her surgery in June, we deviated from the normal walk to try something new. As as much as I loved walking down one street in particular on the old route, I fell even more in love with a walk down a new discovery. Like so many streets it’s lined with beautiful once- or current single-family homes, but also dotted with two- and three-flats and even larger apartment buildings. I love to walk past them and peek inside if the lighting permits to see the woodwork and architectural detail. I also love admiring the colorful landscaping of the ones that have it.

In the middle of the block on this street, I came across the something I found as odd as it was charming: a tiny park. Not a park as in an-empty-lot-with-a-swing-set-on-it-park, but a Chicago-Park-District-park-the-size-of-a-house-lot kind of park.


The Helen Zatterberg Park caught my attention and sort of stuck with me. I wondered who she was, when she lived and why a park was named after her. The answer wasn’t hard to find.

From the Chicago Tribune – September 14, 2002

Helen Zatterberg, 100, a longtime city librarian who founded the Ravenswood-Lake View Historical Association, died Thursday, Sept. 12, of congestive heart failure in the Admiral Retirement Home in Chicago. Miss Zatterberg joined the Chicago library system in 1921. She eventually rose to regional librarian. In 1931, Chicago Public Library chief Carl Roden assigned her the job of chronicling daily life in the neighborhood–a task that turned into a calling. “I started with nothing. But I would come back so proud when I got something,” Miss Zatterberg said in 1995, when the Helen Zatterberg Historical Room was dedicated at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library on North Lincoln Avenue. The collection encompasses thousands of photographs, books, newspapers, oral histories and other items that document the history of the area. “Without her attention and her vision, there would be no such collection,” said Richard Bjorklund, past president of the historical association. Miss Zatterberg retired from the library system in 1967, but her interest and support in the historical association continued. Bjorklund remembers her as “electrically intelligent” and extremely well-read with a good sense of humor and a gift for storytelling. Miss Zatterberg has no survivors.

The fact that she lived to be 100 was amazing enough, but to think of the incredible contribution she made to the library system is even more impressive. What caught my attention was the last sentence: Miss Zatterberg has no survivors. No descendants of any kind in the family to speak of her at gatherings or to walk past the park or into the room named in her honor at the regional library and think of her. And it got me thinking. That will be me one day. I don’t have any children. And of course, I thought of Ken. We have no children of our own; no direct descendants to carry on our family together.

It begs the question what exactly is anyone’s legacy? I remember our social worker asking Ken and I that question as we grappled with his terminal cancer diagnosis. I honestly can’t remember what either of us said. I guess I took comfort in knowing–for Ken–that I would still be here to remember him and wax philosophic about his contributions in life and here in my blog–which will probably live on even after I’m gone. And I suppose it shares as much about me as it does about him: a shared legacy. I like that. Sometimes I’m daunted with the question “who will remember me when I’m gone?” and berate myself for never having any interest in having children. I try to think of the grandiose accomplishments I hope to have “in the can” long before I am. Then I think, “Who cares? I certainly won’t!” and it rights me and I move forward.

But I like that I found Helen Zatterberg Park, and that I looked her up (granted, I didn’t go to the library to do so which would have been more fitting) and learned just a little bit about a woman who eventually became regional librarian (I know at least three librarians myself!) and founded the historical association of the very neighborhood I love so much. Her legacy is well documented, but I doubt many people know her name. But I do. And I’ll think of her when Kallie and I return to the streets for our walks and pass by the curious little park in the middle of a residential block.

But for now–for me–it’s important for people to know about Ken. Without ever thinking about it, turns out I’m his legacy. Actually, all of us who loved him and were touched by him are. He was an example of so many things so many of us (including myself) are not as often as we should be: positivity, courage, patience, creativity, can-do-it-iveness (ken-do-it-iveness?). He was a student of life as much as he was a teacher of how to handle it’s darker chapters. He shouldered the burden of his fate without self-pity, and he wanted the rest of his family and friends to keep moving forward in their lives.

As for my legacy, I guess you’re reading it now.

Works for me.



6 Replies to “What's in a Legacy?”

  1. We, your friends, we will remember you now and forever amigo :). Beautiful writing and you definitely got me thinking about Legacy, my love ones and life.

    Thanks for sharing!


  2. I recently hospice-trained, and there were several ways our trainer tried to get us to to think about our own deaths. One was that he asked us to imagine our memorial service, what is was we wanted. I was surprised at the elaborate plans people had. All I said was that I used to tell my kids I wanted to be cremated, but after Philip died, it really hit me that funerals are for the living. I told my daughter to do whatever would make it easier for her. I wouldn’t be there in a way that mattered to me.

    I want to be a decent person; I want to live meaningfully. Not because I want to be remembered a certain way, but because what I do here and now matters to those around me, those I love. For those we love, we want to be our best.

    I won’t be here to care about a legacy. I most care that I love my daughter well. And since I’m here and Philip’s not, I care about carrying his spirit into the world. The world can use his kindness, wisdom and humor, for sure; and the world can use Ken’s gifts, which must have been extraordinary because YOU are the one left to share them with us.

  3. Thanks, Denise. I don’t think it matters what we leave or how we’re thought of after we’re gone as much as it means to just ponder it…once in a while (for me, anyway). In the meantime, you carry forward Philip’s spirit and the lessons he would have taught, as I will Ken’s. As long as we keep moving forward, we’re doing great.

  4. While putting together a photo/memory book of my late mother, I ran into this which helped me put it all into perspective:

    The gypsies say that you do not die until the last person who knew you is dead.

    Great posting, Ron.

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